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(2016-7) The moral labour of aid work

By Lily Elizabeth Alice Johnson, Marvin Msweta Fidelis Masubo, Kyle Blain Schmidt, Ruby Thornton, Louise Wright

Anthropological analysis and concepts can be applicable to many situations and help to understand and provoke debate about the realities of humanitarian and development expertise. The anthropological concept of ‘moral labour’, for example, can be helpful in that it focuses on the significance of the process of doing good for humanitarian and development experts; it is not the outcome or long term goals that matter. This is drawn from Fechter’s (2016) article ‘Aid work as moral labour’. Fechter states that the use of the term ‘moral labour’ ‘aims to identify a particular manifestation of immaterial labour which constitutes a core dimension of aid workers’ experiences and practices’ (Fechter, 2016: 230). Fechter suggests that this brings attention to a part of aid workers’ experiences that is often overlooked—their moral motivations and struggles as integral to their professionalism.

Fechter (2016) shows the example of Gemma, an aid worker in Cambodia, who worked in a provincial town protecting the residents from eviction from their homes. However, private building firms commandeered the space, resulting in the residents Gemma was trying to protect being forcefully evicted. Therefore, after two years of work there was a discrepancy between what was achievable and what goals were achieved. The concept of moral labour helps us see how Gemma accommodated these discrepancies with the knowledge that these goals were not always attainable.

This example demonstrates that anthropological analysis can show how, in moments of ‘failure’ or difficulty, aid workers shift attention from long term goals to the simple good work they can do in the moment. Fechter highlights this by quoting Gemma: ‘it’s depressing when you think about it…but that’s not a reason no to do it’ (Fechter, 2016:233).

In contrast to Fechter’s article, an article on the Guardian (Guardian, 2017) showed how an aid worker in the field felt that they had lost their compassion. While they still identified with the moral value of their work, they said that they no longer felt the physical surge of pain from witnessing human suffering. This troubled them, but they also recognised that it was part of the job, and they could not have emotional breakdowns if they were to act efficiently and effectively in the field; they recognised that retrieving their compassion would probably make them less good at their job.

An anthropological understanding could help us appreciate the lived experiences of aid workers: it can help us understand how moments of ‘failure’ or fatigue impacts their sense of compassion, and how they may come to feel that sentiment is not always productive or possible in the field.

We want to ask aid workers:

Do you feel that, in your time working in the field, you have become de-sensitised? Is this beneficial or detrimental to your work and long term aims?

Is it ethical to be getting paid for ‘doing good’? If aid workers are paid, is it still ‘doing good’? Should aid workers be paid to compensate for this moral labour?


The Guardian. (2017). Secret Aid Worker: After years in the field, I’ve lost my compassion. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 March 2017].

Fechter, A-M (2016) ‘Aid work as moral labour’, Critique of Anthropology, 36(3), pp. 228–243.