Aid work as moral labour
(University of Sussex)
Paper short abstract:
This paper, based on ethnographic research with international aid workers in Cambodia, considers the possibility that aid work can, at least partially, be understood as a form of 'moral labour'.
Paper long abstract:
This paper takes as its starting point the observation that even though stress and sometimes fragile wellbeing among international aid workers are anecdotally documented, there is comparatively little effort in research, policy or practice to further investigate or address this. This contrasts with attention given to care workers in the 'Global North', such as nurses, whose work-related stress is recognised and whose resilience strategies are systematically supported. While some of aid workers' stress may result from witnessing extreme violence, I suggest that a significant source is their facing everyday inequality and injustice, without necessarily being able to address them. The paper argues that the apparent reluctance to 'care for the carer' in an overseas aid context can be partially explained by understanding aid work as a form of moral labour. This would mean that 'holding the dilemma' constitutes an implicit and unwritten part of the aid worker's contract, whose discomfort does not need to be alleviated, but rather is part of, and perhaps enhances, the value of their work. Drawing on material from ethnographic research with international aid workers in Cambodia, the paper considers the contexts as well as possible implications of this understanding.
Reflections on moral sentiments within the anthropology of development