There’s an assumption that aid workers are seasoned veterans to the world of poverty and injustice, that they have a degree of resilience and fortitude as well as a passion for the poor and oppressed that sustains them.
Its a jungle out there.
Literally. Aid and development workers find themselves in dangerous, unsettled and tragic contexts where emotions can run a wide spectrum of expression and where the intellectual and intuitive capacity is always assessing context and environment with a sharp alertness. Over time, a toll on mental and emotional well-being occurs with a subtle deficit on confidence that sometimes leads to a depression and unaddressed trauma.
I’m thinking in this case not only of long term workers, but also staff involved in short term project appraisal, monitoring and evaluation (AME) or emergency intervention of just a few weeks.
When you’ve been working in areas that are highly militarised/weaponised, where children are trafficked and dying from preventable diseases or the community you are engaged with battles the daily grind of slum or drought it can be hard to step back into to the daily life of shopping at Pak’nsave.
Post-fieldwork support can’t be afterthought
The point here is that debriefing and counselling support more often than not is neglected or at best an after-thought in most instances. You arrive back, go into the office and write your report and just get on with life. But leaving the field behind isn’t that easy.
I can remember coming back to my office in Auckland trying to write reports after a short term appraisal of Cyclone Nargis which claimed 138,000 lives in the Irrawaddy Delta of Myanmar. The images of once bustling villages which were now completely uninhabited with only foundations and the extreme silence except for the wind kept coming back to my mind. It was distracting and emotionally painful.
What effective debriefing looks like
At TEARFund we put into place a requirement that every staff member have a debrief either with HR or a peer. And to be clear, debriefing is not the same as supervision with its focus on professional conduct and service provision. It is about addressing the negative and lasting impact of a context or experience. We also provided without question access to professional external counselling services or to our EAP provider. At first there was a little resistance, more really about being ‘Strong enough’ but eventually the debrief and access became accepted and well used.
Agencies with overseas staff and even those working in particularly challenging situations here in Aotearoa should carefully think through providing effective debriefing for staff.