‘A true humanitarian does not get affected by the work they are doing’.
I was surprised and, frankly, a little startled when one of the interview participants uttered this, staring me blankly in the face. It was not an opinion they conveyed but an established truth in humanitarian circles. Being 16 months into my PhD about how spontaneous volunteerism and how humanitarian volunteers are affected post engagement, I was confronted with a realization: “How on earth,” I thought, “can I present the fact that many spontaneous volunteers struggle post-engagement, when there is so much stigma associated with mental health difficulties, even amongst professional humanitarian workers?”
Let me give you a little bit of context. In 2003, the scholars James Kendra and Tricia Wachtendorf published a book on convergence and converger legitimacy in response to the World Trade Centre disaster. In this book they identified seven types of ‘convergers’, in other words, people who arrive at a disaster site. Besides groups such as the returnees, the anxious, the curious, the exploiters, the supporters, and the mourners and memorializers, I want to draw particular attention to one group – the helpers. Helpers, or spontaneous volunteers as they are often referred to, are very often the first to arrive on site doing emergency relief. In most crises, whilst international humanitarian organisations and UNHCR start planning to initiate their response, members of the local population, and sometimes tourists, are the first on site, assisting to the best of their ability.
From a socio-medical point of view, it is meaningful to refer to the different kinds of volunteers, especially those working in humanitarian aid, as helpers. Because like nurses, paramedics, psychologists, doctors, and social workers, humanitarian aid volunteers work with people in dramatic and potentially life-threatening situations. In his book, the Norwegian psychologist Per Isdal also uses this umbrella term, ‘helpers’. Isdal writes how helpers who are working in health and social work occupations are of particular risk to be negatively affected by their work. Working with people in stressful and potentially dangerous situations affects helpers over time to such a degree, Isdal writes, that it is enough to make the occupations high-risk occupations. Health and social workers, in fact, have the highest absenteeism of all occupational groups in Norway. It is only when we acknowledge these occupations as high-risk occupations, Isdal continues, that we can begin to do what is necessary to protect our employees’, each other’s, and our own health.
I highlight volunteers who work in humanitarian aid, as it is well documented that this kind of volunteering can affect individuals negatively. Volunteers returning from the field have been known to experience withdrawals, disorientation, and difficulties integrating back into their home community. These experiences can lead to a sense of grief and loss. In her PhD, Heidi Mogstad found that returning volunteers often felt ashamed of Norwegian affluence and their government’s restrictive asylum policies. They were concerned with the ‘moral health and future of the Norwegian state and society’. Returning volunteers whom I have spoken to in my ongoing PhD research narrate how being faced with a close-up view of injustice and brutality in the world made them more aware of the privileges they had, and in many cases, motivated them to alleviate suffering. Yet, others have written about how returning spontaneous volunteers can come to have less faith in international humanitarian organisations after having seen them work in the field.
Although I have spent some time elaborating about the potentially traumatic situations that humanitarian aid volunteers might be exposed to, it is equally important to acknowledge the potential benefits volunteers can take with them from the field. In my Master’s thesis, I studied spontaneous humanitarian volunteerism and how it could lead to transformative learning. Spontaneous volunteers are most easily described as those who contribute impulsively right after a disaster and may or may not have had any training or relevant skills prior to arriving in the field. Transformative learning is an umbrella term referring to the change that can occur in a person’s perspective and frame of reference. It is defined by a collection of assumptions, concepts, and values accumulated through cultural assimilation that determine how an individual interacts with the world. The volunteers I spoke with narrated how the experience had changed their perspectives on life, and how they came back from the field with a great sense of purpose. This purpose affected what they wanted to do in life, and helped them decern what was important in life. Several other studies have made similar findings, where volunteers have reported becoming more empathic and braver. My forthcoming PhD thesis will add to this, expanding on how spontaneous volunteerism can affect one’s identity and belonging, as well as how it could lead to further engagement through social action in their home communities.
My work especially seeks to examine spontaneous volunteers’ experience of returning from the field, a subject that remains undocumented in studies. What makes this group so distinct is that whilst other groups of volunteers who are officially part of, or affiliated with, a humanitarian organisation, spontaneous volunteers have little or no affiliation with humanitarian organisations. Volunteers who work with international NGOs are legally affiliated and, to a certain degree, protected through contracts and the Duty of Care that all employers have towards their employees. In contrast, spontaneous volunteers have no legal binding to any organisation, which means that no one is in change or reliable for following up on them after they return from the field.
A counter argument with which I am often confronted when I speak about these issues is that no one should be responsible for following up on a person who volunteers independently, out of their own will: ‘They take the risk, and they should bear the consequences.’ However, if you take into consideration that humanitarian professionals and academics alike acknowledge that spontaneous volunteerism is an integral part of any disaster or post-disaster site and that UNHCR specifically mentions volunteerism as an integral part of their plan to reach the 2030 sustainability goals, it makes the matter more complicated. If volunteerism, both spontaneous and official, is relied upon, and, in fact, crucial in the effort to reach the sustainability goals and help alleviating suffering in emergency areas, it is easy to argue that they should also be integrated into the post-emergency follow-up plan. It is not just a legal predicament and responsibility; it is a moral one.
