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.