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Debriefs for overseas workers

Field worker kit

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.


See  The Debrief­ing Aid Work­ers Man­u­al by Dr. Deb­bie Lovell-Hawk­er, Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty, Dept of Psy­chi­a­try for Peo­ple In Aid  2004

Steve Tollestrup

Director at Ploughshare
Ploughshare's Director has worked in community development, local government and corporate management for over thirty years both in New Zealand and throughout the developing world. He brings a wealth of expertise in fundraising, governance, strategic planning, change management, leadership development and coaching, advocacy and public communication.
Steve Tollestrup

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