(The Humanitarian Social Network)
Musings from my research journey into families, resilience and humanitarian work….
Families in the Humanitarian Sector: No, It’s Not a Joke
“Family? How do we keep in touch?! You work long enough for the UN and you don’t have a family. Problem solved.”
(Anonymous UNV cited in Robinson, 2002, p. 134)
“Don’t waste your breath saying that his agency must only believe in child rights for other people’s children, since the only time he sees his own children is when they are sleeping. Don’t bring up that you could use a little family reunification or peace and reconciliation or gender equity program at home. Just don’t even go there” (Shotgun Shack., 2011, May 9)
Despite the comments above, humanitarian workers do exist who successfully combine maintaining a relationship or family with working in the sector. Be it supporting a long distance relationship during non accompanied posts, taking one’s partner and kids to a new posting as an expatriate family, or working out of HQ and managing frequent travel, it can be done. Though it should be said, not easily. Relationships strains, sadly sometimes resulting in breakups and divorces, are all too common in the industry.
Unlike the significant wealth of material that exists for missionary families, military families, and corporate expatriate families – other globally mobile or frequently separated families – the humanitarian literature on the subject of families is scarce. Regardless of whether the focus is on national or expatriate staff, little research has been done on the experiences, challenges, or needs of families in the humanitarian sector (exceptions include Ahmad, 2002; Bikos, et al., 2009; Ehrenreich & Elliott, 2004; Paton & Kelso, 1991). When seeking useful resources specifically aimed at assisting families in the humanitarian industry, the list is short. The Headington Institute’s online study module titled ‘Family Matters: Self Care for Family Members of Humanitarian Workers’ (McKay & Hulme, 2009) is the most comprehensive publication identified to date. Other organisations including Satori Worldwide and Antares Foundation (www.antaresfoundation.org) also facilitate programs and/or have developed resources that acknowledge not only humanitarian workers but also their families. The facebook group Stuff Partners of Expat Aid Workers Like shares a mix of funny and at times tragic anecdotes about the experience of being a partner of an aid worker and Elie Calhoun on her site Expat Backup also includes a section on moving with children in her guide to moving (Calhoun, 2011, August 15).
What scant published literature does exist on the topic emphasises several salient points; 1) humanitarian deployments impact the whole family, regardless of whether they are accompanied or not (Palmer, 2005); 2) the importance of social support given by families as a protective factor to help mitigate the stress experienced by aid workers (Blachetière, 2006; McKay & Hulme, 2009; Salama, 1999); 3) the stress of humanitarian work often adversely impacts the relationship in terms of increased relational conflict (Headington Institute, 2007; McKay & Hulme, 2009); 4) the unique and difficult challenges faced by national staff with regards to their families (especially female field staff or staff responding to humanitarian crises) (Ahmad, 2002; Antares Foundation, 2008); and 5) the challenges of re-entry and family functioning, particularly for non-accompanied postings, should not be underestimated (McKay, 2007; Palmer, 2005; Thomas, 2011).
Much can be learnt from the literature on military and expatriate families in general. For those juggling frequent travel and unaccompanied assignments, advice for maintaining a healthy relationship includes ensuring boundaries are placed on the amount of time away, the importance of long distance communication efforts, and recognising re-entry is hard for all (Espino, Sundstrom, Frick, Jacobs, & Peters, 2002; Orthner & Rose, 2009; Thomas, 2011). For those with partners or children on accompanied postings, the literature advises paying careful attention to work-family balance, appreciating that the challenges of adaption and losses inherent in relocation are normally greater for the accompanying partner than the worker themselves, and familiarisation with the common stages of cross-cultural adaptation (Haslberger & Brewster, 2008; Hess & Linderman, 2002).
The claim that having a family is incompatible with humanitarian work (Loquercio, 2006) can be refuted. To successfully manage this, however, depends greatly upon the humanitarian worker remembering one critical thing: the family always comes first. On a personal level, in our expatriate family this looks like occasional heated discussions in which we re-establish travel limits (both weeks away at a time and percentage per year) and reminders that despite the inconvenient time differences and variable internet quality, skype chats with our kids and myself are important and help facilitate an easier reunion. Furthermore, within the industry it should be recognised not all roles are well suited to balancing the inherent demands of family life. Needless to say for the time being my partner is no longer managing a humanitarian response to a complex emergency, the fit between this role and a young family not being a good one! I know the issue of maintaining or starting a family in this industry is a complex one – so it would be great to share your thoughts or what you have learnt or observed in your own journey thus far….
