The sense of inadequacy is one of the big challenges among humanitarian personnel. In a disaster the resources are insufficient and it is not always possible to provide the necessary aid. It is difficult when high expectations and idealistic motivations don’t live up to reality. This is a common cause of burnout. Personnel should know about and be prepared for this, otherwise natural disappointment, anger and grief may develop into destructive emotions like shame, guilt and moral defeat.

What can we do, indeed. What can we do in this vast, sprawling country, where our money, our time, our efforts are absorbed like a rain drop in the dry season?

Quote from the book Chasing Misery (2014)

Personnel need to be prepared that exceptionally difficult dilemmas may arise. There is not always a clear choice between right and wrong. In extreme cases, there are sometimes only “bad” alternatives. Personnel need to choose between different “evils” while lacking sufficient background information – sometimes on short notice. While this is about the situation and not the individual personnel, they are often the ones who pay the emotional toll.

Before deployment to a disaster zone, you need to know that you can forgive yourself, that you might make decisions you will regret and that grief may be a part of your life after deployment. Personnel need to reconcile themselves that the following could be part of the job:

  • Make choices that could have tragic consequences
  • Risk compromising their own ethical and professional standards
  • Perform tasks you are normally not qualified for
  • Facing poverty and violence may be more intense than expected
  • Having to do difficult prioritising between groups and individuals
  • Having to reject desperate people
  • Having too little capacity when facing overwhelming need for help
  • Being evacuated while leaving others behind

Before deployment you can discuss possible dilemmas that may arise from working in disaster zones with experienced colleagues. How do you react to the advice and answers they give? Is this something you can live with?