Today is World Humanitarian Day – a day set aside to honour aid workers who provide help to millions of people around the world.
But it’s also an opportunity to pause and reflect on the work we do, why we do it and more importantly how our work is changing.
Back in the 1980s, I was employed in London as a bank manager when the distressing images of starving children from East Africa jolted me out of my comfortable, corporate career.
Harrowing depictions of hunger on my TV screen made me wonder if there was something more I could do in life to help others than arrange loans for large corporations in London.
That is how my own career in humanitarian work began, heading off to a refugee camp in Sudan that was providing help to 80,000 women, men and children from famine-stricken Ethiopia.
My main job at the camp was looking after the financial operations, but I started each day helping out at the intensive feeding hospital, checking the temperature of severely malnourished children.
I’ll never forget my first morning when I found out that five of the kids I checked were feeling really cold. The nurses later gave me the stark but confronting news that they had passed away during the night. That experience has never left me.
Back in the ’80s, the humanitarian work we did was very focused on reacting to disasters rather than trying to get ahead of where disasters might strike – and investing in getting people prepared so that any impact is reduced.
We are now trying to shift government and community thinking on this – but change is slow, as the crisis in East Africa now shows. The message that prevention is better than cure can sometimes be a surprisingly harder message to sell to donor governments.
Yet the sad truth is that the current situation in the Horn of Africa was a preventable disaster.
Organisations such as Oxfam have been warning about this increasingly concerning situation for months in the hope that the international community would respond and preventative steps could be taken to stop it escalating to the frightening proportions now predicted.
Yes, the region is facing the worst drought in 60 years, but it’s not just poor rains that contribute to this humanitarian crisis – much of it is man-made.
It’s no coincidence that those parts of East Africa that are suffering the most right now are those that are the poorest and most neglected.
They are the areas that lack basic infrastructure such as water systems, roads and healthcare that would help people cope. And they are also areas that have struggled with conflict for many years.
Of course, we still need to respond to disasters when they occur, but we also owe it to the communities that are affected to help build their own capacity to respond, as well as reduce the risk of future disasters.
We need to invest in things like effective early warning systems, secure homes and livelihoods, and a food system that doesn’t break down in the face of extreme weather events.
We also need to make sure we listen to women, men and young people in communities, who know best how to prepare and respond to disasters in their local context.
As the East Africa food crisis shows, women are often hardest hit in times of disaster – they need to be central in efforts to prepare for and prevent crisis.
Long-term funding from the Australian Government and the sustained generosity of the Australian public to support this work is critical.
So too is redoubling our efforts to address climate change if we are to halt the further deterioration of drought in environments already struggling to sustain human life.
It would be an ideal world if there was no need for humanitarian workers – if disasters did not occur, or if all communities affected had the capacity to respond when disaster struck.
But with the humanitarian system already overburdened, and an anticipated increase in the number and severity of disasters to come, we also know we must work harder, and better, than ever.
When I first went to Sudan in the 1980s, I hoped I would never see this kind of crisis again. But now, almost three decades later, I’m saddened to see the same images and hear the familiar stories of starving children from East Africa.
Like many, I struggle to understand why in this day and age, people are still starving to death.
Hopefully on World Humanitarian Day, many others will ask the same question.
This opinion editorial was first published by The Drum on 19 August 2011.