By AidSource member, Elisa.
Ahmad, M. M. (2002). Who Cares? The Personal and Professional Problems of NGO Fieldworkers in Bangladesh. Development in Practice, 12(2), 177-191.
Antares Foundation. (2008). Managing stress in humanitarian work: A systems approach to risk reduction Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Retrieved from http://www.antaresfoundation.org/download/risk_reduction_booklet.pdf
Bikos, L. H., Klemens, M. J., Randa, L. A., Barry, A., Bore, T., Gibbs, R., et al. (2009). First-year adaptation of female, expatriate religious and humanitarian aid workers: A mixed methods analysis. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 12(7), 639-661.
Blachetière, P. (2006). Resilience of humanitarian workers. Retrieved from http://www.peopleinaid.org/pool/files/publications/resilience-of-aid-workers-article.pdf
Calhoun, E. (2011, August 15). The Expat Backup Guide to Moving. Expat Backup: Aid workers need assistance too [Web blog]. Retrieved from http://www.expatbackup.com/2011/08/the-expat-backup-guide-to-moving/
Ehrenreich, J. H., & Elliott, T. (2004). Managing stress in humanitarian aid workers: A survey of humanitarian aid agencies' psychosocial training and support of staff. Peace and Conflict, 10(1), 53-66.
Espino, C. M., Sundstrom, S. M., Frick, H. L., Jacobs, M., & Peters, M. (2002). International business travel: Impact on families and travellers. Occupational & Environmental Medicine, 59(5), 309-322.
Haslberger, A., & Brewster, C. (2008). The expatriate family: An international perspective. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 23(3), 324-346.
Headington Institute. (2007). Stress and Working in Non-Governmental Organisations. Retrieved from http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&ct=res&cd=2&ved=0CBEQFjAB&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.nmcphc.med.navy.mil%2Fdownloads%2Fstress%2FStressandworkingNGO.doc&ei=_ZiYS5f0GM2HkQXwwdi9Dg&usg=AFQjCNHiUAmiiRld7-BpkcRPPb59n5Om1w&sig2=cr46agbWKlbE9RiMqWjQZg
Hess, M. B., & Linderman, P. (2002). The expert expatriate: Your guide to successful relocation abroad. London, England: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
Loquercio, D. (2006). Turnover and retention: General summary: People in Aid,.
McKay, L. (2007). On the road again: Coping with travel and reentry stress. Self-Study Module 3. Retrieved from http://headington-institute.org/Default.aspx?tabid=2222
McKay, L., & Hulme, B. (2009). Family Matters: Self Care for Family Members of Humanitarian Workers. Self-Study Module 8, Retrieved from http://www.headington-institute.org/Default.aspx?tabid=2849
Orthner, D. K., & Rose, R. (2009). Work separation demands and spouse psychological well-being. Family Relations: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Studies, 58(4), 392-403. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3729.2009.00561.x
Palmer, I. (2005). ABC of conflict and disaster. Psychological aspects of providing medical humanitarian aid. British Medical Journal, 331(7509), 152-154. doi: 10.1136/bmj.331.7509.152
Paton, D., & Kelso, B. (1991). Disaster rescue work: The consequences for the family. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 4(2-3), 221-227.
Robinson, K. (2002). Seperation from families. In Y. Danieli (Ed.), Sharing the front line and the back hills: International protectors and providers: Peacekeepers, humanitarian aid workers and the media in the midst of crisis (pp. 13-135). Amityville, New York: Baywood Publishing Co.
Salama, P. (1999). The psychological health of relief workers: Some practical suggestions. Humanitarian Exchange Magazine, (15). Retrieved from http://www.odihpn.org/
Shotgun Shack. (2011, May 9). #54 Putting aid work first. [Web log post] Retrieved from http://stuffexpataidworkerslike.com/2011/05/09/54-putting-aid-work-first/
Thomas, R. (2011). Managing transitions between 'field' and 'home': Facing the psychological impact of humanitarian crises. Paper presented at the Webster University 9th Annual International Humanitarian Conference, Geneva, Switzerland. Retrieved from http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&ved=0CCUQFjAB&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.daviddutch.com%2Feacnewsletter%2FFinal%2520Paper.pdf&ei=vFvYTq_iOqukiAfe0Nz2DQ&usg=AFQjCNEDoOA-nz-YxXK_2tn6CA4XfQz55Q&sig2=eeiwuS9N5bm0ulRWjoPwCQ