In countries where INGOs are seen with suspicion, some agencies choose to operate “informally” so they can assist people in need. When this happens aid workers are forced to “work from home”. I reflect on the impact this can have on our mental health, at times creating fear and uncertainty. And when staff are refugees, the risks are much higher.
Working from a cafe – not a lifestyle choice here
As I enter one of the cafes in town with free wifi and all sorts of ridiculous cappuccinos the way expat aid workers like them, I feel like I just stepped into a cluster meeting. I’m in this part of the world for a brief research visit, but I recognise an aid worker when I see one, and this cafe today resembles a humanitarian office, minus OCHA maps on the walls. “Some NGOs don’t have a permit to work here, and they don’t have an office, so their staff work from cafes or from home” tells me the person I’m interviewing today after saying hello to what for some is an ‘illegal aid worker’ drinking coffee, and for others is simply ‘someone trying to do some good’ while waiting for a work permit. “NGOs think that because they are ‘doing good’ they don’t need to comply with the regulations” tells me a senior humanitarian when we discuss the story of yet another organisation kicked out of the country, of staff deported or detained.
Staff safety and professionalising the sector
What’s at stake here, from a point of view of duty of care, is the fact that aid organisations need to prioritise their staff safety, especially when it comes to those whose life is at risk should they be deported. Forcing people to work from cafes or from a makeshift home office is not exactly good practice. Isn’t the sector trying to become more professional? Similar stories are not new, I’ve heard it all before: humanitarians working from home, neighbours questioning all the coming and going, staff feeling insecure and paranoid and tiptoeing around the house every time there is a meeting or a visitor. What a stressful way to work, especially when one is trying to do something useful in a complex humanitarian emergency. Who needs the extra burden of working without a permit? How would we rate such organisational practice if it were implemented back home? Then why do we apply second-rate standards in host countries?
What is clear is that when similar situations occur there is a sense of fear and uncertainty among aid workers. When an NGO is shut down, internationals may get deported. But for some of those who fall under the banner of “national staff”, even when they are not nationals at all (i.e. Syrians in Turkey), losing their job may not even be the worst case scenario. An international aid worker turns to humour and tells me: “If I get deported, well no big deal for me, I just go back to my town and go to the beach, but if this happens to Syrian aid workers…?” And continues “Ok, the rules are rigid here, so what? NGOs think that they can ignore them? Of course NGOs are responsible for their staff.” Another senior manager explains how “some NGOs don’t even bother to liaise with the government, they don’t understand that this is a modern country which takes pride in its institutions, and they only start a conversation with officials when it may be too late.” Certainly complying with the bureaucracy in some countries can drive you mad – I know it, I’m Italian. Sometimes one feels there is no choice but to ignore the rules. But what happens when staff safety is put at risk by doing so?
Humanitarian agencies are not activists’ collectives, so while I’m all for fighting unjust power structures and bureaucratic red-tape, I agree with the aid workers I talked to who claim that INGOs have a duty of care towards their employees. Working without fear of being found out and deported seems to me an important tenet when it comes to staff care.
“Working from home for over a year was driving all of us crazy”
I myself have experienced a “working from home” situation in post-earthquake Sichuan where the Chinese government, for its own reasons, did not want INGOs among their ranks. How did some INGOs get round it? By bringing in international aid workers on a three-month tourist visa and by having an ongoing rotation of staff. Neither turned out to be good ideas: A) because it meant not only living with your colleagues, which is bad enough, but also turning your home into an office. As an aid worker told me “it drives you crazy” B) because by the time you settled into the job, it was time to leave. On top of that it could have had serious legal consequences like this situation illustrates: One day my colleague and I were having a drink in a pub run by an expat, his Chinese colleague joined us and started asking questions about our work. In what soon turned into an interrogation, more than a conversation, she persistently enquired about our work permit and the type of visa we had, she insisted on seeing our passports there and then. By then the two of us knew that we had no other option: we said we didn’t have our documents on us that day. She demanded we went back to see her the following day to show her the kind of visa we had. We agreed we would and never returned to that pub, ever. From then on we avoided touching upon work issues with anyone outside the organisation – I for sure felt the watch of Big Brother and didn’t like the uncertainty of the situation, but then again, that was a brief assignment, and had I been deported I would have probably spent the rest of my summer “funemployed” on the beach or hiking in the mountains.
But what happens when you don’t have a home to go back to and when your home is a dangerous war-zone? It’s time that INGOs realise that staff care does not simply mean a session with a psychologist pre or post deployment, or a training on psychosocial support. It’s about caring for your staff by complying also with legal matters. That’s maybe why some prefer to call it “duty of care”. If we don’t care because we want to, let’s at least care because we have to, it’s not ideal, but it’s a start. And for those who think that this is a non-problem in terms of mental health, imagine working for months on end from a cafe or from home, always uncertain about what’s next and afraid you’ll be found out. As if fleeing war wasn’t enough. Legal and political matters always have a psychological implications. As long as aid agencies lack a comprehensive and holistic view of staff care, they’ll keep trying to beat burnout with a meditation app, or with counselling session, when what’s needed are fair working conditions.