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Life on the humanitarian frontlines: the challenge of staying the course

Written by Sara Pantuliano

Last weekend a friend asked me if I would go back to Sudan, where we worked together for the UN years ago. ‘Immediately,’ was my instant reply. However, we then reflected on the challenges we face now as parents trying to combine humanitarian deployment with bringing up school-age children. 

While feeling regret for my move away from operational aid work over the last few years, I reflect on the many friends and colleagues who continue to work selflessly on the frontline of some of the world’s worst crises, often far from home. They have chosen to be where they are in order to help people affected by crises. They are loathe to openly complain because their problems don’t compare to those who have had their lives and families ripped apart by war or disaster. 

But the fact is that life is often not easy for humanitarian workers, and many are affected personally as well as professionally by the crises they work in, especially national and local colleagues who make up the majority of humanitarian workers and often go unrecognised in their service. 

Conditions are tough

Some aid workers are lucky to live in basic apartments, while others call tents home. They are exposed to disease, illness and harsh environments. Even basic necessities like food can be hard to come by in remote and besieged areas.  

In the mid-1990s I conducted extended field visits with an aid organisation on the Sudanese/Ethiopian border. We walked for hours on end to reach villages to collect information about people’s needs. We rarely had enough food or water, and I fell ill with several viruses.

But that was just a short period in my life – for my local colleague, it was his whole life. His entire family was caught up in the conflict, yet he still managed to study and get a university degree. He worked in these remote villages without rest for over a year, with no opportunity to see his young child.

Trauma is pervasive

Many humanitarian workers will be affected by seeing people die from war wounds, malnutrition or disease, or from the constant fear of being in harm’s way. The sense of helplessness when surrounded by severe suffering can be overwhelming. 

I remember one young humanitarian worker, fresh out of university, dispatched to Darfur to manage a camp for displaced people. He was dedicated and driven, but conditions were abysmal. His headquarters kept calling for quotes to use in fund-raising campaigns in the West, whereas all he wanted was enough food and water to help people survive. He told me he just sat in his tent and cried for hours, before getting on with his job. 

Finally, there’s the challenge of maintaining a personal life. 

Many expatriate humanitarian workers are far from home and loved ones. Long stints away from partners for international and local aid workers alike – and sometimes limited access to the modern technology that helps sustain long-distance relationships – strains even the strongest ties, and divorce or separation is not unusual. It’s hard to maintain families and live a ‘normal’ life; children complicate the equation even more. 

The burden placed on frontline humanitarian workers often goes unrecognised by their headquarters, which still give very limited attention to mental health issues and don’t provide enough support to their staff to recuperate after deployments. This is slowly changing, but not nearly fast enough to keep people from burning out.

So why do humanitarian workers stay in aid work? People stay for the same reasons we all got involved in the first place: a sense of shared humanity, empathy for others, deep commitment to the cause and a drive to address injustice. Working on the frontlines also offers a tangible opportunity to help and the opportunity to make a difference.

Frontline humanitarian workers have a tough job, but an essential one. So let’s celebrate those who continue to make sacrifices to stay in this line of work. Particularly today, on World Humanitarian Day, let’s honour those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of others.


Sara Pantuliano is the Director of Humanitarian Programmes at ODI. She began her aid career in 1992 working with displaced people in Sudan. She tweets at @SaraPantuliano.