Here’s What’s Wrong With the Idealized Image of the Orphan-Hugging Aid Worker

You may think the average humanitarian aid worker can be found at this precise moment with an orphan in one arm and a tree in the other, breathing in the smell of fresh paint on a new school building with a smile.

Since the Sally Struthers era of guilt-based marketing, the mainstream media has created a skewed portrait of the humanitarian aid worker that’s far from reality.

The truth is, aid workers often suffer immeasurable trauma. Assault and kidnapping are a constant threat. Contact with death and grief is almost endless, and workers’ days are marked by huge responsibility for the lines of desperate people waiting outside rudimentary hospital facilities for help.

The sanitized images of aid workers in the media don’t include workers walking through a church where children were killed by a live grenade or having an AK-47 pressed against the back of their head. Unfortunately, these horrific situations are realities for plenty of aid workers, and the cumulative effect of this trauma often lingers long after they’ve returned home.

Aid workers may suffer from depression, sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, and intense distress. Yet, after the standard debriefing, they’re usually left on their own to cope in silence. In fact, according to the Trauma and Mental Health Report, more than 70 percent of aid workers consider the support they received on their return home insufficient.

Viewing aid workers as a collection of stereotypes is a disservice to the work they do, and the general lack of understanding about the realities of humanitarian work has a ripple effect on the help they receive and the next generation of aid workers.

But there are three things we can do to start a revolution in the way humanitarian aid is perceived to help these individuals:

1. Three-dimensionalize the image.

Aid workers voluntarily face trauma to protect the most vulnerable members of the human race. But there’s more to this diverse group of people than the do-gooder stereotype. They’re also some of the most courageous diplomats and committed professionals in the world.

The aid community is increasingly made up of trained doctors, nurses, educators, and veterans who bring their specialized skillsets to disaster zones. They’re charged with coordinating relief efforts, gaining access to airports and resources, protecting aid workers on the ground, and making life-and-death decisions on a daily basis.

Operating in highly politicized and contentious environments, aid workers and the people they serve are often used as pawns during a conflict. In fact, the mere presence of an NGO can be seen as a political act, so aid workers must be able to work with all parties with diplomacy and neutrality to help those in need.

2. Make a mental shift in how we approach international aid.

The international community must move to embrace the idea of collaborative and effective civil-military operations. There needs to be a common understanding that foreign policy alone can’t resolve the challenges we face. By adopting a more progressive philosophy toward intervention and assistance, we can start thinking about aid as a preventative measure, not just a relief after disaster has struck.

3. Provide support — before, during, and after.

We need to support aid organizations before, during, and after the disaster. This includes supporting workers long after the media coverage has stopped and they’ve returned home. These men and women work on the frontlines of war zones and disasters, yet they rarely receive the same aftercare that our military receives with issues like post-traumatic stress disorder and reintegration. This needs to change.

When we reduce a group of skilled and passionate individuals down to a stereotype, we stop empathizing with them. The tree hugger, the school builder, the savior — these are incomplete images that rob people of their dignity and make human empathy difficult. It emphasizes how we’re different rather than our shared humanity.

We need to start listening to the stories and experiences of the diverse group of humanitarian workers who risk their lives on a daily basis so we can understand and do our part to help.

Mina Chang is CEO of Linking the World, an international humanitarian aid organization with a focus on children, global awareness, and breaking the cycle of poverty around the world. Linking the World has been saving lives and transforming communities since 1997 through its unique emphasis on partnerships to kindle hope.

Mina Chang