Be aware of the pitfalls of working in humanitarian aid

It is easy to romanticize the idea of working in humanitarian aid, but to be able to successfully do this job, it is important that one understands the difficulties and stresses involved.

I had a conversation the other day with a friend, who was also working in humanitarian aid. We both agreed that there was a time we were burned out and struggled to find a job outside of humanitarian aid. We wondered why we have been struggling so much; after all, there is so much talent in our field and we have worked for years on high-level positions and projects.

Then I realized that our problem was not finding a job but rather finding one-self. I have been working in humanitarian aid for ten years, mostly delivering services to communities in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Oceania.

I realized that the work has created yet another identity within me: The Humanitarian Aid Worker Identity (HAWI).

What do I mean by this? The HAWI is made up by these elements:

We are burned out, yet we don’t want to admit it

We are tired of the bad news. We are tired of the suffering. We are tired of violence and death and destruction, from Syria to South Sudan, from Myanmar to Yemen, from the Central African Republic to Somalia.

We’re exhausted by stories about people who have lost everything—their homes and families in war-torn countries like Yemen or Syria; their loved ones at sea off Libya or in prison camps in Mali; their health when caught up in conflict zones like Kurdistan or Afghanistan.

And yet we continue working on humanitarian projects because we believe they can make a difference—even if we don’t always see it right away.

We want to go home, yet we convince ourselves that we are needed more in the field

We want to go home, yet we convince ourselves that we are needed more in the field.

This is one of the worst feelings I’ve ever experienced. When you do finally return home, there is no way to explain the mixed emotions that come with it.

You feel like you have abandoned your friends in a different country, as well as those in your own country who are struggling with their own problems and hardships. At this point in time, I have been able to talk with some of my friends who have also worked overseas and they all agree:

“You always feel like you could be doing more when returning back home; it’s hard not being there right now.”

Many of us are addicted to this work.

So many of us are addicted to this work. It’s not just the adrenaline rush, although that can be a huge part of it.

We’re also addicted to the feeling of being needed and in control, and feeling like we’re important.
As much as we enjoy the expat lifestyle, we still feel guilty about this neo-colonial attitude that we often embraced.

It is hard to leave behind the people that we were trying to help.

As a human being, it is difficult to leave behind the people that we were trying to help. Even if you have been doing this work for 10 or 20 years, and are accustomed to seeing people suffer and die in front of your eyes, it can still be very hard on the heart when you know that there is nothing more that you can do for someone.

We want to help more people and make a difference in their lives, but we cannot do everything at once and sometimes there is nothing left but tears. We spent our whole lives trying to make a difference, now we see how difficult it often is.

We will think of the people left behind in South Sudan, in Syria and all over the world.

As we move forward, we will think of the people left behind in South Sudan, Syria, and all over the world.

We will remember how hard it was to be on the ground during conflict or after natural disasters. We will remember what it was like when our team members were killed or injured by bombs, bullets, or illness.

We will also remember those who broke from fatigue, stress, and overload. And we should not forget that many of us have been affected by these things: some are still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and others have taken years to recover from injuries, trauma or other health issues sustained during their work as humanitarian aid workers.

It’s important to acknowledge these realities because they show us that even though we may be physically safe now – at home with friends and family – many of us aren’t really okay yet…and neither are most other aid workers anywhere in the world today!

We need to work better on our self-care and not feel guilty about it.

If you’re looking to work in humanitarian aid, it’s important to understand that the field can be very tough. There are many reasons why people choose not to work in this field—and a good number of them are valid.

That said, there is a level of guilt and shame around not wanting to work in the humanitarian aid industry anymore, which doesn’t help anyone.

If you find that your needs aren’t being met by working with an organization or on the ground, don’t feel guilty about it! The best thing for your health and happiness is finding another job that allows you more freedom or time off from your projects.


I hope this post was informative and helpful for you. I wanted to share my personal experience with the world so more people can understand what we go through as humanitarian aid workers.

We do not have an easy job; it is hard and stressful in many ways. But it was our choice, and we are lucky to work with amazing people who support each other and make the job a bit easier.

By understanding the realities of humanitarian work, we can begin to change our perceptions of those that work in the industry. Just as importantly, by sharing our stories and experiences through writing, photography, art and film, we can also offer a more honest depiction of the industry.

Fully understanding how this industry works is the first step towards much-needed reform, which will lead to a more sustainable aid system. So it is my hope that we aid workers will have the courage to share our experiences with each other and support each other.

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Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash


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