Being an aid worker can be difficult and dangerous. It might involve working away from home, sometimes in a dangerous or hostile environment. Aid workers frequently have to make hard decisions in challenging situations.


But the work can also be rewarding. Aid workers know that they can make a real difference in the communities where they work.


Aid workers come from a wide range of backgrounds. Some are international staff who travel the world with large multinational organisations. But the majority are national staff working in their own countries.


Hear from three aid workers about what motivates them to do this work – and what keeps them going in the most difficult times. 


Discover more powerful personal stories in Aid Workers: Ethics Under Fire, a new exhibition opening at IWM North on 2 October. 


Noor Nawaz

Noor is the Area Programme Manager for Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in the central region of Afghanistan. NRC’s programmes for refugees and internally displaced people provide support ranging from shelter to legal advice and education. 


Afghanistan has been experiencing conflict and instability for more than 40 years. Noor was a child refugee himself when his family had to flee Afghanistan in the early 1990s, an experience that made him determined to help others in the same situation. 


“I only had the opportunity to go to refugee school and get my education. That specific background of mine is always giving me motivation to be a humanitarian and I started work with NRC, having in mind the different situations we had back in Pakistan as refugees, having no access to health services, quality education, shelter and things like that and that is why I was always motivated to work as a humanitarian and to work for NRC and to be able to contribute to the bigger cause and to be able to deliver the services to the children like myself who suffered from being displaced or refugees.”


He says that it is difficult to see the hardships that refugees and displaced people in Afghanistan face and not to be able to help everyone. But regularly visiting NRC’s projects keeps him motivated and to see people benefitting from the services his organisation provides is the “best moment”. 

Dr Natalie Roberts

Natalie Roberts has worked as a doctor in conflicts and emergency situations in countries including the Central African Republic (CAR), Pakistan, Ethiopia, Yemen and Syria. She is now based in Paris as an emergency operations manager with Médecins Sans Frontières, where she manages teams responding to emergencies around the world.


For Natalie, it has often been her relationships with patients and national colleagues in the countries where she has worked that have helped to keep her motivated and positive by reminding her of what they have managed to achieve. 


"The times when you are there at the right time, and you get something done, is the point where you just think, 'This is why I’m doing this.' It motivates you to keep coming back. It’s a bit addictive, it’s a little bit like a drug... It’s not very humanitarian to go, 'Well I’m there because I feel proud of myself.' There are times when you feel proud of yourself, I think that’s the reason you carry on doing it.” 

(© Save the Children )

Gareth Owen

Gareth Owen says he ‘fell into the humanitarian world’ after seeing a job advert in a newspaper looking for someone with his background in engineering. Almost thirty years on, he is still working in the sector and is now Humanitarian Director for Save the Children UK.  


Gareth has worked in countries including Somalia, Angola, Uganda, Kosovo, India, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Syria, each location bringing its own unique set of challenges.  He believes that despite the difficulties that aid workers face, especially in counties enduring protracted conflicts, “relentless stubborn hopefulness keeps you going”.


“Somewhere in you is your resolve. Somewhere in you is your own sense of courage, and courage is about overcoming fear and doubt.


“I say to my staff, “On your worst day - on your worst day - think about the people in front of you. The people who have had to flee countries, who have had to endure all manner of hardship. You’re never having as bad a day as they’ve had. So, you’ve no right to give up on their behalf, and you just keep going.”


Lebanon, Baalbek district, Arsal refugee camp. Aid workers.
© ICRC/Hussein Baydoun Lebanon, Baalbek district, Arsal refugee camp.


Faced with practical, emotional and ethical challenges on a daily basis, how do aid workers choose who to help and decide which risks to take, and can their presence do more harm than good?

Aid Workers: Ethics Under Fire brings together powerful stories from conflict zones to explore these challenges from an insider perspective.