Why we do this: The psychology of humanitarian work

A key feature in humanitarian work is the importance placed upon “why” – Why do we do this work? It is no secret that the humanitarian field offers wealth to very few, but beyond salary figures, it is the nature of the work itself that warrants a deeper look.

The humanitarian, by definition, is put in close proximity to some of our greatest challenges and crises, both on the news and invisible. From extreme poverty and forced displacement, to natural disaster relief and support for victims of conflict, the humanitarian is a part of, yet apart from, these scenes.

With rising political, economic and environmental instability, a growing number of the world’s citizens are becoming increasingly dependent on international humanitarian organizations for survival. It is estimated that there are well over 200,000 paid humanitarian aid workers, along with thousands of volunteers, providing aid across the globe in the form of poverty and disaster relief operations. These people live and work in some of the most hostile and dangerous regions. And that comes at a very high cost to the aid worker’s physical and psychological well-being. (Dr. Robert Muller. “Trauma and the Humanitarian Aid Worker.” 2013)

So why do humanitarians put themselves in these positions? It is because of this question that the “why” becomes so important to understanding both the motivations of each individual, and the work of an organisation.

The section from Dr. Muller is very much the picture of the humanitarian as an individual. While Philanthropy Connections works in locations that usually could not be described as “hostile and dangerous,” the characteristics of “political, economic and environmental instability” are prominent figures in all of our projects. This brings all of us face to face with the lived challenges and traumas of people who we can’t truly understand, as we have never personally experienced their lives specifically, or their circumstances generally. Yet we become a part of their lives and circumstances, and hold a complex degree of ethical responsibility.

For the individual humanitarian, the answer to “why we do this work” is usually found in emotional language. The expressions are often to “help those in need” and “uplift people in vulnerable positions.” Interviews of humanitarian and aid workers are fairly consistent:

My goal is to reach those in need. I vowed I was going to feed the hungryTo bring back peace. I can’t see myself being in another field. (Naomi Larsson. “Why did you become a humanitarian? Aid workers share their motivations.” 2016)

This view forms the “essence of why” for the individual humanitarian and their choice to perform humanitarian work. But is this view of the essential “why” necessary? Is it necessary for the humanitarian as an individual and the humanitarian organisation (i.e. every individual) to embody these principles of “why”? Or can we say that there is more necessary, than there is essential?

I believe the latter is needed to consider the greater “why” of the modern humanitarian, because so much of what is necessary is hardly equivalent to the above words of “helping those in need.” It is here where the humanitarian organisation comes into focus. The organisation has requirements – from basic administrative tasks to ensuring our legal compliance with different countries. The image of the humanitarian as an aid worker, jumping from crisis to crisis and helping people in need on the front lines of poverty and insecurity, is being gradually replaced with an image of accountancy, graphic design, meeting rooms, powerpoint presentations, and multivariate statistics modeling. While the way we communicate has stayed the same (imagery of women, children, and health clinics), the humanitarian is increasingly tasked with making ever complex budgets, conducting M&E activities using technical, industry-standard tools, and perhaps the most difficult mental challenge of all – critically evaluating projects in need, and making decisions on what gets funding, and what doesn’t. The comparative cold gaze of evaluative objectivity runs alongside the emotional and deeply personal charge of reaching out and helping the most vulnerable people on the planet.

Complex, right? Both of these are certainly necessary. The combination of our will to help and knowledge of how to help continually improves our ability to do our work, and do it well. But as you hopefully see, combining these elements within the umbrella of “why” is quite difficult! In the end, one why won’t explain it all…

So what is the “why” that is behind our work – from the heart-wrenching, to the mundane?

We feel that if you can make a difference, then you should, so we do. In a world where global events are spinning out of our control, we choose to make a difference where we can.

From direct support to migrants and refugees in need, to setting up real income-generating opportunities for women and minorities, and filling education and learning gaps wherever we can find them — for us these problems are not a click away or halfway around the world but in our own backyard.

It is often easy to become burdened to inaction by the enormity of the challenge and the million reasons that could form the why.

Instead, we make a conscious choice to stay focused on all the good things we can achieve. We feel that every time we succeed in creating something more for those who have so little, we somehow give a counterweight to the remaining challenges of the world.

It is this vision, this “why,” that allows us to do this work. We simply believe we can make a difference.




  1. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/talking-about-trauma/201309/trauma-and-the-humanitarian-aid-worker
  2. https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/were-only-human/the-power-of-one-the-psychology-of-charity.html
  3. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2016/aug/26/world-humanitarian-day-why-became-humanitarians