World Humanitarian Day – Humanitarian work not for the faint hearted

Campaigns and Advocacy, Media Releases article written on the 19 Aug 2009

Today marks six years since the bombing of the UN office in Baghdad. The casualties from that blast included the top UN official in Iraq Sérgio Vieira de Mello and other UN staff working to help Iraqi civilians in the middle of war. The UN has designated today the inaugural World Humanitarian Day, to honour aid workers and the jobs they do in difficult and dangerous environments.

Six years on, much of the world’s attention has shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan, where conditions for delivering aid are about as tough as it can get. The UN reported last week that 60 per cent of Afghanistan is now too dangerous for aid groups to operate. Another UN report found the number of civilians killed so far this year has increased by 24 percent compared to the same period in 2008.

For humanitarian workers, the frustration of not being able to reach those you are mandated to help is enormous. Imagine working in Afghanistan where nearly a quarter of a million people have been displaced by fighting, and more than seven million people, or nearly one-third of the population, are short of food. Yet, the humanitarian workers in Afghanistan are often prevented from visiting villages, communities and camps to assess what people need – even travelling by helicopter is often out of the question in such a hostile environment.

Indeed, being a humanitarian worker is becoming a more dangerous profession. More than 100 aid workers were killed while doing their jobs last year, and this year has also been deadly. In countries like Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Somalia and Sudan, aid agencies have had staff killed or kidnapped, forcing them to make difficult decisions about whether they scale back their operations, or even shut up shop. Often the difficulties of operating in these environments can’t even be discussed publicly by aid groups, for fear of endangering their staff even further.

Conflicts like Afghanistan, which involve insurgent groups, rather than just governments, often put aid workers at more risk than traditional wars. The increasing use of guerrilla tactics and indiscriminate killing blurs the boundaries between insurgency and criminality, with one feeding on the other. Many aid groups employ specialist security analysts to support and protect staff, but the intensity of the conflict often means that this isn’t always possible.

All of this is occurring at a time when aid is needed more than ever. Recent research by Oxfam has predicted the number of people affected by climate-related disasters will increase by more than 50 per cent over the next six years. This includes the threat of more conflicts being created by people being forced to move because of environmental changes.

Despite the challenges, assistance continues to be delivered to people in need around the world. Aid agencies are increasingly looking for innovative solutions to overcome the danger and difficulties they face, and to ensure they reach people affected by conflict and other disasters.

The face of humanitarian work has changed much over the last generation. Most aid workers are now highly trained professionals with language skills and technical expertise. These professionals do a difficult job because they know that the appalling situation faced by people in Afghanistan and many other countries demands a humanitarian response. They understand that people have a right to receive humanitarian assistance and protection, and they work to ensure that right is realised.

It’s fitting that we take today to remember those workers who lost their lives for this cause, to honour those who continue to deliver aid to those in need today, and to celebrate the millions of people who survive disasters and wars despite all the odds being stacked against them.

This opinion piece was first published in Online Opinion on 19 August, 2009

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