Humanitarian aid can help build peace - with the right staff

Humanitarian agencies have always worked in the midst of crisis, navigating hostile environments and bureaucratic systems, responding to emergences and providing life-saving aid. In the past 15 years, they have started paying more attention to conflict, committing to ‘do no harm’, and aspiring to be ‘conflict sensitive’. At the forefront of all their efforts are the humanitarian workers. But how are humanitarian workers recruited? How do agencies ensure that their staff can reduce conflict and promote peace?

Humanitarian NGOs are often forced to select their staff from a small pool of people, who are legally allowed to work and have certain, mostly technical, qualifications. In Lebanon where humanitarian agencies are providing aid to over one million Syrian refugees, NGOs face rigid governmental regulations on hiring staff from within the refugee community. They are required by law to stick to a quota of ten-per-cent for non-Lebanese staff and need to undergo a cumbersome process of obtaining work permits for all foreign employees, including Syrians. While these regulations have existed for a long time, the government prioritised their enforcement as part of its efforts to increase job opportunities for Lebanese. As a result, some NGOs which needed Syrian staff to implement their programmes, chose to hire them as consultants and volunteers, purposefully avoiding a transparent recruitment process. This backfired. Tensions among staff started to surface, as Lebanese employees felt Syrians were hired through connections and not based on their qualifications.

Political stands and confessional identities also can create a tense atmosphere at the workplace. Lebanese are sharply divided in their opinions of the warring parties in Syria, as are the Syrian refugees who fled the violence. Yet, many humanitarian organisations have codes of conduct that do not allow staff to engage in political discussions at the workplace. These policies act at times as a pressure cooker, letting tensions among colleagues rise without providing a ‘valve’.

Recruitment decisions had in some cases negatively affected the very operation of humanitarian NGOs. For example, an INGO planned to terminate the contract of a staff member with strong political connections, and the person managed to block the organisation’s access to several locations where it was delivering aid. Assistance could reach the refugees only after the decision was reversed. In another case, a staff member diverted aid to benefit communities to which he was close. These examples highlight key challenges organisations may face due to staffing choices.

These choices may indeed be limited in some areas. NGOs may not always be able to hire skilled humanitarian workers who also share the humanitarian values of the organisation. While staff development offers an opportunity to build up a team, organisations commonly prioritise skills over values. Available training opportunities in Lebanon remain largely focused on technical skills and issues, such as water and sanitation or project management. Few organisations train their staff on ‘do no harm’ principles of humanitarian aid, or on conflict sensitivity – the approach of planning humanitarian interventions based on a sound understanding of the context and implementing programmes so that they address the underlying causes of conflict.

International Alert has trained and coached health workers providing healthcare to Syrian refugees alongside members of the local community in Lebanon. The training aimed to improve the way nurses and receptionists deal with patients; it focused on understanding what conflict is, learning about different styles of dealing with conflict, improving listening and communication skills, and dealing with stress. A couple of months after the training, changes were observed at the individual level, and in relationships. Most of the changes were individual and included increased understanding of the context, knowledge, new skills and behaviours. Healthcare workers shared concrete examples of how they used the new skills in practice. A young male worker said:

“A patient was enquiring and the receptionist was not very friendly with him. The patient then raised his voice and started shouting and verbally attacking the receptionist. The patient’s behaviour only represented the visible 10% of the iceberg [referring to a conflict analysis tool]. He had been waiting for a while to see the doctor, was probably in a bad psychological state, had a crying baby in his arms and might have other pressures to deal with. These invisible 90% of the iceberg are what we have to keep in mind to understand patients and react responsibly.”

Relationships among staff also improved as a result of the training. Nurses said they suggested to other colleagues how to deal with difficult situations, asked for help more freely, organised sharing sessions on what they learned and some even organised sessions for staff who did not attend the training. One healthcare centre took steps to introduce new policies: it established a peer support group to exchange experiences among staff in dealing with difficult issues and appointed a focal point for ‘dealing with conflicts’.

In addition to prioritising staff development, humanitarian NGOs should consider the conflict dynamics at the local and national level when making recruitment decisions. When temporary solutions such as informal hiring become necessary, the analysis of the context should guide risk mitigation strategies. Tensions among staff need to be addressed quickly and directly. Formal complaint mechanisms may not be as efficient in cases where employees’ status is ambiguous, as with some Syrian humanitarian workers on ‘volunteer’ or ‘consultant’ contracts. Staff town hall meetings, in-house counselling or mediation may be more appropriate in resolving conflicts among employees. Managers should also have the skills to anticipate and manage conflicts in their teams.

Lastly, humanitarian organisations can create the space to address politically sensitive issues at the workplace. Instead of ignoring the political opinions and activism of staff, managers should discuss it with their team members and ensure that employees do not act with bias in the delivery of humanitarian aid.

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Photo: Nadim Kamel/ International Alert