Humanitarian action needs more care

Author: Goda Milasiute
Date: 5. January 2023

Care – problem or solution?

Care work refers to the paid or unpaid activities of looking after the needs of others. This work is often taken for granted, invisible and undervalued – both in monetary and non-monetary terms. Care work is also highly gendered, with women and girls doing most of this work: globally, two-thirds of paid care workers are women, and it is estimated that women and girls undertake 75 per cent of unpaid care work.

While these statistics, as well as the belief that care is a natural feminine activity, are surely problematic, it is important to emphasise that care as such is not a burden but ‘a foundational element of our society’, which has a ‘widespread, long-term, positive impact on wellbeing and development’. We therefore need more, not less, care: just more equally divided in terms of gender, with not only personal but also institutional and organisational care responsibilities.

Care can also be understood more broadly than certain activities. Community organiser and scientist Meera Ghani (2022) talks about a ‘culture of care’: ‘a new social contract […] which forms the basis of not only all social relations (be they interpersonal, community wide or political) but also our politics’. The culture of care includes ‘radically transform[ing] how we live and do things’, including dismantling ‘the interconnected systems of oppression that form the basis of how our society is currently organised’. The culture of care is therefore a means against oppressive structures like patriarchy and racism.

Care-less humanitarianism

Care should also be at the heart of humanitarian action as the ‘objectives of humanitarian action are to save lives, alleviate suffering, and maintain human dignity during and in the aftermath of [human]-made crises and natural disasters, as well as to prevent and strengthen preparedness for the occurrence of such situations’. This is reflected by one of the fundamental humanitarian principles, humanity, from which, according to Jean Pictet (1979, p. 135), the architect of these principles, ‘all other principles are derived’.

However, the international humanitarian sector is characterised by some unhealthy dynamics that are in fact very care-less: perfectionism, a certain idea of what it means to be ‘professional’, the lack of readiness to show vulnerability, and the resulting stress and burnout. As discussed by Gemma Houldey (2021, p. 6) in her book ‘The Vulnerable Humanitarian: Ending burnout culture in the aid sector’, ‘[i]n workspaces throughout the world, it has become normal to turn up at the office and leave your personal problems at the door; to take little interest in your colleagues who you spend more of your waking hours with than your own family; and to maintain a calm and capable attitude that hides any sign of struggle or vulnerability, for fear that this might lose you your job’.

The care-lessness within the humanitarian sector is also reflected by the pervasive patriarchal and racist/colonial structures; structures that are directly related to and reinforced by the unhealthy dynamics discussed above (Houldey, 2021; Josam, 2022). As argued in ‘The Vulnerable Humanitarian’, the international humanitarian sector has suffered for decades from the assumptions of knowing best, ‘and given the dominance of white, western presence and thinking in decision-making, strategic planning and aid delivery, this has reinforced age-old hierarchies and inequalities as well as very often resulting in more harm than good being done for the populations we are assisting’.

The prevalence of the white male saviour humanitarian worker archetype has been shown to lead to care-less approaches to security and well-being of the local staff (Daigle, Martin and Myrttinen, 2020; Arthur and Moutard, 2022). Additionally, the coloniality* and structural racism within the international humanitarian system lead to the exclusion of local organisations – in terms of funding, decision-making, and understandings of capacity. More so, if these local organisations are affected by discrimination related to gender and SOGIESC**, religion, age, ethnicity, or (dis)ability. It is therefore not a coincidence that local women-led organisations and organisations working on gender issues have been shown to struggle more to receive funding than their local male-led counterparts. That is why the intersectional lens – which takes into account different categories of discrimination – is important when we look at the international humanitarian system: in the case of local women-led organisations, it is both their gender and their race/nationality/ethnicity that influence how much power they have.

Local care approaches

If we look at local women-led organisations from the care perspective, we see that they are providing humanitarian assistance to their communities (caring as their job) as well as at the same time caring for their loved ones (possibly in disproportionate terms). All this happens while they, their loved ones, and their co-workers are personally affected by the crisis. On top of that, as local women’s organisations, they are probably also struggling to get the funding, are constantly pressured by the international actors, and face barriers in accessing decision-making structures.

However, there are many examples of local women-led organisations working in most difficult circumstances, while trying to apply care principles not only when supporting their communities but also to their own organisational structures. One of such examples is a Ukrainian NGO Divchata (engl. ‘Girls’), which provides humanitarian assistance to women and children, including shelter support, psychological help, and assisting survivors of gender-based violence. Divchata is led by Dr. Yuliya Sporysh, has 60 people who constitute its core staff, as well as around 250 part-time staff. Around 98 percent of Divchata’s staff are women, and 65 percent of the staff are internally displaced persons, some of whom have lost their homes twice – in 2014 and this year.

