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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
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