In late October, I was invited to speak at a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Humanitarian Work event in Kuwait. Hosted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in collaboration with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and held at Saud Nasser Al-Sabah Diplomatic Institute, the seminar brought together a diverse panel of mental health professionals, including two of Kuwait’s leading mental health experts, an academic professor of social anthropology and clinical psychotherapist, a stress and resilience expert at the International Committee of the Red Cross, and myself.
To my knowledge, it was the first event of its kind in the Gulf States. Traumatic stress is not widely spoken of in this part of the Middle East, which is odd as the phenomenon knows no geographic or cultural boundaries. Kuwait knows this only too well having experienced war directly during the 1990 invasion by Iraq. To be a part of such an event that boldly brought together cross cutting approaches to trauma, and to share this space with such a curious and engaged audience, was nothing short of historic.
The event also brought back many memories for me of how I came to enter the humanitarian field, and why I still care to be a part of it over fourteen years later. The short version is easy – I have spent most of my life in the Gulf States; it isn’t just a place I’m stopping off at en route somewhere else, it’s my childhood home. But the full story is more complex than this. I’m not the average Gulf expatriate, as you will read if you download the full version of this blog as an op-ed here. You can also download my PowerPoint and guide to the Kuwait seminar presentation here.
Over the years, I have been a part of both non-Gulf and Gulf humanitarian conversations. I’ve also facilitated spaces where practitioners of different backgrounds meet to network and exchange thoughts and ideas. In many ways, international organisations are making efforts to engage with sincerity, however I have doubted that this is always the case with individual staff members who may come to the region with preconceived biases, or simply lack the information or connections to create their own conversations.
There is an absence of spaces for “real” conversations between humanitarian practitioners of all backgrounds and all levels of job functionality. There are logistical as well as cultural constraints in bridging these practitioners. In this space exists a number of misunderstandings that I believe hamper the potential for more fruitful collaboration. This led me to several “camels (i.e. elephants) in the room” that very few of us are talking about in mainstream Gulf humanitarian circles, except behind closed doors.
These “camels” are primarily ill-informed judgments based on and fueled by fear and I offer several of them here for you to reflect on. Please note that these are general trends highlighted for the sake of reflection and discussion; they are not intended to offend.
Camel 1: “They’re only relevant to engage with when we need money.”
Seeking funding from the region is not a problem in itself. Ask any member of the local governments and populations and many will say they feel proud to contribute in some way to the alleviation of suffering in the world. It is not that the region does not wish to contribute financially, but rather that the nature of this engagement shifts when the attitude of giving and receiving is one that excludes the potential for local humanitarian practitioners to truly collaborate with their colleagues in the recipient organisations.
Camel 2: “They don’t understand humanitarian work.”
This is a generalization that can also mean, “Islamic charitable work isn’t real humanitarian work.” I don’t have to point out that I’m walking on some extremely sensitive ground here. Because of my upbringing, I find it hard to separate the two but I do understand that administratively, there are quite a few differences. Nowhere was this clearer to me when I managed media and communications for the Qatar Red Crescent, and realized that secularizing the language of local fundraising campaigns was not my job. It was I who did not understand how it was done, not “them”.
Camel 3: “They don’t have any industry-specific technical expertise.”
In many ways, the Gulf States are on the cutting edge of commerce, trade and innovation. One of their strengths is the highly diverse workforce passing through, and the emergence of a new tech-savvy generation. Perhaps there is insufficient engagement in parallel sectors that could contribute their expertise (e.g. technology, building, medicine) but the region is still young and such collaborations have taken and are taking place, and no doubt there will be more.
Camel 4: “They aren’t cut out for long-term field work like us.”
Ouch! This one smacks of judgment so harsh that it could set your pants on fire. Beneath the surface is a notion that Gulf nationals aren’t up to the task of working long hours in complex environments for the sake of humanity. That they would rather employ other people to do this work for them. At the same time this belief is based on the assumption that the Western-centric aid model is “right”, that the only way to make a difference is to sacrifice one’s own life and relationships and, “marry” the field instead. Self-flagellation. We need to talk about that too, Camel 4 isn’t the only one in the room.
Camel 5: “They want to do things their own way.”
As an executive coach and communications specialist, I actually disagree with this one. Each country and culture has a particular way of doing things “just because” yet there is a rich and fertile ground where two or more parties can meet, and discover new ways of doing things together. This requires the facilitation of space and an attitude of curiosity and non-judgment. It’s not easy to drop the judgments and biases we all have, as it first requires that we take a good look at ourselves. And that is something that to date many of us in the mainstream sector are unwilling to do.
Claire Higgins is an Executive Coach and Communications Specialist based in Dubai. She has worked in and with the humanitarian and government sectors for over fourteen years.
More than a guest blogger, Claire was our first trusted partner, featuring Arabian Perspectives in her corporate affiliation section back in early 2016.