Aid agency staff face huge challenges in the field, but at Amnesty International the greatest pressures come from the organisation itself.

Amnesty International fell below the radar while well-publicised failings of big agencies including Oxfam, Save the Children and Medecins Frontieres erupted into bad behaviour and abuse. Smaller than some of these mega-charities, and proud of its lack of ties to particular donor goals, Amnesty’s vital work is sharply focused on evidence gathering and advocacy against a bleak catalogue of human rights abuses. When one of its staff tragically took his own life, citing the pressures of the work, it seemed sad but unsurprising that its nature might lead someone to this. However the investigation triggered by Gaëtan Mootoo’s death found that the greatest pressures suffered by staff were, according to them, from the organisation itself[i]. Amnesty’s working environment was described as ‘toxic’ and 39% of staff said they suffered mental and physical health issues as a result of this. Whilst the nature of the work itself, handling harrowing stories of torture, imprisonment and abuse, certainly led to a degree of stress and anxiety this took second place to pressures resulting from organisational demands and management style. One staff member quoted being told ‘You should go! If you stay in this position, your life will be misery.’

Change at any cost?

Pressures appeared to be compounded by wholesale organisational change driven through at high speed.  Amnesty’s ‘Global Transition Programme’ pursued the logic of moving its staff closer to the situations they worked with, decentralising staff to regional bases. The pace at which it was done over a two year period demanded, as the then Secretary General Salil Shetty said ‘Struggle with our staff expressed directly, as teams, in letters and through their union’[ii]. The report found staff largely supportive of the transition but not of the pace of change or the lack of consultation and engagement.

Tip of an iceberg?

The incoming secretary general, Kumi Naidoo, entirely embraced the findings and recommendations of the report, which focus on staff wellbeing. Because it was not their remit the report’s authors didn’t look more widely into the organisational structure and drivers which led to these failures. ‘Making Aid Agencies Work’[iii] argues strongly that organisational failures represent the tip of an iceberg and unless the underlying structure and methods of the organisation are addressed these problems will recur.

Amnesty is braced for further disruptive change as Naidoo pushes through a new transition for the organisation, broadening focus to issues such as climate change (he was previously at Greenpeace) and shifting the organisational focus from evidence-based advocacy – its unique brand – towards campaigning. In the wake of these changes almost 100  redundancies are expected[iv]. The workplace seems set to remain challenging . . .

Be the change you want to make

Amnesty proudly proclaim ‘We campaign for a world where human rights are enjoyed by all’.  Their own report suggests that the human rights of their own staff have been a low priority. ‘Making Aid Agencies Work’ argues that unless agencies’ organisational values and behaviour mirror the social changes they campaign and work for they will continue to reveal dramatic disjunctions between ‘Rhetoric and Reality’ (another headline on the Amnesty website). It concludes that only when they’re prepared to ‘be the change you want to make’ will these disjunctions disappear.

Terry Gibson


‘Making Aid Agencies Work: Reconnecting INGOs with the People They Serve’ by Terry Gibson is published by Emerald Publishing on 1st July 2019.


[i] Amnesty International Wellbeing Report: Konterra. 31 January 2019.

[ii] Salil Shetty: ‘Globalising Amnesty International’ 23rd February 2016.

[iii] Making Aid Agencies Work: Reconnecting INGOs with the People They Serve’ by Terry Gibson is published by Emerald Publishing on 1st July 2019.

[iv] Amnesty International to make almost 100 staff redundant’ Guardian 6 June 2019



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