Friday, August 20, 2010

Guest Voices: The Right to Live with Dignity: World Humanitarian Day 2010

Continuing our series of guest posts from Concern Worldwide, is another reflection on World Humanitarian Day. Peter McNichol is the director for Concern efforts in the Republic of Congo. NcNichol gives us his reasons for remaining committed to humanitarian work. Concern Worldwide works with poor people in the under-developed world to help them survive poverty and hunger.

I have been a humanitarian worker for more than 14 years in some very tough environments, including Angola and Zimbabwe. But working as Concern Worldwide’s Country Director in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for the past two years has definitely been one of the greatest challenges of my career—and one of the most humbling experiences of my life.

And DRC is a country in which the need to uphold and adhere to the principles of humanitarianism is stark. In the east of the country, complex and ongoing conflicts involving rebel groups and the army have displaced millions and caused huge suffering and loss of life. Our humanitarian identity is what grants us access to the families and communities whose lives have been utterly ravaged by conflict: we are able to reach people who need help. And we target those we help based solely on their level of need and vulnerability—regardless of politics, religion, and ethnicity.

Much needs to be done, on the global level, to change the entrenched extreme poverty and the ongoing violence and unrest that have left en estimated 6 million dead and laid waste to a magnificent country blessed with rich natural resources. The powers-that-be (local, regional and global) will decide the big picture. Building an effective government to serve the needs of a country the size of Western Europe is an enormous challenge. But that is not the job of humanitarian aid workers.

Today, in recognition of World Humanitarian Day, I want to talk about the reason I get up in the morning and renew my commitment—and about what motivates my colleagues at Concern Worldwide and at fellow humanitarian organizations around the world, even in dangerous and extremely stressful environments. What keeps me going is my desire to give ordinary people a shot at lives of common dignity—the kind we take for granted in the West.

Ultimately, the fight for resources—in particular the country’s valuable mineral resources—fuels the poverty in DRC. But there are other, more essential resources that the humanitarian community can provide for the huge number of families caught in the crossfire. Humanitarian aid is a lifeline for the poor and disenfranchised, those who have no power or control over their country’s mineral resources, and for whom ultimate “victory” would mean simply being able to settle safely in one place, feed their children, and see their crop grow for a full year. For many, their brightest hope is be able to move out of a camp for Internally Displaced People where they have been living for years, and build a small wooden structure that their family can call home.

DRC’s millions of displaced people—some living in camps and makeshift shelters, others utterly without shelter and often physically and sexually abused by soldiers or rebels—are why humanitarian workers are necessary. They have no assets whatsoever, and no food: they are often completely dependent on aid agencies for survival. As is true for all our work around the world, Concern Worldwide calls on communities to be actively involved in the design of our programs and to contribute to the task at hand.

But in DRC, I find that our often work starts with helping people survive. Children are often ill due to lack of shelter. Families lack even the most basic means, such as pans to cook with and boil water. Such essentials as blankets, utensils, plastic sheeting, and soap bring not only a measure of dignity—they save lives.

In some parts of the country—for example, Katanga Province—hostilities have ended and many people have returned home. What they need now is support to get back on their feet as they continue to face excruciating poverty. Security permitting, we increasingly distribute cash vouchers so that people have the resources to make choices about their greatest needs, whether they are for food, school fees, health care, clothing, or shelter. Concern Worldwide is also rebuilding roads and bridges, which are often impassable for great parts of the year. Concern involves local people in cash-for-work programs to provide the labour. These modest sums can have a huge impact. And a rehabilitated infrastructure means safer travel and gives small traders access to markets.

Being present where the need is greatest: for me, that’s what it means to be a humanitarian worker. To come to the aid of people facing terrible odds and show them they have not been forgotten, and that they are not alone. To offer them creative solutions that do not cost a lot.

Being a humanitarian worker is about every day being different. It is about often being frustrated, but fundamentally it is about something much greater than this: no one in the West would be abandoned to such conditions, yet simply because of where they were born, millions of people, and children, here suffer so very greatly. Being a humanitarian means remembering this always. We cannot forget that this is not about charity: it is about a fundamental right that every human being should have: to be able to live in dignity. That is what makes each and every day of my life as a humanitarian worker not only challenging, but also very humbling. And for that I am grateful, especially today.

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