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Emergency relief workers: what skills do you need to be effective?

Summary of published paper1

A recent study investigated the types of skills most valued by relief workers in order to achieve their goals. Using the Critical Incident Technique (CIT2), a sample of fifteen nurses returning from work in refugee camps were interviewed.


Participants had engaged in emergency relief work within the past three months to five years. All were women with a mean age of 39 years. The study was undertaken with the co-operation of an umbrella organisation for returned development workers in Ireland which forwarded a letter to the addresses of a randomised quota sample of 100 people on their database. One limitation of the study was that participants were self-selected. Willingness to take part in the research may therefore reflect some bias in terms of cultural values, personal experiences, selfperception, recall of events, age and gender.

The first stage of identifying Critical Incidents is to define personal work objectives of the interviewee. Interviewees were then asked to describe one positive and negative incident which had an impact on them. In a more detailed interview, the question was then asked 'taking this incident as an example of the sort of work your job requires what would you say are the main abilities or characteristics that somebody should have in order to perform well in the job?'

Two examples of incidents are included in Boxes I and II.

The broad categories of 'necessary' skills identified by the interviewees were as follows:

The authors concluded that the job related skills identified were mainly to do with how things get done rather than with what is done, i.e. they reflect a concern with process skills rather than technical skills. The four specific skills that achieved the highest endorsement were: sense of humour, sensitivity to the values of other cultures, patience, and diplomacy/tactfulness. Few professional training or pre-departure courses can claim to provide a grounding in these skills.

Openness to learning, being able to ask for advice, willingness to negotiate, adaptability, flexibility, initiative, tolerance and resourcefulness were all cited as important ways of working. These all reflect a fluid approach to working as opposed to relying solely on more crystallised technical skills. Such skills are likely to promote tolerance of ambiguity. Given the confused, hectic and often unstructured nature of much relief work, tolerance in both social and work relationships are very important for an individual's work performance and well being.

In conclusion, this research represents the first attempt to assess job skills in emergency relief work and has identified skills, behaviour and attitudes that proved critical to the achievement of objectives towards which people worked. The critical incidents identified as part of this study could serve as a basis for role playing in training course and in the recruitment process for agencies. Critical incident analysis can provide a mechanism for returned aid workers to integrate real experiences into the training of others.


Box I: Negative incident

One nurse was engaged in assessing the feeding and basic medical requirements of refugees. Approximately 3000 people per week would pass through the feeding centre. A six-month old infant had been identified as being in urgent need of nutritional assistance and was provided with a gastro-nasal feeding tube. The mother subsequently removed the feeding tube and the infant died. It emerged that the mother had decided that available resources would best be given to her other children who had, in her opinion, a more realistic chance of surviving. The interviewee was shocked and distressed at first but eventually came to terms with what happened as best she could.

The principal skills identified here included the ability to respect the dignity, customs and traditions of others and to recognise the limits of the job. Other skills identified were related to coping on a personal level. These included being able to express one's emotions, developing good interpersonal relationships with colleagues and being able to 'nourish' oneself after a day's work without feeling guilty.


Box II: Positive incident

A satellite telephone dish was stolen from outside the residence of a donor organisation. An investigation was carried out by the local assistant co-ordinator of the project, who attributed blame to the 'opposing' tribe. This individual directed that the wages of the indigenous workers would be cut by 25% to pay for the cost of the new dish. The interviewee felt very strongly that this was an unjust course of action and found that other expatriates who agreed were disinclined to challenge this unilateral decision of the assistant co-ordinator. The indigenous workers organised a protest and the decision to cut the wages was rescinded. Instead a reward was offered for the return of the dish. The dish was returned a week later. It seems that the item had not been stolen by a member of the 'accused' tribe. A considerable amount of damage was done to the relationship between the indigenous and expatriate workers due to the way in which the matter was handled.

Show footnotes

1Critical Incidents in Emergency Relief Work: McKay.M and MacLachlan.M (2000). Development in Practice, Vol 10, No 5, November 2000.

2The CIT is a technique for collecting information on incidents that the respondent feels have been critical to his or her experience of the job.

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Reference this page

Emergency relief workers: what skills do you need to be effective?. Field Exchange 13, August 2001. p6.



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