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Why Should We CARE About Aid and Development?

Ashley Hoffman

Spotlight on Humanitarian Work Psychology


Why Should We CARE About Aid and Development? An Interview With Dora Ward Curry

 Ashley Hoffman

As a psychologist, I consistently find myself interested in the pursuits of other people and how and why they engage in the lives of their family, friends, and community. As a humanitarian work psychologist, I am particularly compelled to understand and engage in the work of people who go beyond themselves and work in a capacity that serves the greater good, especially in times of crisis and need. Although there are some excellent global initiatives happening currently (e.g., the Sustainable Development Goals, which I will highlight in the next issue of TIP), some of the most pressing issues are the human rights crises that continue to occur globally and, more specifically, those events occurring presently in the Syrian region. I would imagine most of us remain at least passively abreast of the continuing refugee crisis in Syria. However, from a basic social psychology perspective, it is highly likely that we will remain firmly rooted in our passive concern without active regard to the situation at hand. This is why I am pleased to introduce you to Dora Ward Curry. Dora works for CARE International, which is a coalition of organizations working toward poverty reduction in 90 countries around the world. I’ll let Dora tell you a bit more about herself, her work, and how psychologists can continue to be involved in the pursuit of responsible aid and development. 


AH: Hi Dora! Tell me a little more about yourself, your background, and how you got engaged in humanitarian aid and development work.


DC: During college I thought I wanted to be a doctor. I entered a public health program to strengthen my application to medical school.  During the first class in the global health course curriculum, Dr. Stanley Foster told a story of breaking a record number of bamboo bridgesin the quest to eradicate smallpox.  I was hooked! Since completing my master’s in public health at Emory University, I’ve provided project management and technical oversight for reproductive, maternal, and child health, and vaccine-preventable disease eradication programming in a variety of countries globally.  Over the years I’ve become drawn more and more to crisis-affected settings (conflict, acute emergency, fragile states), in part because they have come to represent a larger and larger part of the population facing acute health crises and in part because I find the complexity and challenge itself motivating.


AH:Wow! It sounds like you are working in an area, both topically and geographically, where that is so needed. Could you tell me a little more about your current position with CARE and what a typical day looks like for you?


DC: I am Senior Technical Advisor for Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning on CARE’s sexual, reproductive, and maternal health team. My main job is training and coaching our programming staff and ministry of health counterparts to gather high quality data and use it to improve program quality. In addition, I lead design and documentation of our quality improvement strategies in our reproductive health projects in difficult settings.  A typical day in the office usually includes a mix of Skype calls, often at odd hours due to time differences, to meet with field colleagues; emails; some time for literature review and writing, both articles and reports; and review of data and coordination (meetings!) with the team here, which, by the way, includes a fantastic group of interns. In the field, I generally split my time between training CARE staff and MOH counterparts, meeting with field-level stakeholders (donors, ministry partners, community leaders), and observational site visits to facilities.


AH:That sounds a great deal like work in the I-O field, particularly with your work in both evaluation and training. To shift gears a little, would you mind giving some background on the Syrian refugee crisis and how CARE is at work in the region?


DC:Just to give you a sense of how we work, [my office of] CARE is actually based in Turkey and supports Syrian partners within Syria.  Our complete profile covers health and support to agriculture (seeds, tools, and training) as well as CARE’s work in the health sector, which covers training providers in safe delivery and family planning and other basic skills. In the Syrian region (including Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Yemen), there are an estimated 12.5 million in need of some level of assistance, whether that be refugees or internally displaced folks. This is more than half of the total population of Syria, and many of these displaced people are living in areas that are currently either underserved or unserved by aid agencies. CARE is particularly concerned with vulnerable populations, specifically women and girls who are often unable to access services, as well as the aged and disabled. As such, we are working with governments and aid organizations to disperse aid to those with the most urgent need and seek to protect human dignity at every level.  


AH:  That is a great deal of people. For perspective for our U.S. readers, that is approximately the number of residents in the entire state of Illinois. Very overwhelming! How could an I-O psychologist like myself get involved and help with the crisis in a meaningful way?


DC: The psychological needs of affected populations are acute in this drawn-out armed conflict.  Our Syrian partners have identified psychosocial support as one of their most critical needs. Although they do not bring this up, the nurses, doctors, and other program staff we work with experience the same conditions (vulnerability to armed attack, frequent mobility, near complete disruption of daily life) as the populations they serve. Psychosocial support to them as well as to the populations in general is much needed.


Just one example, on the day I arrived for my last visit, a Tuesday, one of the facilities CARE supports was hit by two barrel bombs.  We had a meeting scheduled with our partner executive director on Thursday.  I assumed we would have to reschedule our meeting.  Not only did he appear for the meeting on Thursday, he had documented the damage to the facilities for the UN, and his chief concern was to assure us that the clinic would be open again by the coming Monday.  The dedication and perseverance of all the Syrian and international organizations struggling to continue to provide basic services, many of whom would be able to leave the country if they choose as skilled professionals, is truly inspiring


I have been struck by how responsive our Syrian counterparts are to simply connecting to the wider world, to knowing that others are moved by what’s happening.  I’ve also been amazed at how many people have access to Internet in spite of interruptions in cell service and electricity.  I think an Internet-based support forum, webinars, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter would be enormously meaningful to fellow professionals in helping professions  (in addition, of course, to contributions to organizations supporting work in Syria, especially those working through Syrian counterparts).


AH: I am just completely bowled over by folks who manage to be so resilient in such dangerous and disruptive situations. I know that many people, especially the humanitarian work psychologists in the readership, will share in my sentiment. So what can our profession do in this case? That is, what do you think humanitarian work psychologists should be focusing on, particularly in their research, that would ease or assist the work of those in the field doing humanitarian aid and development work?


DC: Documenting the effectiveness of collaborative, team-based performance improvement among humanitarian and development frontline workers. Similarly for the impact of the effectiveness of support to humanitarian workers on their overall work. Another issue that’s particularly important to us at CARE is the influence of gender in humanitarian worker settings.  A large proportion of workers in social work, education, and public health are women, and disproportionately more women workers are in lower paid, lower resources, less powerful roles.  We are particularly interested in addressing gender issues in workers themselves, as well as in the communities they serve.



I cannot thank Dora enough for her informative responses to the questions posed. From an HWP perspective, it helps to recognize the true needs of folks on the ground actually providing the assistance to those who are in need. It also is critical to recognize that organizations like CARE can benefit from the expertise that I-O psychology has to offer—and that a multidisciplinary approach to HWP is going to be the most successful route to accomplishing the goal of poverty reduction. Working with people in public health, economics, international development, and other major professions will only serve to expedite the process by which people globally are able to engage in their communities, workplaces, and families in a meaningful and secure manner.   

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