Bringing our whole selves to our work in International Development

What would it look like if we brought our whole selves to our work in international development? To the pursuit of global justice?

This is a question I’ve been asking a lot in the past few years. As a former INGO leader who has been exploring ways to bring more of myself to my work I’ve been looking for ways to support others working in international development to do the same. And it’s clear from what I have been hearing that in many organisations a culture of ‘pulling out all the stops’ to get things done at the expense of staff health and wellbeing pervades.

Last year I spoke to 30 women working in international development or humanitarian work using a set of focus questions and they overwhelmingly reported that work load and expectations were extremely high, that resourcing issues compounded these problems and that they were used to neglecting their personal and physical needs in pursuit of their work. Family life often suffered and many (like me) had experienced a period of exhaustion or burnout mid-way through their career.

They also reported, as others have pointed out, that our wellbeing isn’t just about how we look after ourselves and manage our time. It’s also about the extent to which what we do genuinely reflects our values and many shared instances where organisational cultures seemed to run counter to the type of change they were passionate about wanting to see.

Our logic is often along the lines of ‘this work is more important than my wellbeing’.

Indeed many women spoke versions of this sentence during my conversations with them last year. The conceptual shift we need is to be able to see that our wellbeing can actually contribute to change. That working in the same old ways our culture has driven us to for generations isn’t going to help change structural dynamics.

Working differently, as well as taking actions for change, is part of the broader work of social change, opening us to new possibilities of HOW we can go about remaking our world.

When we work differently there is potential to deepen our own resilience and offer that back to the work, as well as to ourselves and each other over the longer term.

But to do that we have to start making it possible for people (of all genders) to do things differently and to bring their whole selves to their work? Next month I am hosting an online conference called ‘Healing Solidarity: Re-Imagining International Development’ and in it a number of the speakers challenge our understandings of ourselves and in particular the familiar archetype of aid and development workers as ‘heroes’ and ‘saviours’.

Gemma Houldey calls this archetype the ‘Perfect Humanitarian’ and in the conference her talk will explore how this idea impacts both how those working in aid contexts show up and, how they are seen by others. What seemed particularly troubling perhaps about the sexual harassment and abuse reports about Oxfam, Save the Children and the #AidToo moment across the sector more widely was that they reminded us, and enlightened the public, that supposedly ‘infallible saviours’, weren’t always what they were cracked up to be. A recent survey by Changing Aid shows that much more needs to be done to challenge internal culture in organisations in response to sexual harassment, making clear that problems of abuse and power pervade the way in which our sector operates.

The idea that we are either saviours or infallible needs challenging wherever it lives in how we understand and present ourselves. We need a new way of conceptualising our role and our purpose.

Juxtaposed with this is the archetype of what Pontso Mafethe describes in the conference as the ‘Happy Native’ or in other words, the recipient of aid. We pay lip service to participation and local leadership and ‘putting the last first’ but as the speakers in Healing Solidarity reveal, the reality is that, in many development contexts decisions are still being taken in largely white, largely western, often male power holders with local grassroots activists and organisations getting a shockingly small amount of either recognition or resource from the whole ‘business’ of international aid.

Until we can address, through practice and commitment, this colonial, racist and unhelpful power dynamic, we will both continue to force ourselves in to the archetype of ‘saviour’ and fail to act in in more useful solidarity with the activists and movements across the planet who are doing much of the actually day to day work in and with communities.

Until we bring our whole selves — our anger, our rage, our grief, the parts of us that don’t know what to do next and the bits of us that need healing and support — into the context of our work for social change, we continue to act out the power imbalance. We continue to de-humanise ourselves as ‘Perfect Humanitarians’ affording ourselves the privilege of maintaining power over others, over resources and over the sector at large.

It might be good for our bank balances and our mis-guided sense of ‘power over’ others but unless we can transform these practices we will do little to affect structural change of the kind we claim to be in service of.

Bringing our full humanity, engaging in what Nomvula Dlamini, another speaker in the conference, describes as ‘humanising processes’, to our day to day work and our organisations necessitates an honesty and humility that we need to cultivate and choose to practice.

Very many of our organisations originally grew out of a passionate call from an individual or small group, to work towards change on a specific issue. Over the years, in some cases decades, many of these have grown into global professionalised brands. These spaces are often, As Lisa VeneKlasen puts it, ‘adrenalised’ and in the pursuit of high level engagement campaigning and fundraising have often found it difficult to retain connection to their roots and to the needs and priorities of activists on the ground.

It’s not enough to believe that things are wrong with our sector. Each one of us has to act differently, day to day. We have to be in the practice of laying down the archetype of saviour and replacing it with a great deal more honesty and humility. And we need to be committed to refuting the archetype of the ‘Happy Native’ and instead be ready to share more complex narratives about people’s real, complex and varied lives. They, as Judithe Registre will point out in the conference, have their own voices and stories to tell if only we would listen to them.

The best way we can be in solidarity is to be in the daily practice of dismantling injustice in each and everything that we do. For those of us passionate about global injustice and working in international development that means bringing our whole selves to our work, acknowledging our privilege and being in the active practice of rejecting structures that invite us to have ‘power over’ others, continually committing to opt instead to build ‘power with’ them towards global justice and equity.

These themes and ideas and many more will be explored during Healing Solidarity: Re-Imagining International Development, an online conference that will happen 17–21 Sept and which will also offer practices to support individuals and organisations in further reflection.

Find out more and sign up at www.healingsolidarity.org