Who are the humanitarians? World Humanitarian Day 2013


Monday 19 August is World Humanitarian Day. This special day was created in 2009 to remember the 22 UN staff who died during a bomb attack on their office in Iraq in 2003. The day was initiated by the Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation and confirmed by the UN General Assembly in 2008.  If you haven’t yet read ‘Chasing the Flame’ then today is the day to do so, partly out of respect for Senhor Mello and partly because Samantha Power – the author – has recently been made US Ambassador to the UN.

Earlier this year, I was called by UN OCHA to discuss possible ideas for this year’s campaign. We talked for over an hour about different options but most importantly focused on the need to reflect humanitarians around the world, including those who may not know they are humanitarians such as the first responders in isolated natural disasters.

The number of expats working in humanitarian aid is shrinking in comparison to the growing number of field-based staff. This is a good sign that we are better integrating humanitarian aid into the affected communities. Many research papers have highlighted the exponential impact that is had in the first 48 hours of an emergency response, which normally takes place before any helicopters, aid planes or white landrovers have even arrived.

Before writing this blog, I decided to listen again to last year’s anthem by Beyonce ‘I was here’. Embarrassed as I am to admit it, this video brought me to tears again. The thing that does it for me is not Beyonce’s bootlicious behind in the opening scene, nor the beautiful videographics, but rather the faces of those in the audience. (see 1:32 and 2:31). It’s also the exhaustion but relief on the faces of the rescuers (see 1:37, 2:20 and 4:00). The admiration I feel for their hard work.

That brings me to a question though: Am I – as an office based worker – a humanitarian? I’ve done some time in the field, not decades mind you. I believe as close to 100% as you can in the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, humanity and independence.

In a similar vein we could ask ourselves if officials in government donor agencies, administrators in philanthropical foundations or designers of software are humanitarians? What does it mean to be a humanitarian? What qualification do you require?

Humanitarianism isn’t a religion. It isn’t a political party. It isn’t a frat group. There are principles (mentioned above), there is legal statute (check out the Geneva Convention) and there are thousands of people with the word ‘humanitarian’ in their job title. The meaning, in my humble opinion, is more about action: helping those in need at a time of suffering. And as one of the original tenants of humanitarianism was voluntarism, it would suggest that there is absolutely no need for a job title at all. So whether, desk based, mud hut based, field based or transitory, we could all technically be humanitarians.

This year’s campaign focuses on beneficiaries or the recipients of aid, rather than the givers or providers of aid. As an aside, some of the footage in this year’s video is of the same individuals as last year. My suspicion is that with the need to raise funds as 2013 looks set to be one of the most expensive years for humanitarian assistance, the organisers knew that placing those in need at the centre of the campaign video would bring in more money. I’m not sure if I agree but market tests do show that the poor looking children of many fundraising campaigns are what bring the money in. But I am not criticising the campaign. Far from it. It is still very inclusive of the whole community and uses social media – our modern form for dialogue – to give everyone the opportunity to engage.

What the world needs more of? Humanitarians! We should all be one.


7 thoughts on “Who are the humanitarians? World Humanitarian Day 2013

  1. Pingback: Independence and Potatoes | Always a Reason to Party

  2. Pingback: World Humanitarian Day « TALESBYCINDY

  3. I often had this thought. Can I call myself humanitarian worker if I am working from an office in Canada or in the UK? My background is communication, which is most of the time an ‘office job’. Sometimes I worry that this type of job doesn’t really qualify me as a ‘humanitarian worker’. Then, I remind myself that being a humanitarian worker is about wanting to help others. It’s about wanting to make the world a better place for everyone. Being a humanitarian worker is part of who I am (and this is exactly the reason why I quit journalism to become a humanitarian).

  4. Having worked both in an office and in the field, I can’t help but think I’m of much more value to advancing a humanitarian agenda when I am working on a computer, ideally in an air conditioned office. I have assisted with distributions in the field, and these give one a nice feeling of doing something good and valuable. But there are plenty of people better suited to do this work, and they are mostly all locals who speak the language and know the communities. There are people better suited to unload trucks of rice (they are all considerably better built than I am!) There are people better suited to work in the field.

    I feel my strengths are in developing systems to assist the delivery of humanitarian aid, and in training staff on the use of these systems. In my work as a humanitarian, I feel I’m most effective when I am in an office or delivering training. Conversely, I feel the least useful when I am trying to behave as a field worker that would look good in a fundraising advert.

    I think being a humanitarian is an attitude – I could even call it a belief systems, but noting it’s only so in the same way that being a scientist is adhering to a particular belief system. Using this analogy, you don’t need to work in a lab to be a scientist: most don’t. And working in a lab doesn’t mean you are a scientist: I know many people who work for NGOs who are not humanitarians. I’d imagine you do too. I don’t think you need to be a practitioner of science to believe in science and behave like a scientist, and it’s much the same with being a humanitarian.

    Finally, no-one I know spends all their time acting and behaving in a scientific way. And those of you who have spent time with humanitarians after hours will surely know that few humanitarians are so every minute of every day.

    • It’s great to hear your opinion and reflects on first hand experience. As the author of the blog, and as someone who has had both field and desk based experience, I recognise all of the points you make above. Working in refugee camps is tough on our senses but its incredibly rewarding. But one of the most rewarding parts of that experience is the opportunity of working with passionate and dedicated local staff. I most miss the capacity building element of the day job and the genuine joy of many local NGO workers following in the field training sessions.

      It is important that desk based humanitarians with decision making or resource allocation roles keep in touch with – and directly interact with – those working in the field on a regular basis to ensure decisions are informed by current reality, particularly as this is such a dynamic sector.

      I would love to think of myself as a good or true humanitarian, but your comment on the after hours humanitarian culture is a stark truth and perhaps something we will consider in a future blog.

      Many thanks for taking the time to share with us and the wider aid audience.

  5. The fact that the question is being asked does seem to imply that it is not as simple as it used to be. When I struggle with an issue, I turn to MSF. They embody the spirit of humanitarism, although they do not get it right all the time. I worked for them (as a volunteer) 30 years ago, and have not found any other NGO who embodies the spirit of what a humanitarian is about. It is not about working in an office or not, or whether expatriates are good or bad, it is about intervening when everybody has given up, without expecting anything, It is about helping people to make it until the next day, like you would want somebody to intervene in order to help your children to make it to the next day. A dinosaur concept, I know , but I can live with this.

  6. Pingback: More than words? The World Humanitarian Day 2013 | Centre for Batwa Minorities

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