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Resilience in the Humanitarian Aid Sector

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by Ludmila Barros

A lot of people get attracted to the humanitarian aid/development sector for the possibility it brings us to live and work in places that most of our friends and family members would need to find in the map, while contributing to make the world a little better – or at least, a little less terrible for those affected by conflicts, catastrophes, diseases, natural disasters. An adventurous and meaningful life, many would reckon. Well…yes, but reality is not so rosy.


Here is a look at resilience within the humanitarian aid sector by Ludmila Barros.

I started my career in the development sector 32 years ago, in my own (developing) country, in a local NGO where the oldest of us was 29 and our work cost our donors meagre fifty thousand dollars a year. At the very moment I write this text, I have just got back from a job in country inflicted by protracted conflict, where I was the only woman, in a senior management position. I came back to my present-day country of residence with the usual 2 suitcases – the luggage allowance for most airlines in intercontinental flights – where I learned to fit all my belongings. 


Once more, I said goodbye to people and things that became meaningful to me: co-workers and a workplace, friends, a lover, a home, a language, a landscape and a routine. Once more, I had to start over: get another job, find another place to live, organize it, re-establish the routine, make other new friends, get acquainted with all the changes and losses that took place during my absence. Now, in an age when a lot of people are thinking of preparing to retire, I want to keep going: I want to keep leaving my comfort zone, so well defined by a friend retired Special Forces soldier as “the place where you recover, so you can keep going”. I know that after a while, I will long for leaving my base again, saying goodbye to friends and loved ones again, getting rid of many belongings and packing a few again. All this to go to work again with a variety of risks, threats and challenges, all kinds of human suffering, difficult living and working conditions. All this, if everything goes right:  when things go wrong, your luggage is lost; you are threatened with deportation because a co-worker forgot to put forward your entry permission; you are attacked during an upheaval; you spend a week cornered in a battlefield waiting for evacuation; the donor decides to halt the programme; the local government bans all international cooperation agencies from working in the country; etc, etc.

Many of us make jokes about explaining to family and friends what our jobs are, how difficult it can be to make then understand what we do. When explaining – or joking – we leave out an important part; the part that hurts when we leave people and places, exercise unattachment, start over repeated times… the immense toll it takes on our physical and mental health! I noticed that my sense of belonging had been shattered the first time I could not offer a straight answer to a very simple question: “where do you live?”. Now, that I have to stop to count how many times I have moved from one place to another, if you ask me about the main characteristic we all must possess to build a career in the aid/development sector, I will definitely point to one – resilience.


Psychologists define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress. Resilience is not about shielding ourselves from loss, sadness, grief, suffering. These are an essential part of everyone’s life – even those that chose to spend their entire lifetime in the same job, city and relationship. Being resilient doesn’t mean that you don’t feel what you go through: how can you not? You are human and you must allow yourself to be human! Resilience is the ability to bounce back after the storm, to go through the goodbyes, the leaves behind, the detachment and closures, the abrupt changes and challenges, everything that goes wrong, the regular start overs… while learning, growing and often laughing of those very same situations that felt so difficult a while before.


Some of us are resilient, others not; some embrace change and challenges; others fear them because when trying to get stronger from what doesn’t kill them, they lose more than they get and what should be an enriching, fulfilling apprenticeship, becomes a hollowing process. Still, for those are resilient, the constant changes and challenges are neither smooth nor painless: they do take different amounts of sleepless nights, anxiety and grumpiness; for some, they demand bitten nails, chain smoking or loss of appetite; for most, a river of tears… Nonetheless, resilience gives you what my friends praise as a “problem solving mind”- which is absolutely empowering, both to succeed in the sector and to keep your personal life sane in the way. 

So, if you are beginning your professional life and consider the aid/development sector, give it a try: go for an assignment no longer than one year and get back to your ‘old’ life. Assess how you feel about the changes and challenges you have been through: has all the process been enriching and fulfilling or you did feel like hollowing out? If the prospect of going for more and bigger changes and challenges triggers your preparatory “to do list” and your eyes to sparkle, you are resilient – and fit for the career. 


Reality of fieldwork in Peacekeeping: A Testimonial by Paulin Regnard

Through a focus on the civilian personnel acting on the frontlines of peacekeeping, Paulin shares some insights about fieldwork, its daily challenges, and some hard facts about career mobility. 

  • Why fieldwork matters
  • Administrative and Material Constraints
  • The unglamorous side of field life
  • Career mobility for field workers

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