We can be heroes, forever and ever

During these past months, I have explored the issue of representation and communicating development through my blog posts. I have touched on different nuances and issues of communicating aid and development work: volunteerism, geographic mishaps, ‘heroification’ of development workers, NGOs’ fundraising videos, and gender representation in power.

In these posts, I wanted to showcase how varied the issue can be, and how many different topics can be addressed when talking about representation, from the oversaturated literature on white saviourism, to the newsletter with an unlucky picture of three white males advertising a talk on ‘women and power’.

What sets these assignments from the rest of this masters, is that for the first time I felt free to be able to draw upon personal and professional experience to enrich my entries: little did I know, it was possibly even more challenging than reading difficult-to-digest tomes previously offered by the course, as I had to sit down and really pour my thoughts, observations, and feelings on to a blog post. And, as I am quite an opinionated person (not always appreciated by people around me, nor by myself, for the matter) I never thought it could be this confronting.

Once I had poured myself out, I realised it was too close to home, and I was scared that I was sabotaging my own professional career: but when I read the literature – late at night, exhausted from a long day at work – my brain just could not allow me to dissociate what I was reading from my own personal experience: it was almost impossible for me to separate the two. The blogging aspect of this module shattered the semblance of estrangement that academic essays had offered me in this past year; that said, I still devoured the literature with famished curiosity to be able to constantly improve myself and challenge professional frameworks that are imposed and self-imposed.

The binomial nature of representation – how others get represented and how we represent ourselves, or how we, as development workers, get represented in return, is something that I will never get tired of analysing and challenging, and for my last post, I would like to linger my attention on how development workers are represented and represent themselves, and in the specific, on the difficult description of the development worker per se.

From the literature provided, something that really spoke to me was Dying for humanitarian ideas: Using images and statistics to manufacture humanitarian martyrdom. It particularly appealed to me because, as I was reading, two things happened in my life: Covid-19, and a colleague leaving the organisation I work for. Even though these events sound completely unrelated (not only to each other, but also to the literature), I saw them as living examples of what Neuman explores in his essay. Neuman states that there are two problems when adopting the hero narrative in aid and development work: the first, is that by defining them as heroes, we separate them from the rest of humanity. And the second is that by doing so, danger and sacrifice become an occupational hazard.

As all of our lives have been shook by the pandemic one way of the other, I was in constant contact with Italian friends and family. As the rest of world is starting to deal with the coronavirus, Italy has been the first European country to be hardly hit. And as people on balconies were clapping and cheering for medical staff that relentlessly dealt with the crisis, putting their own security at risk, people were cheering doctors, nurses, and medical staff as heroes. A friend of mine, who works as a nurse in a hospital, did not react well.

She went on a rant on social media saying that it was unfair for people to exalt them as heroes, because by doing so, it is almost expected for them to die. Martyrdom is the ultimate stage of heroism, and sacrifice is not only anticipated, but wonted. She stressed how this was her job, and as such, she was free to leave at any time, should she think she could not handle it anymore. Her words were met with discontent, as she was fighting the longing picture of the hero that was there to save lives, independently on the high price she, and other medical staff, had to pay.

Exhausted Italian nurse falls asleep during her shift

When my colleague, who has been working for my same organisation for 5 years, announced she wanted to leave, we all met her with understanding: she is a pillar of the NGO, but the job had slowly burned her out. Her job, in the eyes of many, is hero-like, as she relentlessly spent years documenting war crimes and crimes against humanity and reading horrifying testimonies, interviewing victims all over the country in question, subjecting herself to tales that belong in nightmares.  The organisation works in symbiosis with another NGO who is located in the country where the victims are from. All of the staff of our sister organisation are victims of said wars and have made their lives’ purpose finding evidence to pursue perpetrators that have not been held accountable yet. When my colleague announced her departure to them, she was not met by the same warmth she got from us. Our West African colleagues felt betrayed, as for them this is not just a job: this is a pursuit, a quest to find who had hurt them and their loved ones. They cannot just leave, this is their lives, as they have compromised their names associating themselves to a cause that is often taboo, and still very dangerous.

Both episodes, despite being wildly different, appeared to me as the two faces of the same coin regarding the occupational hazard that Neuman was describing: on the one hand, the right of the nurse to not wanting to sacrifice her safety, and reminding people that it is just her job, and that people should not call her a hero; on the other hand, my colleague who decided to leave her job for legitimate mental health reasons, shattered the trust of colleagues on the ground who have dedicated their life to the pursuit of justice. Even though the nurse in question is not strictly development work as we picture it (let’s say, in a ‘dangerous country’), the fact that they are facing a huge crisis, made me relate Neuman’s words on Médecins Sans Frontières to her job – despite the fact that in his essay, the author discusses how in the 80s, activists from MSF self-designed themselves as heroes, which is not the case here.

