Accepted paper:

Stress and meaning-making among national aid workers in Kenya


Gemma Houldey (University of Sussex)

Paper short abstract:

The paper draws on ethnographic research conducted in Kenya that examined stress in the aid sector. It discusses the lived realities of national staff and how these are shaped by organisational policies and practices, and contests dominant western discourses about aid work and its challenges.

Paper long abstract:

Stress, trauma and burnout are terms that have increased recognition in the aid sector. A survey conducted by the Guardian in 2015 found that 79 per cent of staff in the sector had suffered from some form of mental illness. Yet studies into the psychological and emotional landscapes of aid workers largely focus on the expatriate and the specific problems they are likely to face going to the field. This paper seeks to challenge the universalised narrative of the international aid worker and their motivations and challenges, by examining the emotional experiences and difficulties of national staff working for international NGOs and aid agencies in Kenya. Based on a year of ethnographic research in Nairobi and Turkana into stress and wellbeing among staff from a range of humanitarian, human rights and development organisations, I will argue that aid policies, structures and working practices - as well as social and cultural factors - are central to how aid workers, both national and international, conceptualise and manage stress in their lives. The paper shows how institutional assumptions about what constitutes good and efficient aid practice at times silence or dismiss the everyday struggles of national staff. Alternative conceptualisations from my Kenyan research participants of what is stressful and, conversely, what is meaningful in aid work provide insights into how the current localisation agenda in the humanitarian sphere may be reimagined.

panel C4
National development experts and professionals: under-researched yet important actors in development