1st Edition

The Vulnerable Humanitarian Ending Burnout Culture in the Aid Sector

By Gemma Houldey Copyright 2022
    200 Pages 1 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    200 Pages 1 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    The Vulnerable Humanitarian challenges the prevalence of stress and burnout culture within the aid sector, laying bare the issues of power, agency, security and wellbeing that continue to trouble organisations and staff.

    Engaging and insightful, this book illustrates the problematic and unrealistic expectations of aid workers through the archetype of the perfect humanitarian, and considers why burnout is so endemic, yet so rarely acknowledged, within aid organisations. The book provides practical means through which staff and managers can reflect upon and discuss damaging organisational cultures and behaviours, and develop a more inclusive and caring work environment. Drawing on original academic research and interviews with national and international aid workers and development experts, the book proposes a feminist, anti-racist and decolonial agenda in challenging oppressive systems and structures within the sector. With extensive professional experience as an aid worker herself, Gemma Houldey also shares her own struggles with mental health and what she has learned from feminist practices for self- and collective care.

    Proposing new ways of addressing wellbeing that are sensitive to the multi-faceted personalities and lived experiences of people working on aid and development programmes, The Vulnerable Humanitarian is essential reading both for current aid sector employees and for prospective employees and students.

    Introduction: Responding to a Life in Crisis

    Part I: Deconstructing Stress and Wellbeing in the Aid Sector

    Chapter 1: The Perfect Humanitarian: What’s Expected of Us and Why it’s Problematic

    Chapter 2: Stress? What Stress?

    Chapter 3: Wellbeing: Lost Connections

    Part II: Creating Healthy, Inclusive Work Environments

    Chapter 4: Making Wellbeing Inclusive and Central to Aid Practice

    Chapter 5: Assessing your Organisational Culture

    Chapter 6: Welcoming the Vulnerable Humanitarian: Practices for Self- and Collective Care

    Concluding Reflections



    Gemma Houldey, PhD, is an independent researcher, facilitator and advisor on staff care and culture change in the aid and development sector. For over 15 years she has worked on human rights and conflict programmes for international NGOs including Christian Aid and Amnesty International, and civil society groups in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Uganda and Tanzania. Trained in several somatic and healing modalities, Gemma designs and delivers support programmes aimed at creating more compassionate and inclusive working cultures, weaving in appropriate practices for self- and collective care.

    "This book belongs to the library of every humanitarian. This is not just because they will find it interesting but because it is a book most of us have been long waiting for. Gemma manages to masterfully bring together two seemingly incompatible worlds. First, she forces readers to expose themselves to the many painful truths about our sector. She then goes on to share concrete advice on how we can actually transform it into a space that is more inclusive, safer and that puts care at the very centre of it, not only for the communities we work with but for our humanitarian colleagues as well."

    Serap Altinisik, Head of Office, Plan International EU Office

    "This book puts into words what many of us in the sector struggle with: the conflicts between purpose and pragmatism, empowering others at the expense of our own wellbeing and the moments of despair when the structural inequalities perpetuated by the aid sector just seem too big to fix. But Gemma Houldey also sketches a way forward: If we re-define vulnerability as the starting point for dismantling some of the harmful practises, we have the opportunity to move forward – with more accountability, honesty and authenticity. She also unpacks how Feminist Leadership can support this process of collective healing and re-inventing the aid sector. Both academics and practitioners will find food for thought and concrete ideas in this book."

    Helene Wolf, Executive Director, FAIR SHARE of Women Leaders

    "A powerfully written and illuminating book that lifts the lid on the struggle of burnout and how we navigate our way out of it - a must read."

    Yasmin Khan, food and travel writer, broadcaster and author

    "Perhaps a book 70 years in its making, it is heartfelt to know that the self-reflection of aid workers and the unmet power of their emotional needs can be examined. Not only the physical toll or emotional labour of this work, but also the need to address privilege within a global context of mental health justice, is an urgency for us all. 

    The boldness of ‘The Vulnerable Humanitarian’ is precisely this.  It is resolute as a demand and understanding that there is an exchange to be made for those in the aid sector who can exercise choice and an impact that shapes the choices others rarely get to make. The author shares her own heartfelt reasoning behind the book and draws consistently on the imbalances that often unknowingly and knowingly evoke harm in aid policy, and a continuation of an out-dated aid industry. 

    Searching for decolonized narratives is of course a given but the depth of research exceeding personal comfort and indeed pain is a gift. Not given lightly the ‘Vulnerable Humanitarian’ deserves core reading and is an act of global solidarity for anyone coming to terms with their own trauma and the choices it may later prevent. As for the wider aid sector, choosing to proactively face this reality is yet to be determined, but faced it inevitably will be."  

    Atif Choudhury, Co-founder and CEO of Diversity and Ability (D&A) and Zaytoun CiC 

    "For far too long, and while humanitarians haggle with an increasingly polarised world and with their own position in it, the self-inflicted image of the tough humanitarian remains one of the bigger neglected risks to those whose calling is helping others in distress.

    By addressing this directly and unflinchingly, Gemma Houldey targets mental health issues affecting humanitarians – and not only as a mental health issue in itself, but also in how it relates to inclusion and to standing against supremacy and discrimination.

    This a much needed step towards a humanitarianism for the future."

    Tammam Aloudat, MD. MpH., Managing Director of the Global Health Centre., The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva

    "A fascinating overview of the pathology of international aid as we do it today. Gemma's book is particularly valuable for its distinct understanding of national and international humanitarians, and for the organizational policies and therapies she suggests to help aid workers be better, and so feel better too."

    Dr Hugo Slim, Las Casas Institute for Social Justice, Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford and formerly Head of Policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross