The New Humanitarian welcomes new CEO Ebele Okobi.

Find out more.
  1. Home
  2. Middle East and North Africa
  3. Turkey

Making room for aid workers’ own grief in the Türkiye-Syria quake response

‘Where is the boundary between our accountability to affected people and the duty of care GOAL and other aid agencies have to staff when humanitarian workers are themselves collectively affected?’

A graphic image showing out-stretched palms overlayed on an image of rubble from the Türkiye-Syria earthquakes in 2023. Sofía Kuan/TNH and Lisa Hastert/European Union

At GOAL, emergency preparedness has always been a pillar of our humanitarian programme. Understanding the volatility of the places we work, we know the unexpected will always happen but try to remain confident that come what may, we will be able to operate as needed.

Yet it was clear in the early morning of the 6th of February – after two extremely powerful, consecutive earthquakes shook the ground below southern Türkiye and northwest Syria – that no member of our management team, many of us with life-long careers in the humanitarian sector, was truly prepared to process the news that tens of our colleagues were trapped under the wreckage of their collapsed homes, or that hundreds more were left without shelter. No number of trainings or simulations could have prepared us. 

In a matter of moments, not only was Antakya, whose once-lively centre was home to GOAL’s Syria response office in Türkiye, where most of our Türkiye-based staff live and work, was flattened, but a large part of Idlib, in northwest Syria, where most of our field staff live and work, was also heavily damaged.

It would be an understatement to say that the earthquakes tore apart our hearts. Each day brought news of more staff losses in Idlib and Antakya. Our own mourning was postponed as we continued to search for missing colleagues and simultaneously respond to local residents.

By the end of the second week, it became clear that the earthquakes had claimed the lives of 31 of our beloved colleagues in Syria and Türkiye. Among the fallen were experienced programme managers who led GOAL’s emergency cash programmes; diligent engineers responsible for the timely delivery of clean water; tireless specialists in logistics, information management, and participant selection who ensure that we reach the most vulnerable communities as effectively as possible; and dedicated drivers who transported our staff to project locations.

Everyone we talked to, staff members and programme participants, had lost family and friends.

 

“It would be an understatement to say that the earthquakes tore apart our hearts.”

 

Now, nearly two months since the quakes, we are still trying to answer a question we’ve been asking ourselves continuously: Where is the boundary between our accountability to affected people and the duty of care GOAL and other aid agencies have to staff when humanitarian workers are themselves collectively affected? We are all seeking a space to overcome shock, to grieve our losses, express our anger, and, in many cases, to ensure the safety and protection of loved ones, while at the same time doing our jobs of attending to the needs of the impacted communities. 

Incorporating space for mourning and recovery within an aid organisation’s policies and procedures may require a fundamental rethink of the humanitarian architecture. The meaning of “accountability to affected people” and “duty of care”, two main pillars of this architecture, may shift significantly when disasters strike communities already delivering assistance in response to an ongoing crisis. 

Balancing ‘stay and deliver’ with ‘duty of care’ 

Over the years, aid organisations have made progress addressing the needs of people affected by trauma, but when it comes to supporting aid workers in their own time of need, the aid system is less advanced. 

Humanitarians often speak of being bound by a responsibility to be accountable to the people they are meant to assist. This fundamental tenet of our work imparts on us an obligation to “stay and deliver” during the worst of times. Yet humanitarian organisations’ capacity to respond to crises hinges upon our ability to quickly identify affected people, assess their needs, and provide support rapidly. To do this, humanitarian workers, also members of the impacted communities, must be able to do their jobs.

Humanitarian workers’ needs in crises are addressed through another frequently cited ethical principle, known colloquially as the “duty of care”. As an agency that has for a decade delivered assistance in the active conflict zone of northwest Syria, GOAL’s duty of care policy covers a range of eventualities. The support we provide staff and their families through adversity includes death benefits, medical insurance and psychosocial assistance, emergency payments, and leave time.

 

“Aid organisations have made progress addressing the needs of people affected by trauma, but when it comes to supporting aid workers in their own time of need, the aid system is less advanced.”

 

Yet humanitarian agencies like ours often face tensions trying to simultaneously uphold these two core tenets, as the unforeseen impact of the earthquakes so clearly demonstrated to us. We operate in fragile contexts, where we are often the only party that can holistically address needs, and we are frequently expected to both “stay and deliver” when a new disaster strikes and to have the capacity to lead emergency response work even as we are greatly impacted ourselves. In such cases, standard duty of care policies may fail to acknowledge the nature and extent of support that is required for us to scale up or even continue our operations.

Supporting the power of flexible, locally led aid 

GOAL is very fortunate to have a local workforce of dedicated humanitarians in Syria and Türkiye, with over 900 staff implementing our programmes on the ground in Idlib and northern Aleppo and more than 100 staff supporting them for our offices in Türkiye. Our programming approach gives equal weight to delivering life-saving aid — such as cash-based and in-kind food security support — in a dignified way and to providing life-sustaining assistance, including supporting the availability and accessibility of clean piped water and affordable bread.

The challenges we encountered while preparing to respond to the impact of last month’s earthquakes in northwest Syria and southern Türkiye have highlighted both the empowering elements in this local approach to delivering aid and a need to support it with greater flexibility.

Emergencies bring out the core dynamics of humanitarianism, heightening our attention to human vulnerability and our will to help others. But for humanitarian agencies to be able respond to unforeseen disasters in communities where they already work, especially in fragile contexts marked by local resource constraints, a level of flexibility in funding and programme design that is currently inaccessible in our sector is required. 

To continue providing immediate relief in communities that our staff themselves are part of, we need the flexibility to invest in things like task shifting programmes, establishing a reserve local workforce who can provide support in times of distress, and ensuring that the needs of affected colleagues can be met immediately.

When asked what their needs were after the earthquakes and how GOAL could support staff and affected communities, colleagues overwhelmingly answered in the same way: Couple empathy towards affected staff, with involving them in the emergency response. “I am ready to work” was a frequently shared refrain. 

No amount of disaster preparedness can ensure readiness against a tragedy as deep as that caused by the Türkiye-Syria earthquakes. Yet by recognising the value of community-based aid work more frequently and investing more flexibly in networks of localised assistance provision, we can better support the humanitarian impulse of voluntarily acting on empathy through both ongoing and unforeseen crises.

This project was funded by the H2H Network’s H2H Fund, which is supported by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) and the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

Edited by Jessica Alexander. 

Read more about...

Share this article

Get the day’s top headlines in your inbox every morning

Starting at just $5 a month, you can become a member of The New Humanitarian and receive our premium newsletter, DAWNS Digest.

DAWNS Digest has been the trusted essential morning read for global aid and foreign policy professionals for more than 10 years.

Government, media, global governance organisations, NGOs, academics, and more subscribe to DAWNS to receive the day’s top global headlines of news and analysis in their inboxes every weekday morning.

It’s the perfect way to start your day.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian today and you’ll automatically be subscribed to DAWNS Digest – free of charge.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.

Join