Mindfulness for NGOs

Changing the world starts from within

White Paper Series #5

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I Decided Not to Save the World Today: Some Reflections on Self-Reflection 


“What helps is for overseas staff to know themselves, their limits, without romanticizing their work. It is hard, dangerous, messy, dirty, and not always rewarding. I think the most important aspect of this work is to accept the [culture] ‘shock’ as a gift, and have a really good set of instincts that you can rely on no matter what the ‘prep’ or UN guidebook tells you’.”

(Comment by a humanitarian professional – LinkedIn discussion on the psychological preparation of aid workers)

The first four chapters in the White Paper Series explored how, in the eyes of field and HQ staff, pre-deployment preparation could support professionals during a mission. A vast majority of aid workers say that psychological preparation in the pre-deployment phase is as important as medical checks.

Staff care for aid workers

Some organisations are looking to integrate pre-mission psychological preparation into their security training as a cost-effective measure. It is now becoming clearer that staff care (or lack of it) has both economic and legal implications, with stress and burnout being recognised as an occupational hazard.

Strengthening staff support has a pragmatic side to it: aid workers’ heightened emotional fitness and resilience has a direct impact on what they bring to the mission, and how they relate to colleagues and ‘beneficiaries’. But in a field where values and principles still have a place, many of us feel (naively?) that the ethical dimension is the one that matters the most.

Paraphrasing Jon Kabat-Zinn (1990), caring for others does not require that we put ourselves last, dragging along some kind of Puritan legacy in a spirit of denial and self-sacrifice.

In this chapter I would like us to pause for a moment, and drawing on the rich insights offered by aid workers on LinkedIn, contemplate the role of self-reflection – both at individual and organisational level – in this action-based profession where “ego” and the desire to “put things right” often play an important role in the overt motivations that pull many to the humanitarian sphere.

Click below to read chapter 5 of the White Paper Series

I Decided Not to Save the World Today: Some Reflections on Self-Reflection


About this white paper series:

This series by Alessandra Pigni is based on a 2011-2012 Humanitarian Professionals’ and Devex LinkedIn group discussions. Over 200 comments, stories, and reflections coming from humanitarian personnel were offered in response to the question: “Humanitarian aid workers are often psychologically unprepared for field missions. Any views on this from field and headquarters staff?”

The resulting White Paper Series offers an account and analysis of the numerous contributions, underlying the importance of personal awareness and illustrating how to change the world we need to start from ourselves through a process of self-care and self-awareness.


If you would like to take part in the online discussion and submit your contribution please join the Frontline Burnout Prevention Group or the Humanitarian Professionals Group, on LinkedIn www.linkedin.com or email info@mindfulnessforngos.org. Contributions used in the White Paper Series will be published anonymously to respect confidentiality.


Next in the white paper series #6: Life in the Field and Team Dynamics

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