This week, I have been reading research about the experiences of aid workers serving overseas in various conflict regions. These are usually skill-based international volunteers, and unfortunately many voices in the field seem to say that they are not very supported currently.

Flegel and colleagues [2] writes that volunteering in conflict zones needs to be handled with extreme care. Often volunteers witness acts of extreme depravity and violence, which can emotionally scar them. Another aspect they highlight is that often volunteers are given tasks beyond their capacity. This is a theme that is picked up on by Hearns and colleagues [3], whose interviewees (aid workers who had been on overseas missions in conflict zones) were underwhelmed by the pre-departure missions training. They particularly felt that they were not equipped to deal with the stress on the ground, and that once they were on the ground there was too much “ad-hoc planning”.

They didn’t feel valued by the organisation that sent them, saying that they were told something completely different to what they experienced on the field.

Sadly, many of Hearns’ participants still felt the scars of their volunteering experience. They didn’t feel valued by the organisation that sent them, saying that they were told something completely different to what they experienced on the field. The authors stress the importance of a program that overseas conflict volunteers should undergo when they return home.

Similarly Bjerneld et al [1] argue that there is urgent need for more preparatory training before volunteer deployments. In their interviews with 15 nurses and 5 doctors, they juxtaposed the feelings of frustration and stress alongside the positive feelings they experienced from their trips. The interviewees related their experience of undergoing stress in a conflict situation. They stated that it was common to be asked to do administrative and managerial tasks when they were on the trip to use their medical skills!

Samaritan's Purse distributing aid in Mosul

Samaritan’s Purse distributing aid in Mosul

This points here are close to home for me as well: one of my friends recently volunteered as a doctor with Samaritan’s Purse for a month in war-torn Iraq. She added that while it was a very rewarding experience, the real impact of her trip hit home after she had returned. The smallest incident would make her emotional and well up in tears. In our conversation at the time, we had dismissed it as a natural reaction after a traumatic trip, but clearly the authors here say there’s more going on under the scenes.

References

[1] Bjerneld, M., Lindmark, G., Diskett, P. and Garrett, M.J., 2004. Perceptions of work in humanitarian assistance: interviews with returning Swedish health professionals. Disaster Management & Response, 2(4), pp.101-108.

[2] Flegel, K., MacDonald, N. and Hébert, P.C., 2010. Volunteering overseas made easy. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 182(14), pp.1493-1493.

[3] Hearns, A. and Deeny, P., 2007. The value of support for aid workers in complex emergencies: a phenomenological study. Disaster Management & Response, 5(2), pp.28-35.