August 19 is World Humanitarian Day. It is a day to recognise the selfless efforts of humanitarian workers, who are on the frontlines in war zones, disaster settings and in refugee camps, worldwide. Standing shoulder to shoulder with the communities, they deliver life-saving relief assistance and bring hopes to crises-impacted communities.
On August 19, 2003, a bomb attack in Iraq killed 22 humanitarian aid workers, including the United Nation’s Sergio Vieira de Mello. Five years later, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution declaring that day as the World Humanitarian Day. It calls for the survival, well-being and dignity of people affected by crises, and safety and security of aid workers.
Sacrifices continue. In 2021, 460 aid workers were attacked – 140 killed, 203 wounded and 117 kidnapped. Of all the aid workers who died, 98 per cent were national staff, and more than half national staff. South Sudan, Afghanistan and Syria were the hotspots of violence. These are preventable.
The World Humanitarian Day focuses on a theme every year. ‘No Matter What’ is the theme for this year. It is an occasion to reaffirm our commitment to the humanitarian values such as compassion, and principles – humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence. It is a moment to celebrate the grit humanitarian workers demonstrate in difficult and dangerous locations, never giving up.
“When I click a picture or do an interview, I pause for a few moments to watch the hope in the eyes of children,” said Muhim Osman, a young Somali humanitarian worker with Plan International. I met Muhim in Somalia earlier this year. Rain had failed for five consecutive years there, starving local communities, children and mothers suffering the worst.
“You see suffering everywhere – in the relief camps for displaced people, neighbourhoods and on TV screens,” said Muhim. “You see mothers who must choose which child to feed or whether to feed cattle first. It is time to roll up your sleeves and start doing something about it.” Muhim works with Plan International as a media and communications specialist.
“Doing nothing is not an option.”
It is not a time to ponder why the glass is half empty, but instead to do your work with a glass and a half of optimism. Humanitarian workers show that spirit while making world a more compassionate, peaceful, healthy, and just place. That is what makes the World Humanitarian Day special.
No matter what
Not even amid a raging civil war. “I was at Juba airport about to board and all set to fly home. I could see the aircraft parked through the glass window at the waiting area,” Hawa Eltigani recollected. Hawa had just finished a month-long humanitarian mission to remote areas of South Sudan, strengthening protection mechanisms for children caught in prolonged conflict and hunger. “I was busy packing in the morning, and I did not check media and social media reports. When I received a call and clear instructions not to board the flight, I knew something was wrong.”
Hawa learned quickly that everything had changed for her family and friends back in Sudan overnight. An armed conflict that began on April 15, hours before Hawa was set to fly, ripped families apart. UN estimates that over three million people are displaced, including 7,30,000 people who are now refugees in neighbouring countries.
Hawa, a child protection in emergencies specialist at Plan International, had to cancel her plans to go home in Sudan and stayed in South Sudan. She struggled to stay connected with her family in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan that was becoming a conflict flashpoint. “My family was already on the move, and it was tense and a traumatising experience.”
Hawa said that the images of scared children on the move who walked across television screens resonated with her. Those fleeting images made her more committed to her work. No matter what. “When the margin between a relief worker and those she serves blurs, it is a moment for reflection”, she added.
Putting dignity and compassion first
Humanitarian workers place others above themselves. They go to great lengths to make sure that no one is left behind. “I can hear today, years later, the cries of people asking us not to leave them behind,” Anu Thelly recalled. When the floods hit Kerala in 2018, Anu, a nurse specialised in palliative care and her team of volunteers focused on providing one unique and rare humanitarian service – palliative care, pain relief and end of life care.
Cash-strapped, aid workers often make that difficult choice – between those who can survive only with our support and those who can survive anyway. Then there are those in people with life-limiting illness or those near the end of life stage and who may die soon even with care.
These are not cold calculations. The Humanitarian Charter advocates principled and dignified humanitarian action. Sphere standards, the ultimate reference guide, favours a dignified approach to those who are terminally ill.
Amid disasters turning ferocious and frequent, it is critical to rethink how we prepare and respond to disasters. While there will always be a need for life-saving assistance, it is critical to strengthen the hands of frontline aid workers.
Acting ahead of predicted hazards can prevent or reduce acute humanitarian impacts before they fully unfold. This approach of anticipatory action is central to ensure early warning and instant response mechanisms, reduce the number of lives lost, reduce loss and damage in disaster contexts. Further, it improves coordination, efficiency of emergency response and recovery efforts.
The best way to pay homage to humanitarian workers who lost their lives is by placing the dignity and safety of vulnerable communities and the frontline aid workers at the core of our thinking, planning and actions before and after disasters.
Krishnan is global humanitarian director, Plan International.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of THE WEEK.