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Published: February 17, 2016

The Duty to be Caring

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‘Duty of care’ is a phrase commonly heard in conversations about humanitarian security risk management. I recently attended a seminar dedicated to the topic, expecting to hear lawyers’ legalese on a concept which is impossible to quantify and difficult to implement. Instead, duty of care was presented essentially as ‘love thy neighbour’. To hear the ‘L’ word from the lips of a lawyer was in itself surprising, but describing love as a practical way to fill your duty of care is persuasive.

Duty of care encompasses a spectrum of elements, from what employers must do to avoid being sued, to the way we should treat one another as human beings. This article will concentrate on the latter; using a personal example to demonstrate how individual actions enhance relationships within NGOs to better assist beneficiaries in need. I will discuss the practical steps we can all use to take care of colleagues, and demonstrate how these can enable more effective security management.

Enhancing relationships within NGOs to better assist beneficiaries in need

Humanity is a core tenant of humanitarianism. For all too short a time, I had the privilege of working with a manager who referenced this principle as the foundation for programmatic or security decisions. When facing a dilemma, she always referred to the basic humanitarian objective: to improve the condition of people in need. Even the most experienced, hardline, passionate, cynical, intelligent and belligerent aid workers were silenced when she reminded them that their work was aimed at helping people. This manager demonstrated the same love for her colleagues as for beneficiaries. She spoke to everyone, national or international staff member, field or headquarters-based, and listened to their replies. She didn’t just ask about the efficacy of the project, or the mortality rate, but questioned how the individual was doing. This manager was invested in the wellbeing of her team as well as the wellbeing of the project. She was inspirational; in short…she led. I want to be like her if I am ever in a similar position. Total. Work. Crush.

How can we contribute to the wellbeing of our colleagues?

If my manager could inspire me like this, imagine how satisfying it would be to have that effect on your own colleagues. Recent research suggests that PTSD is not just caused by singular traumatic events; cumulative stress can contribute to the disorder. For aid workers who witness or hear of traumatic events daily, feeling supported and having people to talk to can be hugely beneficial. Whilst it can be difficult for an individual to know how to begin supporting colleagues, it is important to stress that we all play a part in creating a supportive environment. Making a real effort to interact with people meaningfully can open a channel of communication that goes beyond office small talk, increasing the likelihood that you will notice when something is wrong.

Where possible, getting up and walking around the office, rather than communicating digitally, can have a real impact on people’s sense of connectedness to their colleagues. Recognising and praising the hard work of teammates can increase an individual’s sense of worth and wellbeing. Being aware of non-verbal signs that indicate colleagues’ unhappiness is also essential to managing team dynamics. Think about other’s perspectives. Develop your own communication skills and use the good techniques that you have seen other colleagues using. Be a humanitarian to your fellow humanitarians!

Enabling effective security risk management

How does stopping for a cup of tea with a colleague relate to good security risk management practice? Security management has many definitions, but strong relationships, communication and good decision-making are key in inculcating respect for policies and procedures. A staff member might be less likely to break their curfew if they have spoken to colleagues and have the curfew justified by someone they trust and respect.

A topic highlighted during the GISF forum last September was the difficulty around decision-making in volatile environments. In conflict-affected regions, there is a lack of certainty and knowledge around the decisions aid workers must make. Good decisions are made through constructive self-questioning (and questioning others on the team). This can only be done effectively when there are strong relationships built and you feel accepted and cared for by colleagues.

Strong communication channels also mitigate the impact of a security incident. Having colleagues with whom you are willing to share your thoughts with can lessen the effects of trauma. Creating a buddy system or helping a colleague using psychological first aid tools are all essential ways this good communication can reduce the impact of the demanding work we do.


Background Reading

The Legal Case of the Snail found in Ginger Beer, 20 November 2009, [Accessed 12 February 2016] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/8367223.stm

Cumulative PTSD – A Silent Killer, [Accessed 12 February 2016] http://www.policesuicidestudy.com/id31.html

EISF Forum Summary, Berlin, September 2015, GISF [Accessed 12 February 2016] https://gisfprod.wpengine.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/EISF-September-2015-Forum-Notes-Summary.pdf

Psychological first aid: Guide for field workers, World Health Organization, War Trauma Foundation and World Vision International, August 2011, [Accessed 12 February 2016] http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/44615/1/9789241548205_eng.pdf

Managing the Stress of Humanitarian Emergencies, UNHCR, August 2001, [Accessed 12 February 2016] http://www.refworld.org/pdfid/4905f1752.pdf


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