SEATTLE — Pressure intensifies for the United Nations to add aid worker welfare to the agenda of the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016.
A petition started last July by Brendan McDonald, a humanitarian worker with the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Geneva, Switzerland, calls on participants of the Summit to “recognize the physical, emotional and mental suffering aid workers endure during the course of their work and to include staff welfare as a key issue in the Summit.”
So far the petition has garnered over 1,300 signatures with a goal of reaching 2,000.
Specifically, the petition makes the following requests on behalf of aid workers, who often work under unsafe and traumatic conditions:
- Invest systematically in caring for the physical, mental and psychological welfare of their staff.
- Establish a mechanism to ensure all aid workers have access to adequate support in the event of illness or injury, particularly for national aid workers.
- Support the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability…We call on donors to fund organizations committed to the CHS and its accountability mechanisms.
- Support the establishment of a Global Humanitarian Association to advocate for the rights of aid workers and their families globally.
- Establish a mechanism for tracking the well being of current and former aid workers, including contractors and volunteers and national staff.
Research shows that aid workers can experience high levels of burnout, mental and physical exhaustion, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and insomnia. Furthermore, aid workers report feeling endangered at work.
According to a report by the Antares Foundation about 30 percent of aid workers report significant symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) upon returning from assignment. A 2013 study by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) showed that 47 percent of surveyed staff stated they had experienced difficulty sleeping in the previous month and as many as 57 percent of those surveyed reported symptoms consistent with depression.
Mental health is not the only concern. According to Irin, a news organization that focuses on the humanitarian aid industry, in 2000 there were 41 significant attacks on aid workers recorded across the globe. By 2014, the number had risen to 190. In those 15 years, over 3,000 aid workers have been killed, injured or kidnapped.
In general, expatriate aid workers suffer the most; however, studies focus mostly on this population. Around 90 percent of aid workers are working on a national rather than an international level.
While preventative measures such as more intensive selection and onsite training can prepare aid workers for the rigorous work they do, aid worker advocates say there is a critical need for onsite support to ensure worker well being.
In addition, an increasing number of organizations, such as People in Aid, MindfulNext and the Mandala Foundation, are focusing on advocating for and helping aid workers. Through organizations such as People in Aid, donors can fund organizations that are committed to aid worker welfare.
With attention from international media outlets the issue of aid worker welfare is gaining traction, adding to the potential that it will be addressed at the World Humanitarian Summit next year.
– Priscilla McCelvey