Field Realities

For many, working as an aid worker deep in the field sounds like a dream come true! While it may sound romantic, however, the reality of life in the field is not always what it may seem. In fact, it's often very far from the exotic, romantic image many of us have in our heads when first envisaging an aid-working career.


Unless you're that lucky duck who scored a job in Bali, your job as an aid worker may entail donning a bullet-proof vest and dodging bullets, feeling your windows vibrate thanks to a raging war just beyond your gated guest house, hiding in a bunker amidst explosions just above ground, or listening to drones skim the clouds above you. Or, if you're just slightly more fortunate, your job may entail hearing horrific stories from the other side where the war has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, and hundreds of thousands of uprooted and traumatized people.

In either case, unless you grew up in a similar environment, your life may be quite different from where you grew up. If so, you likely spend a huge chunk of your time trying to rationalize these different realities and why it is that you grew up so damn lucky compared with the majority of the world's human population. It could also be that you grew up in a tough environment but now can enjoy relative calm and security.

Either way, when compared to the individuals and communities for whom you work, this may set in an impending feeling of guilt or anger or sadness or, worse, guilt, anger AND sadness. Coupled with the already intense, complicated, and always "urgent" environment in which you live and work, it can be pretty tough to hold it straight.

Few want to admit this, but being a long-term aid worker can be an emotionally taxing experience. Being a serial field worker (i.e. you know, those people who just keep hopping from one conflict to another) tends to push us over the edge.

So, here's the skinny on field realities: Due to isolation and immersion into conflicts and deep poverty, aid workers are not just soaking up cross-cultural exchange, visiting local ruins, snorkeling above the world's best-preserved coral, rubbing elbows with the local prime minister, or schmoozing with other diplomats whilst sipping on locally-made cocktails. Well, maybe sometimes. But, no, not always.

Instead, working in the field could very well mean living in a container in Darfur, spending half of your work and personal time in a bunker in Kabul with rockets and drones skimming above your head, stepping into the street to find it littered with bodies, or living seven hours from the nearest city. Working in the field can be very isolating and lonely. Aid workers may not have access to healthy distractions beyond the office and, thus, lack a personal life and either resort to less healthy distractions - like over-working - or slowly plummet into an unpalatable state of burnout.

That's the grim side. There's also the fun part - the silly mistakes and discoveries we make by living in cultures and environments that are not our own or not the ones with which we are most familiar. That can make working in the field both fun and funny, but it can also be frustrating and even become one of the factors that propels us into burnout.

It's in your hands, however. Take precautions to avoid being the next one to fall into the aid-working trap.

Step out of your work-obsessed field location and connect with us online, read up on things you can do in your area to remain (relatively!) calm and to keep a smile on your face, brush up on your knowledge of your current country-of-residence, and learn more about trauma and how to treat it, rather than wrongfully assuming that simply working more will make your past go away.

Check out the following tabs, where we describe realities aid workers face when working in the field and measures you can take to advocate for your own personal well-being.

Warning: Many of these realities are not as story-book perfect as aid work might sound. So, if you like to throw around stories of your work to your friends back home, taunting them with renditions of cross-cultural intrigue and fairy tales of the life-saving version of you who dons your Super(wo)man cape to save the world, you might disagree with what we've written. But, we invite you to carefully remove any blinders you might be wearing in order to rethink the illusion many of us have of fieldwork and the reality. But, each of us has a different perspective, which is what makes this site interesting. We WANT to hear from YOU. So, please share your introspections and reflections with us too!