When the war escalated on 24th February, Yuliya escaped Irpin with her family, first to Western Ukraine, and then through Hungary to Poland. On 28th February, she was already fundraising while staying at a refugee centre in Poland. In an interview that I conducted with her, Yuliya underlined: ‘I know the topic not from the theoretical side; I was a refugee, I lost my apartment during the war, my staff suffered from war, so I know for sure what we need. If I need to make a needs assessment, for me it is very fast: I need to make five calls, and these five people will each conduct ten calls, and the next day I will have answers from 50 people.’ Yuliya also recounted how in the first couple of weeks after the war escalated the international partners were ‘frozen’: ‘They just didn’t know what to do. I called a few partners – no answers, I wrote emails – no answers. The first response I got was from another feminist NGO and other women from other parts of the world.’

In her work, Yuliya has also had various experiences of international actors not respecting the boundaries and lacking empathy: ‘We have questions from our partners: “Will you be able to fill out the report in time?” “No.” “Why?” “We are operating under the war, and we don’t have electricity.” “Yes, of course, but we have a deadline.” Sometimes they are calling me and telling “you haven’t answered us for six hours”. “Yes, I just have no electricity.”’ According to Yuliya, ‘sometimes donors would like to abuse your staff’, by putting time pressure and by not respecting their right to rest. ‘So then, next day, a very angry email comes from me to the main Ukraine country manager, saying: “you need to give my people space for rest, do not disturb them”’.

The lack of trust from international agencies is another problem, making work even more complicated. According to Yuliya, even after working together for many years, international actors ‘just do not have trust toward their partners’. At the same time, it is the local staff that are driving to the front lines to deliver support. The problem of lack of trust starts on the donor side; at the same time, international NGOs and UN agencies should strive not to reproduce this. As an example of this, Yuliya tells me about the good cooperation with one international NGO: ‘The whole team assigned to the Ukraine response is a women’s team, and we have received a lot of support from them. They are very sensitive to our asks and do a lot to make our work easier.’

Yuliya starts her day by checking the news and if her staff – operating in 6 regions, 93 communities – is safe. She also supports her staff with childcare and psychological support. Divchata works with many psychologists, and when Divchata’s psychologists are unavailable, partner NGOs help them out. It is an exchange: ‘We help other NGOs with their staff, and other NGOs also help our staff.’ Divchata is part of a feminist network of NGOs, which has a monthly meeting to exchange the news and the needs that different organisations have. According to Yuliya, Divchata’s slogan ‘you are not alone’ applies not only to the people that they are assisting but also to her staff.

At the same time, Yuliya acknowledges that self-care is very challenging, and the main task is simply to survive: ‘We are just thinking “right here, right now, my home, we don’t have electricity, water, we don’t have the Internet, we don’t have anything”. Because right now we don’t know how long it will be like that.’ Asked about what helps, Yuliya shares: ‘I am surviving by helping other people, I have strong boundaries, and I can cancel contracts if the partnership is not working out.’

More care, less oppression

The care perspective should help us remember that a humanitarian worker vs a person affected by crisis dichotomy often does not hold, and that care responsibilities do not end at work – even when working in a crisis context. Also, people have right to self-care, i.e., to care for their health and needs (as much as it is possible in certain circumstances), and rest. Working in a humanitarian crisis, while being affected, is stressful enough without the additional pressures created by international humanitarian actors who should be more careful with their approaches. After all, humanitarianism is – or should be – about caring for each other.

We need more culture of care within humanitarianism to counter the structures of oppression like patriarchy and racism within it, as well as the related issues of stress and burnout that are experienced by (too) many humanitarian workers. Most of humanitarian workers are not white, male, and western (even though this image is still very prevalent), and the organisational and institutional structures in place need to reflect that. The international humanitarian system therefore needs a care-perspective to acknowledge the specific struggles of local humanitarian organisations – especially if these organisations might be affected by intersecting discriminations.

*According to Maldonado-Torres, coloniality refers to ‘long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism’, therefore ‘coloniality survives colonialism’.

**SOGIESC stands for sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and sex characteristics.

***This article was published first in the journal “Welternährung'” by Welthungerhilfe.

Goda Milasiute is a research fellow at the Centre for Humanitarian Action (CHA). She has a master’s degree in International Relations at the Free University of Berlin, the Humboldt University of Berlin, and the University of Potsdam. Her research interests include locally led humanitarian action and gender equality within humanitarian action.