Why don’t we just...
think like an aid worker?

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In years to come the devastating human toll of the coronavirus outbreak will be joined by many abiding memories of life during the pandemic – enforced local lockdowns, quarantine holidays, flourless supermarket shelves, forgotten facemasks, social distancing abusers, confusing messages, endless policy u-turns, economic meltdown, kids back in school, rule of six to thwart the dreaded rising R number. And that’s just here at home. What about abroad? Trump just out of hospital, Europe hitting a second wave, Brazil and India struggling to control surging cases. All the while we wait for a vaccine to save us and usher in a yearned for return to normality.

Well, folks, there is a well-used expression for all this in leadership circles, one that humanitarian aid workers like myself are fond of quoting: “It’s a VUCA world.” The acronym stands for “volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous”. Humanitarian aid workers inhabit the VUCA world for a living, whether in war zones like Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, when dealing with the worst effects of climate change such as giant hurricanes and droughts, or mitigating the consequences of compromised international relations and global political failure, like the global migrant and refugee crisis in which more people are displaced than at any time since the Second World War. And yet the world spends more money on bubble gum or hairspray than it does on providing humanitarian aid.

Coronavirus is teaching us another harsh VUCA lesson: you cannot hide behind your national fences when trying to resolve international problems. In such situations we are all only as safe as the most impoverished, the least safe and the most marginalised places on the planet. For it is there that our collective threat will endure longest. So, if we don’t try and help resolve the situation abroad, as well as at home, then the world’s most dangerous threats have a nasty habit of coming to visit us where we live. This is what humanitarian
aid workers have always known to be true. It is what drives their sense of transnational human solidarity and desire to resist the worst economic effects of a highly unfair and polarised world that privileges the few over the many and causes untold human misery.

This comes down to attitude and belief. Aid workers are intentionally hopeful beings. They actively choose not to give in to despair. They see a VUCA world and think to themselves: “Okay, how are we going to adapt and prevail?” They recognise that true resilience comes from an honest scrutiny of self, from an emotional place within, from a compassionate acceptance of our own vulnerabilities and those of others. They seek out and try to emulate people of stoic character, those who possess huge courage and authentic humility in order to put up the best possible fight against all odds. They take the VUCA acronym and use Johansen’s reframing to turn it into something positive and practical: “vision, understanding, clarity, agility”.

But humanitarian aid workers aren’t naïvely idealistic do-gooders. They are mostly principled pragmatists who understand that functioning in a VUCA world involves enormous compromise, the ability to effectively navigate horrendous dilemmas and often choosing the least worst option when faced with real constraints. They have to be politically and economically astute as well as deeply committed and caring. They share the same characteristics as our beloved NHS staff, care workers and key workers. Indeed many started out life in such professions at home before seeking to expand their horizons abroad.

It’s thanks to all these characteristics that in spite of all the challenges aid workers are helping people through the pandemic in some of the toughest places in the world, from Syria to Sierra Leone. We will each of us appear as victims, survivors, heroes, bystanders or villains in our own final telling of the coronavirus story. But for humanitarian aid workers the endless struggle will go on.

Gareth Owen is humanitarian director of Save the Children UK. His experiences working in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria are shared in Aid Workers: Ethics Under Fire, a new exhibition at IWM North until 31 May 2021, part of IWM’s Refugees season.

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