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11 Humanitarian Aid Worker Mistakes to Avoid

Humanitarian aid is complex and hard work. It’s not for everyone. And those who are successful aid workers know that it’s not easy to avoid making mistakes. That’s why we have put together this handy list of 11 humanitarian aid worker mistakes that are common in the field.

Mistake #1: Assuming

Communication is key for humanitarian aid and global development. Working across cultures, countries, and languages can mean many challenges. And one is assuming that everyone is on the same page. Just because something is clear for you, it may not be the same for your colleague, partners or beneficiaries.

Always check in and make sure that everyone knows what’s happening and why. Avoid assuming to prevent miscommunication.

Mistake #2: Creating awkward cultural moments

This one is likely unavoidable at some point or another. Cultures vary greatly between countries, but even within them. So you are bound to find yourself in an awkward situation when it comes to culture. Maybe it’s a misunderstanding or simply an uncomfortable situation.

The best way to avoid creating awkward cultural moments is to learn about the cultural specifics in advance. You can do so by asking for advice from colleagues or locals. And if you do find yourself in an awkward situation, know how to get out of it gracefully!

World Day for Cultural Diversity

Mistake #3: Knowing better

One mistake that many global development and aid workers make is presuming that they know what’s best for the locals. This used to be the way humanitarian aid worked for the longest time. But nowadays, we are aware of the fact that communities know their needs best.

Rather than rolling in with ready-made solutions, ask the locals what they think. What do they need and how would they solve their problems? Learn together what the best solutions are!

Mistake #4: Skipping the context

One size does not fit all when it comes to humanitarian aid. Just because something worked in one project, doesn’t mean you can replicate it and apply it somewhere else. For successful and sustainable global development, focus on the local context.

Mistake #5: Not asking for help

Whether you are volunteering or working as an international aid worker, it’s important to know that help is out there. No one person can change the world; we must do it together. So when you are stuck, unsure or just simply need someone to talk to – ask for help!

Not only will this be good for your sanity, but it will also benefit the project you are working on. Asking for help can avoid bigger mistakes in implementation and delivery.


Mistake #6: Mistaking pity for compassion

Humanitarians do what they do because of compassion and humanity. These are qualities for aid workers and volunteers. But sometimes it’s hard to differentiate between compassion and pity. Feeling sorry for others does not help them. What’s more, it takes away their dignity, agency, and capacity.

It’s important not to make the mistake of confusing compassion and pity. This is particularly hard when working with the most vulnerable populations.

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Mistake #7: Skipping security

Security protocols are in place for a reason. Sometimes they seem exaggerated. Often, there is little time for security briefings. And they can even impede aid workers from delivering aid most efficiently.

However, it’s important always to follow security protocols. Skipping security can put your life at risk. Further, it can compromise the project, jeopardize your NGO’s local relationships and negatively impact project outcomes.

You also might like to read; “Aid Worker Security Report 2018”.

Mistake #8: Lacking preparedness

Disasters can happen very quickly. And our first natural reaction is to help. It is key to be prepared for response, have the resources and the skills to provide aid. Otherwise, you may be in the way of others who can deliver much-required help.

Make sure that you have protocols and procedures in place before disaster strikes. And if you do not, take the necessary time to prepare before deployment.

The ultimate humanitarian traveling list

Mistake #9: Ignoring the rules

Similar to security protocols, organizations put rules in place for a reason. It can be a huge hassle to follow all of them. But there is likely a precedent that explains each rule. To ensure that projects function properly and are sustainable, adhere to the rules.

Mistake #10: Not taking time off

When we see human suffering, it’s hard to take time off and relax. However, sometimes it is necessary. Humanitarians and volunteers need to be healthy both physically and mentally to deliver aid. Hence, you’ll need to rest between and during missions to perform at 100%.

For example, in hardship posts, aid workers get regular leave to help them cope with work stress. Just like other rules, this one exists for a reason! Don’t make the mistake of ignoring it, or you might face burnout.

Mistake #11: Becoming a humanitarian for the wrong reasons

Last but not least, don’t make the mistake of becoming a humanitarian for the wrong reasons. Some people think that aid workers travel the world and live a glamorous hero lifestyle. But the truth is, global development and humanitarian aid are hard work.

It involves sleepless nights, uncomfortable conditions, security threats and a lifelong commitment to your career. If you choose to become an aid worker, do it for compassion and the dream of helping others!

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