Aid Worker Heroes?

“A self-representation is precisely a representation. It shows a certain aspect of ourselves, a certain way of seeing ourselves. A representation does not and never can share everything.” – Rettberg

As I wrote in my last posting, it is no secret that celebrity or “heroes” are created as supporters for humanitarian work in order to increase advocacy and appeal. This week I want to approach information and communication technology, social media and its connection to humanitarian work from a different perspective, with a focus on aid workers themselves and how they are perceived both from the outside and how they themselves prefer to be portrayed.

Perceptions of Aid workers

I have been working for various non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) in different countries for over ten years now. I also left home after university for my first posting in Africa but usually make it back at least once or twice a year. When I am there sometimes those I grew up with, neighbors or friends, will ask me what it is that I do. It might be a little bit more complicated to explain than being a nurse or a teacher or other more easily recognizable careers, but at the end of the day I still feel like the job that I do now is still just basically that, a job.

This is why I am always a little bit surprised or uncomfortable really when I often will get remarks like “Wow that sounds very noble of you” or “that is amazing, I could never do what it is that you do.” At the end I also do think that the majority of the aid and development workers that I meet and work together with are attracted more to the sense of adventure, mixed with travel and exposure to different cultures than out of a pure sense of devotion. The martyrdom connected to a direction by divinity was always more the range of the missionary types (and those types also still exist as well).

Dying for Humanitarian Ideas

MSF is one organization that has explored this question from this slightly different angle as well. In the article entitled, Dying for humanitarian ideas: using images and statistics to manufacture humanitarian martyrdom, the author, Michal Numen traces the evolution of MSF as an organization beginning in the 1970s to the present. Tracing this evolution also portrays the more general evolution of the aid industry from its initial “cowboy days” to becoming more established, a whole lot bigger, and also a sector that has integrated and adapted to the Web 2.0 and the new role that social media is playing in aid work.

MSF Aid Worker in Africa

MSF’s initial founders, including Bernard Kouchner, saw themselves as adventurers. In a book of interviews with the Abbé Pierre, published in 1991, Kouchner has no trouble assuming this personal quest, with a mixture of snobbery and frivolity. Humanitarian assistance became a byword, the rallying cry of a young generation eager for discovery: “Let’s offer adventure to the world’s youth, and elegance. There is an aesthetic dimension to humanitarian assistance – a certain panache!”

And before there were aid workers there were missionaries who played a similar role.

Again the reasons for engaging in humanitarian work are probably as different as each humanitarian worker in the field. Each has their own personal reasons for engaging, just as every other person who makes any career choice has their reasons.

The Mirror and the Veil

I believe that social media has helped to contribute to and perpetuate further many of the concepts connected to the portrayal of humanitarian aid workers as heros. It is perpetuated by postings and images that are shared by the organizations that we all work for in their marketing campaigns and their competition. It is also perpetuated by aid workers posting their own images onto social media websites, blogging about their experiences and incorporating a bit of the sense of adventure and multi-culturalism into these mediums.

Viviane Serfaty, quoted by Rettberg, “titled her 2004 book on personal blogs The Mirror and the Veil, arguing that bloggers use their blogs both as mirrors to reflect themselves and see themselves better, and as veils to hide behind.

Self-representations are rarely about trying to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth about ourselves. They are as much about constructing a truth or many truths about who we are and could be.” And when it comes to humanitarian aid workers, the construct and the portrayal of the “hero” images also plays much more into this mythical concept than into the actual reality on the ground.

Even though this phenomenon has expanded in the age of the web 2.0 and social media it is not unique to aid workers either, and is more reflective of general society trends. As Rettberg so adeptly illustrates as well, the concepts of self-promotion and self-idealization existed long before the proliferation of smart phone and selfies.


Perhaps the danger only lies, as illustrated in the MSF paper when the humanitarian workers themselves begin to feel a little bit too invincible. Decisions to engage in risky and risk taking behaviors become mainstreamed and then the workers themselves expose themselves to a greater level of danger than is either necessary or expedient.

Aid organizations themselves are beginning to take greater responsibility for the protection and security of their staff in the field but there is still room for improvements both in the attitude and approach to security. A downplaying in both the hero and the martyrdom narrative would help, along with a questioning of if regular humanitarian workers should also be portrayed as “heroes” either in mainstream or in social media sources.

To what extent do aid workers perpetuate and endorse this status internally, and to what extent is it an unfounded perception only viewed through a skewed outside lens? Perhaps in the end it is a combination of both.

I am inclined to agree with Neuman that the perpetuation of the hero myth when it comes to humanitarian aid workers is not necessarily always harmful except for when although we would all prefer to die a hero rather than a victim, the heroising of aid can also lead us to believe that death is an integral part of the system or an occupational hazard. And this is where the real danger lies: setting sacrifice up as a virtue within a sector that has made “humanity” one of its cardinal principles.”



Neuman, Michael. Dying for humanitarian ideas: Using images and statistics to manufacture humanitarian martyrdom. 2017

Rettberg, Jill Walker. Self Representation in Social Media. SAGE Handbook of Social Media edited by Jean Burgess, Alice Marwick and Thomas Poell. Sage, forthcoming (2017).


Image Credits:

Humanitarian Heroes – Save the Children

Live Your Dreams – Texture Painting by Mergo

MSF Promotional Webpage

Wejdan Jarrah – UN Foundation Blog

We can be heroes – Superman Edition – DC Comics


  1. Santino

    This was a very interesting post Melissa, and very revealing about what it entails to be a humanitarian aid worker. I think the philanthropic bit and the image of the selfless, loving and devoted human who sets out to confront adversity and stand by the suffering , giving a helping hand is the image of the humanitarian organisation, not the employee. This image has been magnified so much that it is difficult for many who view aid workers, to view it as just a job/career, like any , as you put it.
    The reason could be that most people outside the humanitarian field of work find it hard to separate the image of the organisations and that of the individual employees in humanitarian aid work. It is easy to see the image that the organisation sells to the public as the image of those working for the organisation. That is what I think anyway.

  2. Irene

    Hi Melissa,
    I agree with Santino, you made very interesting points indeed. From my personal experience working with NGOs, I’ve also asked my self why this self-idealisation is so frequent. Whether it comes from a personal use of social media by the aid workers or a communication strategy from the organisations, it is true that very often we see this “hero portrayal”. I agree with you when you say that this self-promotion or self-idealisation is probably the result of both, how sometimes aid workers perceive and portray themselves and how they are seen from the outside. However, what also worries me is what this self-representation says about all the many other actors taking action and contributing to humanitarian work that aren’t represented there. If the aid workers are the heroes, then what are other local actors?.
    I guess this also makes us think how aid workers or organisations communicate about their work and where the focus is. I think one of the main problems is that by this idealistic self-representation we are not describing the whole picture of humanitarian work, and we are invisibilizing other contributions and agencies.

    I think we’ve all seen in some organisations a shift in humanitarian communication but indeed we, as individuals, are also responsible for our personal use of social media, especially when it can strengthen and perpetuate stereotypes.

    Thanks for a very thoughtful blog post 🙂

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