Photograph of palm tree signs reading "P2 / Aerogare Deaprt / Autocars" outside an airport terminal

What Happens When Nowhere is Safe?

Sara Higgins, Maria Wrabel, Dan Myers, Amit SmotrichLeland

(Above: departure terminal at Félix Houphouët-Boigny Airport in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire; photo CC BY-SA Pascal Giegner)

With the World Health Organization’s declaration of a pandemic on March 11, development and humanitarian organizations had to decide quickly whether to repatriate international staff. These organizations have experience working with travel restrictions, varied health system capacity, individual staff members’ risk factors, and organizational liability. However, the extent of the repatriations seen during this pandemic is largely unprecedented in our field.

Over half of the 10th Class of Mickey Leland International Hunger Fellows was repatriated from their field placements because of the pandemic. In this blog post, four of those fellows reflect on this experience. Responses have been aggregated and edited for brevity.

Please note that this blog was drafted before the current wave of activism to address systemic racism in America in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. The authors believe this movement is universal, and that the humanitarian-development sector is not exempt. The power dynamics and gaps illuminated by organizational changes due to COVID-19, discussed below, are but one example. Doing justice to this topic, however, would require a standalone piece with more reflection than possible in this post about the questions raised by repatriation. We hope you’ll read this article on the implications of Black Lives Matter for the aid business, and this one on the continuations of colonialism that run through the development industry.

“Is the current level of international staffing necessary, and who does it benefit?”

What does the widespread repatriation of international staff reveal about the “need” for us to live and work in developing countries? Are organizations doing enough to equitably share resources and provide opportunities to build technical skills of national staff members? 

The massive repatriation of international staff has forced the development and humanitarian industry to revisit an existential question: is the current level of international staffing necessary, and who does it benefit? While some remote work by repatriated staff is possible, the physical absence of international staff has highlighted how much organizations rely on them to fill certain roles, such as senior technical positions or for grantwriting and reporting. It has also affirmed the national staff’s capability to assume the roles of their evacuated colleagues. This has reignited the conversation about whether many jobs typically filled by foreigners could be similarly or better performed by national staff.

That some development and humanitarian organizations struggle to fill roles left vacant by repatriated staff reveals that the industry is not investing enough in addressing gaps between international and national staff, resulting both from differences in education systems and structural power imbalances. Going forward, development and humanitarian organizations must determine how to better address these gaps as they make decisions for a post-COVID world.

With these dynamics so starkly illuminated, the pandemic should reinvigorate organizations’ commitment to fundamentally restructuring the system by localizing decision-making and shifting power (while recognizing that power is often very unevenly distributed among ethnic, racial, and religious groups within countries). This also provides an opportunity to promote more black, indigenous, and people of color to leadership positions. Such an increase in multinational and multicultural representation allows for invaluable diversity of thought and experience.

“What happens when nowhere is safe?”

At what level of risk do individuals and organizations start to prioritize self-preservation over the humanitarian imperative and their work? How do organizations and individuals react when the risk levels we all knowingly signed up for suddenly change?

As individuals working in humanitarian assistance, we have made an implicit commitment to “stay and serve,” especially when things get tough. Many workers take this responsibility seriously and stand with their colleagues and the communities in which they work during crises. However, if given a choice as crisis situations escalate, should they stay or go? International staff from all over the world faced this question as COVID-19 spread and countries restricted travel.

On a deeply personal level, each of us must decide what level of risk we can accept and when. For example, someone who agreed to work in a conflict-affected country might change her mind once it also becomes a pandemic-affected country. The question then becomes: is it better to leave something you didn’t sign up for if you can, or to stay out of a sense of obligation (and possibly become a liability to your organization and community later)? How can we judge someone for this choice? This crisis has shown us that it’s a complicated and fraught decision to make.

At an organizational level, the pandemic presented an additional dilemma: what happens when nowhere is safe? In many cases, repatriating international staff returned them to places where, at the time, the risk of infection was often greater than in the countries they worked in. Worse, the travel necessary for repatriation may have increased exposure and possibly transmission of COVID-19 for those staff members.

“…we must also recognize and call out the privilege inherent in being able to weigh these risks and make this choice in the first place.”

As difficult as the choice may be for both individuals and organizations, we must also recognize and call out the privilege inherent in being able to weigh these risks and make this choice in the first place. Making the decision or being instructed to leave epitomizes the stark inequities in power and privilege that we should be working to mitigate. In many cases, national staff and program participants do not have a safe place to go when things get worse. Even in the United States, those with fewer resources were left behind as wealthier people fled COVID-infected cities. Such inequities in both freedom of movement as well as quality of healthcare systems must be addressed.

On the other hand, what happens when those who have the privilege to leave choose not to use it? Foregoing the privilege does show solidarity, and mass removal of staff has implications for program continuity. However, in the case of COVID, those who stay could become a liability (by contributing to the spread, occupying limited hospital beds, or putting unnecessary demand on scarce resources), doing more harm than good. Ultimately, privilege is only as good as what we do with it. We should always work to maximize good and minimize harm. In some situations, this means leaving; in others, it does mean staying. However, our egos or feelings of self-importance should not be part of the decision; as discussed above, some of us may not be as “essential” as we think.

“We cannot abandon long-term goals in favor of short-term needs.”

Finally, what are the consequences of suspending humanitarian and development activities to prevent the spread of COVID-19? What is the relative importance of humanitarian aid versus longer-term development activities in light of this crisis? What factors should organizations take into account when making these decisions?

