Thursday, August 19, 2010

Guest Voices: We Must All be Humanitarian Workers

For World Humanitarian Day, we have this important reminder that we all must do our part. For the next post in our series from Concern Worldwide, Ros O’Sullivan reflects on his 20 years of work as a humanitarian. Concern Worldwide works with poor people in the under-developed world to help them survive poverty and hunger.

For the past 20 years, I have been a humanitarian aid worker on the frontlines of some of the world’s worst crises. Today, in solidarity with the United Nations, I join humanitarian workers around the world in celebrating World Humanitarian Day and honoring personnel who have lost their lives to assist people in crisis.

Humanitarian work is not for the faint-hearted or the timid. To be successful in this work, you need to be able to function in chaos and live with uncertainty. Even so, there are some things about aid work of which you can be certain:

* the work load will be immense, the work environment intense, and you will be tested to the full – working 16 hour days, seven days a week in the first stages of a response
* you will meet amazing people working closely together to save lives and reduce suffering
* you will experience the whole range of emotions known to mankind in the course of the emergency
* you will be profoundly touched by the resilience of those affected as they come to terms with the disaster
* you will leave the area exhausted, but knowing that others, equally committed, will still be there to ensure that the needs of the people are met

World Humanitarian Day highlights all of this. It recognizes the sacrifice it takes to do this work, and commemorates the individuals who have paid the ultimate price in places like Chad, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka. For me, World Humanitarian Day is also about more than that. It is about shining a spotlight on the underreported issues that my colleagues and I face in the field every day. Issues that everyone needs to make their business, not just humanitarian workers.

The frequency and type of humanitarian emergencies in the past decade have increased at an alarming rate. They range from wars and conflict to natural disasters such as flooding, drought, cyclones, volcanoes, and earthquakes. I can tell you from personal experience that the poorest communities are always the hardest hit in crises: to truly understand extreme poverty and the human toll of disasters and emergencies, you have to experience it at ground level and walk among those affected.

In the past four years, I have witnessed a lot of suffering—as well as resilience and dignity—among families in Darfur, Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Democratic Republic of Congo, to name a few. In other countries, I have seen evidence of a decade’s hard-won development being eroded by climate change, the global financial crisis, poor governance, urbanization, population pressure, and the scramble for natural resources.

I have also experienced the rise in insecurity, violence and criminality that make humanitarian work increasingly dangerous. We must be present in some of the world’s most difficult environments to reach those in need. This can become complicated when we work in places where international military forces also have operations involving relief efforts. Our security is dependent on how we are perceived locally and on ensuring that there is a clear distinction between humanitarian work—which by nature adheres to the principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence—and efforts by the military to deliver aid.

What defines us—and ensures “humanitarian space” and access to populations in crises—is that we have no agenda above and beyond the mandate to help those in need. A key part of this is ensuring that local people understand that we deliver aid with no strings attached, regardless of race, religion or politics. Another vital aspect of humanitarian work is that we make ourselves accountable to the people we assist and work with—and involve them in the assessments and the design of our programs. The people affected by crises are integral participants in the “aid” process.

I am proud to be a humanitarian worker and to be able to get involved when disaster strikes. And I am fortunate to work for an aid agency that is responding to the world’s major emergencies.

But it’s getting harder to do this work effectively, safely, and at the scale needed. The needs are often greater than our ability to respond to them.

In a year that has brought us the mega-disasters of the earthquake in Haiti and now the epic floods in Pakistan, World Humanitarian Day has even greater significance. It is clearer than ever that humanitarian work belongs to all of us: we all have a role to play to do whatever possible to ensure that those in crisis have access to help.

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