Support Network for Relief Workers Returning From Zones of Conflict
by Humanitarian Practice Network March 1994

NGO and UN agency personnel are increasingly being called upon to work in conflict zones where they may witness severe human rights abuses and war injuries; have to live and work under conditions of constant insecurity; and cope with the frustration of not being able to achieve what they feel they should be achieving.

Though statistics on the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder and ‘burnout’ among relief workers are not maintained by relief agencies it would seem that the number of such cases is increasing rapidly.

Many agencies have not equipped themselves to deal with such conditions among their personnel. Consequently, there is little awareness of the symptoms, and personnel suffering in this way may attempt to minimise or suppress the condition for fear of appearing ‘weak’ or jeopardising their continued employment.

The conditions of contract within many NGOs are not generous in relation to long term conditions which impair the productivity of their personnel.

Often, the individuals concerned may opt to leave the agency and return home where they continue to suffer the condition in private, isolated from their former colleagues and friends within the agency and geographically distant from others experiencing similar conditions.

On a pilot basis a cooperative support network for NGO personnel working in, or returning from, zones of conflict is being established simultaneously in the Netherlands and the UK with support from NOVIB and Oxfam. The Rainbow Network as it is called is currently developing and testing appropriate mechanisms and forms of support for agencies and their personnel in addressing the conditions of post-traumatic stress disorder and ‘burnout’. Among the approaches being considered are:

  1. Programmes of rest and recuperation either within the region or in the country of origin of the affected individuals;
  2. The provision of appropriate counselling;
  3. The provision of training in stress management and personal ‘coping strategy’;
  4. The provision of advice to agencies on the preparation and training of personnel before taking-up posts in zones of con-flict and appropriate forms of support during and after their posting;
  5. The possibility of loaning computers and modems to returning personnel to enable them to communicate with others in the Network, to share their problems with a sympathetic, but geographically distant, group and to reduce their sense of isolation. 

Where appropriate these programmes will offer a confidential service to those individuals choosing not to inform their employer of their condition or that they are seeking help in addressing it.

The initiative is still in an early stage of development and it is not clear how it will develop over the coming months. Nevertheless, those interested in learning more about it should contact:

Daryl Barker
Coordinator
Rainbow Network
Hondstong 26 1964 LH Heemskerk
The Netherlands
Tel/fax: 31 2510 43007