Before the pandemic, many countries we work in were already facing pervasive poverty, conflict and displacement, climate change, even locust infestations. These issues will continue and will likely be exacerbated by COVID-19. However, given recommendations to reduce the risk of transmission during this pandemic, some projects are being suspended or postponed as organizations and governments seek to protect program participants and staff.

In the short term, the focus has shifted to direct health and food aid response to mitigate the pandemic’s most immediate impacts. This is understandable, but concerning to us as it leaves less room for addressing longer-term root causes. For example, movement restrictions have also paused land ownership documentation projects, which could also have worrying consequences for food production and raise tensions in communities. Suspending nutrition-sensitive programs or monitoring for malnutrition may result in missed warning signs and increases in acute malnutrition, which negatively affects cognitive development, economic productivity, and intergenerational nutrition. We cannot abandon long-term goals in favor of short-term needs.

The questions remain: when assessing programs, how can we (e.g., communities, local and international NGOs, the UN, governments) keep these longer-term consequences in mind, and how can we use this opportunity to strengthen health systems and resilience? We must find a balance between supporting urgent needs and maintaining capacity to address systemic or chronic issues like land tenure insecurity or human rights violations which are critical to development.

This requires adaptation. In some places, organizations have shifted program delivery to rely more on technology. However, special attention must then be given to those left behind. Not all communities, households, or members within a family, have access to basic cell phone networks, leading to information discrimination. Similarly, organizations who have often spent years building relationships within the communities they work will now need to assess how to continue fostering trust when face-to-face interaction is not possible.

COVID-19 has shed new light on old challenges within our industry. It is our hope that we seize this opportunity to redefine who does what work, who our work serves, and how we can all create a stronger, healthier, more just world.

For more reading on these issues, the New Humanitarian has also posted an excellent article discussing how COVID-19 could transform the sector.

About the Authors

Higgins headshot

Sara Higgins

Leland Fellow

Sara Higgins holds her MPH in International Health and Development from Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and a Bachelor’s in Zoology from University of Wisconsin-Madison. Prior to becoming a fellow, she worked in federal healthcare spheres, including four years as a research analyst for an advisory committee providing recommendations to Department of Defense leadership on military health policy. For her Master’s, Sara served in Peace Corps Guatemala with the Master’s International Program. As part of her service, she developed and executed an educational program, A Grassroots Approach to Chronic Malnutrition in Rural Guatemala (based on the positive deviance model), with 31 mothers of children aged 5 and under to combat chronic malnutrition in a rural community. Sara, a Wisconsin native, was motivated to become a Leland fellow given her passion for policy, advocacy, and global health programming.

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Maria Wrabel

Leland Fellow

Maria Wrabel holds an MSc in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies from the London School of Economics and an MS in Food and Nutrition Policies and Programs from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. While in graduate school, she focused on multi-sectoral programs addressing to food insecurity and undernutrition in humanitarian contexts. As part of her degree she completed an internship with Action Against Hunger in northeast Nigeria where she coordinated an effectiveness and sustainability study of a community-led WASH program throughout Yobe State. While at Tufts she worked as a research assistant with the Feinstein International Center, supporting case studies of the challenges and constraints of information and analysis in classifying food insecurity and declaring famine. She also managed the Research Engagement on Food Interventions for Nutritional Effectiveness (REFINE) project of the USAID/FFP Food Aid Quality Review (FAQR). Prior to beginning the Leland Fellowship, she worked as an assessment officer with the REACH Initiative in Iraq, leading research to inform the cash and livelihoods responses of humanitarian actors. Originally from Connecticut, Maria holds a BA in Global Development Studies from Stetson University.

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Dan Myers

Leland Fellow

Dan Myers, a native of Colorado Springs, Colorado, graduated from the University of Denver in 2016 with a BA in International Studies. As an undergraduate researcher, Dan focused on formal and informal governance systems surrounding agricultural resources in East Africa. He received a Cherrington Global Scholars placement with SIT Study Abroad in Madagascar, where his capstone project centered on the socioeconomic and environmental factors underlying the erosion of norms and institutions underpinning the cattle economies of the Haute Matsiatra and Ihorombe regions. Dan also received a Partners in Scholarship grant to study hyperlocal variations in land tenure systems near Mzuzu, Malawi ahead of national land reform legislation. After graduation, Dan worked on Healthcare Without Harm’s Healthy Food in Healthcare Initiative, where he studied the role of state and national community benefit law in shaping American nonprofits hospitals' efforts to boost food security and reduce diet-related disease in their service areas. Most recently, Dan worked on the facilitation and mediation of planning processes and disputes involving water supplies, forest management, and the governance of public lands in Colorado and New Mexico with Peak Facilitation Group.

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Amit Smotrich

Leland Fellow

Amit holds a Masters in Global Human Development from Georgetown University with a on food security and environment. Her capstone project with Mercy Corps highlighted ways to integrate resilience programming in fragile contexts and her summer field placement with CARE in Guatemala focused on improving access to WASH in public primary schools. Prior to attending Georgetown, Amit led Food Security and WASH advocacy at InterAction where she managed diverse coalitions of NGOs, government partners, and research institutions to strengthen international development policy, programs and funding. These efforts resulted in the passage of the 2016 Global Food Security Act, strong Congressional support for foreign assistance, and improved coordination among the NGO community. Amit's interests lie at the intersection of agriculture and livelihoods development, resilience, nutrition, and environmental sustainability. She is originally from Westchester, New York.

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