On 30 July 2015, PHAP organized a live online consultation event  in support of the World Humanitarian Summit on the topic of Humanitarian effectiveness and staff wellness.

This event featured:

  • An introductory briefing on psychology, trauma, and staff wellness in humanitarian action by Alastair Ager, Director of the Institute for International Health & Development at QMU, Edinburgh.
  • An informal discussion with a number of panelists bringing together different perspectives on staff wellness, focusing on current good practice and what needs to be changed in order to ensure the wellness of staff and volunteers in order for them to carry out their work effectively and responsibly.
  • An opportunity to interact in the event chat with panelists and other participants, as well as representatives of People In Aid, International Location Safety (ILS), and InterHealth, who will be on hand to answer questions regarding their respective initiatives.
  • The possibility to provide your views on this topic through structured live polls, which will feed into the event report to be submitted to the World Humanitarian Summit.

Event description

Humanitarian effectiveness and accountability in humanitarian response has received a great deal of attention in recent years. However, despite considerable research underlining its importance, what is often missing or underplayed in discussions and initiatives relating to both these topics is that of the safety, security, and wellness of humanitarian staff and volunteers.

The number of aid workers who are victims of attacks have almost tripled over the past ten years and research has repeatedly demonstrated a strong relationship between deployment to humanitarian crises and conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders, and posttraumatic stress disorder. Apart from being of grave concern in itself, this also seriously affects the effectiveness of humanitarian response.

In this consultation event, the focus was on the following questions:

  • What is the relationship between staff and volunteer wellness and humanitarian effectiveness?
  • What current good practice exists for improving staff and volunteer wellness?
  • What gaps currently exist relating to ensuring staff and volunteer wellness? What concrete improvements could be made?

Introductory briefing

Alastair Ager Alastair Ager is the Director of the Institute for International Health & Development at QMU, Edinburgh and Professor of Population & Family Health at the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University. He has worked in the field of international development – with a focus on refugees and internally displaced communities - for twenty-five years, after originally training in psychology at the universities of Keele, Wales and Birmingham in the UK. He has wide international experience across sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia, Europe and North America, having worked as a consultant for agencies including UNICEF, UNHCR, Save the Children, World Vision, Oxfam and Child Fund International. He is author of over one hundred scholarly publications, including papers in the Journal of Refugee Studies and the Journal of Migration, Health and Social Care, the edited volume Refugees: Perspectives on the Experience of Forced Migration (Continuum) and, with Joey Ager, the forthcoming Faith, Secularism and Humanitarian Engagement (Palgrave). He has published widely on the well-being of humanitarian workers, including a longitudinal study of the adjustment of expatriate workers, studies of national staff in Uganda. Sri Lanka and Jordan, and a recent analysis of the narratives of workers deployed with MSF.


Nilawaty Bahar Nilawaty Bahar is the HR Director of Aga Khan Foundation Afghanistan. She has more than 14 years experience in strategic HR functions in Sudan, Nepal, and Indonesia with International NGOs, the UN, and the private sector.
Anne Willem Bijleveld Anne Willem Bijleveld is currently the chairman of the Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation and occupies the chair of the Refugee Education Trust. He has over thirty five years of humanitarian experience, including 31 years with UNHCR in Central Europe, South East Asia, Pakistan and Africa. Before his retirement in March 2006, Mr Bijleveld was the Director of the Division of External Relations since January 2002, after having served almost four years as Director of the Bureau for Europe.
Christoph Hensch Christoph Hensch has a diverse background in humanitarian aid work and management as well as governance experience in the NGO and not-for-profit sector. Since 2014 he is Delegate HR Partner with the Australian Red Cross. He was the Executive Director of the Mandala Foundation, an NGO providing psychological support services to NGOs in the humanitarian aid and international development sector. He has worked for many years with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in a number of countries, including Afghanistan, Cambodia, Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Russia (Chechnya) and Iran, and with Oxfam in Central America. In 2007, Christoph was awarded the Henri Dunant Medal, the highest distinction of the Red Cross movement worldwide, recognising his "outstanding service and acts of great devotion" in his humanitarian work.
Brendan McDonald Brendan McDonald has been in the aid sector since 1999 and currently works at the United Nation’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Geneva as Chief of the Resource Mobilization Support Section. Brenda joined OCHA in 2001 and has held a variety of postings, including: North Korea, Libya, Sri Lanka, Jordan, Iraq and Headquarters. Before joining OCHA Brendan worked for Children's Aid Direct and CARE International.
Alessandra Pigni Alessandra Pigni is currently Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses aid workers' welfare, with a particular interest in burnout, organisational health and aid work as "meaningful work". She served as a clinical psychologist with Médecins Sans Frontières in Nablus, Palestine and in post earthquake Sichuan, China (2008-2009), and as a consultant and staff care mentor with the Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation and local NGOs in Palestine (2011-2014). Since 2011 she has been running the blog www.mindfulnext.org to support aid workers and advocate for humanity as a pre-requisite for better staff care in humanitarian organisations.
Zehra Rizvi Zehra Rizvi is a livelihoods, cash transfers, response and recovery expert currently working with Avenir Analytics. She has responded to some of the major on set crises of the past 10 years such as the Asian Tsunami, Haiti Earthquake, Pakistan Floods, and the Syrian Refugee Crisis. Zehra is a certified health and lifestyle coach and the co-founder of the blog Women in Aid.
Winnifred Simon Winnifred Simon is Director of the Antares Foundation, a non-profit organization based in the Netherlands working across all ranges and aspects of staff care and psychosocial support for humanitarian and developmental organizations worldwide. She is currently coordinating various international working groups on research, methods and techniques, and minimum standards of psychosocial care for humanitarian staff. Dr. Simon has extensive working experience within humanitarian organizations, both in the field and at headquarters level.

Event host

Angharad Laing Angharad Laing Executive Director, International Association of Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP)

Recommended resources by participants

The below is a list of resources that were mentioned by participants in the discussion on 30 July. This list is in no way meant to be comprehensive, but rather facilitate access to the peer-to-peer recommendations made in this event

General resources

Studies on stress among humanitarian workers

  • Article: Lopes Cardoso et al (2012), “Psychological Distress, Depression, Anxiety, and Burnout among International Humanitarian Aid Workers: A Longitudinal Study”, PLOS ONE, Vol. 7, Iss. 9 http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0044948
  • Article: Ager et al (2012), “Stress, mental health, and burnout in national humanitarian aid workers in Gulu, northern Uganda“, Journal of Traumatic Stress, Vol. 25, Iss. 6  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23225036
  • Master thesis: Gould (2012), Does Utilizing Immediate Crisis Intervention Tools Post Critical Incident Mitigate Short-Term Distress and or Long-Term Negative Psychological Impact on Responders in Complex Emergencies?, Master Thesis for Master of Arts in Humanitarian Assistance at the Feinstein International Center


Sexual harassment

Work-life balance

Yoga and meditation for humanitarian workers


Recording (YouTube - faster loading time)

Recording (Adobe Connect - higher quality)

Recording (downloadable audio podcast)

Event report

Event supported by

This World Humanitarian Summit consultation event is made possible with the support of the Federal Foreign Office of Germany