Furthermore, the idea that individuals alone are responsible for their own physical and mental health and safety is based on an Americanised and conservative idea of individual freedom. Individual freedom, from this view, is simply described as individual independence where state power is limited, exemplified by an American solution with widespread privatisation of education and healthcare. On the other side of the spectrum, we find the ideology that views freedom as a collective effort. The Swedish ideologist Nils Karleby mentioned that in order for freedom to be actual and meaningful, it has to be created in a community. Our individual freedom is dependent on each other, and we, as a society, take care of each other. Humans are, in this view, not egoistic and atomical, but social and cooperative. Individual freedom can thus only be actualized through collective freedom. I am, of course, biased here, as I am a strong advocate for a socio-democratic state with public healthcare and limited privatisation.
In his book, Isdal divides the responsibility to help helpers into three levels: the responsibility of the employer, colleagues’ responsibility towards each other, and the individual’s responsibility towards themself. Spontaneous volunteers do not have employers or organisations who are responsible for them, and if we view ‘the employer’ as a representative for the legal structures present to protect the rights and safety of their employees, we are left with this question: what structures, legal or otherwise, are in place to ensure that spontaneous volunteers have access to adequate support (should they need it) after fieldwork? This is one of the things I explore in my forthcoming PhD thesis, which will be finalized next year.
The responsibility colleagues have towards each other can take many forms, one of which can be an organized collegial support network. Helpers’ experiences can be difficult to relate to for someone who hasn’t been in the same situation, which includes spontaneous volunteers. Sharing what one has experienced with someone who knows what one is talking about and who understands the experiences one is having is of paramount importance to processing what one has gone through. This is the same whether the difficult emotion has emerged over time, or if it is a trauma created by a critical incident. Many groups of helpers have recognized this and have collegial support systems in place for the people who need it, from paramedics who have been called out to a dramatic incident to MSF-employees who return to their home community after a long-term mission. Organized collegial support groups are part of their employer’s effort to make sure that their staff stays healthy during and after the employment or fieldwork.
Previously in the text, I asked what structures, legal or otherwise, are in place to ensure that spontaneous volunteers have access to adequate support after fieldwork. The answer: outside public mental health care systems, where therapists are understaffed, overworked, and underpaid, is that there aren’t any.
Next question: what is it like to come back after fieldwork without an organised support network, meeting people who don’t understand what you have gone through? For some, it is alienating, lonely, and isolating. Many spontaneous volunteers I have spoken to have spent years processing what they have gone through, and some are still, to this day, troubled by memories that affect their everyday life. These individuals, and their sometimes-troubling memories, sometimes-traumas, remain largely undocumented. This is mostly due to their independent nature as spontaneous volunteers, meaning that no official record exists of who they are, what they experienced, and how they are coping afterwards. Again, this is what I intend to do something about with my PhD thesis.
Until we have a more complete record of how spontaneous volunteerism in humanitarian crisis affected the individual, myself and a group of other spontaneous volunteers have taken matters into our own hands. Believing in the importance of being seen, heard, and recognized for the experiences one has gone through, in May we started the organisation Network for Volunteers (Nettverk for Frivillige, in Norwegian). This is an arena where volunteers can meet, both in-person and digitally, to share their experiences and reflections about what it means to work as a humanitarian volunteer. Some of the meetings will be informal network-building happenings. Other meetings will be more structured, where we accommodate for returning volunteers who feel like they have a specific need to speak about their experiences in a more structured setting.
To some, this might sound like therapy. Indeed, speaking with someone who has a similar sense of reality and has gone through similar, potentially traumatic, experiences is widely recognized as therapeutic. Nevertheless, our organisation does not offer therapy nor consist of psychotherapists. The whole idea is to bring these conversations out of the therapist’s office, and into a peer-support setting. In this way, we hope that we can reach people before they feel alienated, lonely, or isolated and perhaps, or perhaps not, inspire them to seek professional help in the future.
Within the humanitarian circles, there is an established truth that real humanitarians are unaffected by the work they are doing. After all, how can we, as humanitarians, suffer from secondary trauma, compassion fatigue, or burnout when the people we are working with are, most definitely, in a worse situation than we are?
A professional humanitarian worker I spoke with this spring said something that stuck with me: if we lose our humanism, we shouldn’t be humanitarians. Feeling shameful for being affected by the work we are doing should be a thing of the past. It is toxic and, frankly, demeaning of the human experience. The sooner we accept that humanitarian aid workers and volunteers, like other helpers, are affected by their work, the sooner we can start facilitating adequate socio-psychological support for those who need it.