The Wonders and Challenges of Humanitarian life – Article

the wonders and challenges of humanitarian life

If you work in the humanitarian field, you can be proud!

Proud of yourself, proud of your impact on the world, proud of making a difference for some of the most vulnerable people in the world every day!

You're making a contribution, and your work is probably a true vocation!

As part of your job, you also have the chance to discover the world.

You travel and live in countries other than your own, exposing you  to other cultures, religions and ways of life. It's really wonderful!

However, being an aid worker isn't just a career, it's a choice that has an impact on your whole life, and this can sometimes be a challenge!

In this article, I'd like to highlight 3 important challenges I've observed in my coaching conversations with humanitarian workers. 

Because being a humanitarian worker is so much more than a career choice!

The role of savior, precarious contracts and the gilded cage

Most people starting their careers in the humanitarian field have to accept temporary contracts. This seems to be the rule. You start at the bottom and have to prove yourself and prove that you really want this kind of life. 

But these temporary contracts can last for years, which makes for a very precarious career. You never know if you'll get another contract, or where you'll be living in 6 months' time... Under these conditions, it can be very difficult to draw up a life plan.

It is really stressful and the consequence is that you may take a job that doesn't suit you or doesn't pay well, because you want to stay in the game.

I find it quite brutal. You have people who devote their lives to contributing to the world, and they have to fight to do it... all while getting paid by the slingshot.

The organizations they work for probably know they are taking on the role of savior and would do anything to help! There is so much to do and they want to contribute to a better world! So they might sacrifice a bit of themselves doing so…

You might say, "No, the reason is that the associations and NGOs they work for have a limited budget...". 

That's probably true for some associations, but others have rather colossal budgets and yet, in these organizations, it's only when you manage to land a permanent position that you can enjoy a very good salary and benefits that you are awarded in other careers.

The road to landing there can be long...

The irony is that once you've reached that grail, that permanent position, then the fear of losing that well-deserved job kicks in... and you can once again start accepting jobs that don't match what you really want in order to keep the position and the benefits... After years of precarious contracts, you've entered a gilded cage and you certainly don't want to lose everything you've worked for. 

As in the world of business or politics, at a certain point, the work in the field, the impact of the organization starts to count less than the position and the salary... 

Although there was a real vocation, the why is beginning to disappear.

Not only a job but an entire life

 A career in the humanitarian field is not just a career, it's definitely a lifestyle choice.

Where you live will depend on opportunities and assignments. You'll be on the move and traveling a lot, which, at first, is very exciting. But at some point it can become a real challenge.

Many aid workers start to wonder "where's home"?

They've traveled so much that they don't know where to land. Home is no longer home, they've seen so much, they've changed so much, it's hard to imagine going back.

As for their relationships, they've met a lot of people over the years. They have friends in many countries. It's both wonderful and emotionally challenging, as people come and go. They build strong relationships in difficult contexts, and then people move on.

What about falling in love and starting a family?

That's not easy either. Aid workers often fall in love while stationed in another country.

Will they stay in that country? Is the relationship strong enough not to return home? Or will they leave for another country, depending on one of their new assignments?

In a more “traditional” life, all these questions aren't so hard to answer... We're talking about your town or my town, or somewhere in between. In a humanitarian life, we're talking about your country or mine, or even your continent or mine, or somewhere else?

Decision making is definitely more complex for humanitarian workers!

Challenging environments and little support

As you can imagine, many aid workers work in politically or economically unstable countries. This is where the most urgent and important work needs to be done.

Some aid workers have field posts and are there to manage emergency situations. This is their job, and they have to be available at all times to provide immediate responses to climatic disasters, waves of refugees, drought, war, and so on.

Others have office jobs but work in countries where tension reigns and war can break out at any moment. They are trained to be ready to deal with these circumstances. They take with them their emergency baggage with everything they need to be evacuated if the situation becomes too dangerous.

Are they helped to get through it all?

Yes, but not enough, I find.

I'm always amazed to learn that in the fields of humanitarian aid, justice, health... where workers can be confronted with very difficult situations, even atrocities, so little psychological help is offered.

In a way, they have to do the work themselves, seek help, get out of their traumas, PTSD,...

Challenging isn’t it?

How much courage, openness and vulnerability are needed to achieve this?

Let me end this article by saying "hats off" to all aid workers.

Not only is your work a real contribution to the world, but you often carry it out with insufficient external resources and have to call on your own resources to make it happen.

Please don't lose sight of the fact that you're human beings too, and that you can only take care of others if you take care of yourself first.

“You can't pour from an empty cup”. 

So, if you feel you're losing your initial optimism, or even a part of yourself in the process, or if you're starting to have trouble making decisions about the next steps in your life or career, don't hesitate to ask for help. You need a little support too.