Amoz Hor, in his Searching for Redemption: Distancing Narratives in the Everyday Emotional Lives of Aid Workers (2017) discusses reasonings and feelings of aid workers. He talks about ‘narratives of blame’, as in, who is to be culpable for the wrongdoings aid and development workers have to face: sure enough, there cannot be any hero without a villain.

Through the words of aid workers and volunteers that Hor interviewed for his paper, it is clear that each category in the development area despises the other and blames it for the shortcomings and mistakes of the field. The officer blames the volunteer for the ‘hug tourism’, the volunteer blames the officer for lacking the nitty-gritty experience, the NGO blames the bureaucrat for the over administration, the bureaucrat blames the NGO for over flashiness.. and so forth. I myself have been guilty of this, and as my previous post have shown, I have spent a few words on the light heartedness of volunteers.

Not all heroes wear capes: some do development work

But why do we do it? Why do we always feel the need to put people in categories, the heroes and the villains? Why are we not able to accept that people are complicated creatures, and their behaviour goes beyond than just ‘good’ and ‘bad’? And why is this so prevalent in the development and aid field?

To expand on Neuman’s points, one can also add that this rhetoric of needing to categorise also incurs in another issue: simplification.

In the example I have made about the nurse, for people that praise doctors the villain is quite clearly covid-19. This derails the attention from the severe cuts the Italian health care system, despite the cries of trade unions and medical staff, has experienced in the past decades. When she used social media to pour out her feelings, she was met with hostility, as she was fighting the urge for people to have a hero in a time of confusion and fear.

Regarding my colleague, she switched in a blink of an eye from hero to villain, as she abandoned the cause because of burn out, and as she attempted to put her mental health first, she experienced an incredible sense of guilt. By asserting that for her it was just a job, it would be simply reductive – not wrong, but just very diminishing to the years spent dedicating her life in assisting victims getting justice. On the other hand, it is understandable how colleagues who risk their lives every day and cannot just leave could see it as a betrayal.

Leaving my examples behind, I would like to go back to the first issue that Neuman describes, when calling aid workers heroes: the fact that they become, by the very meaning of the word, better than anyone else. If you are a hero, you are more worthy, and you cannot do any wrong. And for aid workers who are in constant contact with vulnerable populations, this is probably one of the biggest downfalls of this hero business, because the world will be deaf to any wrongdoings, to any crimes, and it will be shocked when forced to deal with them.

In 2018, Ronald van Hauwermeiren, country director for Oxfam in Haiti, and his staff were accused of sexual misconduct. The horrifying story of abuse of power was unfortunately not limited just to his work in Haiti, but also in Bangladesh, and Liberia – van Hauwermeiren was just an example of aid workers that were offering money to young boys and girls in dire situations in exchange for sexual favours, which in this circumstances can only be called rape.

Heading of an article by Naomi Tulay-Solanke, Liberian activist


As the world was trying to cope with the news that heroes were actually the villains, people that have lived and grew up in countries with aid workers, such as Naomi Tulay-Solanke, Liberian activist, denounced that actually, that was not news: this was the reality most people experienced – and not just at the hands of van Hauwermeiren: “They would wave a dollar at us, saying they would give it to us if we had sex with them. Sometimes they even brought food to the campus. Some of us were there on scholarships and a dollar was a lot of money. Imagine people in a vulnerable community having to make that decision?” Tulay-Solanke stated. And whilst UN peacekeepers are often on the headlines because of sexual misconduct, aid and development workers’ shiny armours still gleam. This not only affects local populations, but also younger male and female aid workers who, abroad and forced to stay with their peers, experienced sexual assault from their seniors.

As we have seen, defining aid and development workers as heroes can be quite problematic, and for different and sometimes opposite reasons: it can make the individuals in question feel forced to sacrifice themselves, trapped into their role, or it can cover mud with a golden patina. This is not to say that all aid and development workers are villains, hiding behind their title and their job that just goes arm in arm with the definition of hero: it just says, that like any other profession which is in constant contact (and in service of, really) vulnerable people, it should constantly be monitored in order to assure the health and safety of both aiders and who is being assisted.

People everywhere in the world, and throughout centuries, have always sought for heroes. Heroes are examples to follow, they lead us in life and throughout dark times. They are who we want to be like, who we want to emulate: it is our nature (and, according to this article, it is written in our genes if we even are a hero). So what is the right answer? Is it fair to call humanitarian workers heroes – despite the twists and turns this appellation triggers, when analysed in depth?

In my opinion, calling people heroes or villains denies the very beauty and surprise of human spirit: because bravery and heroism can be found in the most twisted of souls, and the greatest people are capable of malevolent acts. It is, after all, what makes us complex and unpredictable creatures – and this includes any profession we might undertake during our life time, including humanitarian work.



Hor, A. (2017) Searching for Redemption: Distancing Narratives in the Everyday Emotional Lives of Aid Workers 

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

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