Challenges of working for a humanitarian disaster response NGO


Challenges of working for a humanitarian disaster response NGO

Many people are attracted to NGO jobs to use their skills to help others at a time of crisis.  When natural disasters devastate a country, or ongoing conflict means that local resources are depleted, it is often NGO workers who are the first to respond.  But there can be many challenges in this sector, here are just a few to look out for…

Witnessing suffering

Arriving at the scene of a makeshift refugee camp or a town buried in rubble can be shocking and distressing.  Even experienced aid workers can find themselves troubled and upset.  Being moved by the suffering of others is a real motivating force but you need to find strategies to manage your own response to be able to help others in your NGO career.  Strategies include:


  • Seek out reputable NGOs who commit to spending time on training new staff to think through the issues, feelings and responses before sending you to the field. 
  • Some NGOs do this via a “relief preparation course” which provides information sessions about the organisational values and approaches, lectures from sector specialists, decision making case study exercises and practical activities such as drafting a logistical framework or practicing radio communications.
  • The more training you have received before arriving at the disaster scene the better equipped you will be to manage your own response and start being helpful to others.

Regular debrief:

Sharing your thoughts and feelings with colleagues at the end of the day can be a helpful way of managing your responses. 

  • In the field you may find that other people are experiencing the same emotions, and this can help you feel less alone. 
  • Colleagues at headquarters will have a slightly more detached view and be able to help you identify positives and find coping strategies. 
  • For some aid workers, writing a diary/journal is a helpful way to clear thoughts at the end of the day and feel able to make a new start each morning.

One day at a time:

Days can be very long when you are working on disaster response as you want to use all the daylight hours to carry out project activities and then the evenings may involve report writing and sending communications data and photos back to HQ. 

  • Trying to focus on one day at a time, working through the tasks that need to be done, can ease the feeling of overwhelm. 
  • Where possible, focusing on helping one person/household at a time, taking time to listen to their needs and respect their dignity can help you feel that you are making a difference to some of the people caught up in the disaster, which balances the frustration of knowing that you cannot help everyone.

Coordination frustration in the field

Your initial feelings of relief at seeing other NGOs at the scene can quickly turn to frustration and anger if there are not good coordination systems in place. 

Since the chaotic response to the Indonesian tsunami in 2004, the UN has strongly encouraged NGOs to improve their coordination and a cluster system is now in place where all NGOs working on one issue (e.g. shelter) should meet and plan who is working in each of the affected areas, ideally delivering a more uniform response.

Field to Headquarters (HQ) communication difficulties

Whilst you are busy coordinating with colleagues from other NGOs at the disaster site, your managers at HQ will be expecting you to provide a channel of communication that they can share with donors and supporters. 

If you are in the middle of supervising the digging of latrines in a camp or ordering materials to build a temporary clinic, it can be frustrating to respond to emails requesting case studies, photographs or receipts for the finance team, but being a successful aid worker means that you find a way to balance both demands.  You will not be able to help at all if donors remove their support because of lack of communication from the field.

Lack of privacy

And finally…in the first days and weeks of the response you may find yourself living in a tent or a small space in a temporary NGO compound, sharing the area with many others.  If the region is not secure you might not be able to go out for walks or exercise to find some peace and quiet, so do be prepared for this in advance and pack your ear plugs and headphones! 

Good Luck in your NGO career!

Further reading encourages well-being and,ve had a negative experience.

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