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World Humanitarian Day: Lessons and Inspiration from the UN OCHA, Compassion International, and CARE

By Alix Charles August 22, 2017

Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” In a world that is increasingly in need of the generous help of others, humanitarians play a critical role in responding to crises and in ensuring that everyone has access to basic needs. Since 2008, August 19th has been designated by the United Nations General Assembly as World Humanitarian Day: a day to pay tribute to aid workers who have risked and lost their lives towards the betterment of the lives of others. In observance of World Humanitarian Day 2017, interviewed a few nonprofit organizations in our ecosystem, to get their take on humanitarian work, with regards to five important questions.

Conflict and urban response in Syria
A boy pulls a wheelchair at one of the streets of Al-Mashatiyeh neighborhood of east Aleppo where UN and partners are distributing crucial relief items. Credit: UNHCR/ Bassam Diab

“What is humanitarianism, and who are humanitarians?”

For those of us not directly involved in international development work, the term “humanitarian” can often be difficult to grasp. We picture aid workers delivering food aid to drought-striken countries or helping locate victims of a natural disaster, but have limited insight into their lives and daily work. Jens Larke, Deputy Spokesperson of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA), shares that “humanitarianism means different things for different people. But what is common across all definitions is that humanitarians have a personal conviction whereby if you see and are aware of human beings in profound need of help, you have an impulse to help.” Humanitarians, he explains, simply cannot stand by and do nothing in the face of extreme human suffering.

This impulse to help others translates into a wide array of initiatives, ranging from legislative changes to nonprofit organizations and social movements. One such organizations is Compassion International, a unique charity that works directly with 7,000 churches globally. Their model equips local churches to understand child development and support children living in poverty. “All kids have purpose and potential,” explains Emily Sarmiento, a Senior Strategy Advisor for Compassion International. “But poverty robs them of this potential.”

For Marguerite Lauter, Senior Global Advocacy Advisor at CARE, the most impactful change-makers are often from the communities themselves. “Those are the people who truly understand the community’s unique needs, and can work with others from the community,” she notes, explaining that a lot of the support for the refugee crisis in fact comes from former refugees themselves. CARE came about as a US-based organization to provide humanitarian relief to those affected by World War II.

Hurricane Matthew Jeremie Les Cayes
Hurricane Matthew, Jeremie Les Cayes. People continue to clean up in the western city of Jeremie on Thursday October 6, 2016. Credit: Logan Abassi UN/MINUSTAH

What unique challenges do humanitarian workers and organizations face?”

Aid workers operate within extremely stressful and chaotic circumstances. Case and point: over the past 20 years, over 4,000 aid workers have been attacked, and in 2016 alone, 91 were killed in the line of duty. (source) “Humanitarian workers have to have a high tolerance for chaos and for working ‘in the dark,’” explains Larke. “The first step when arriving is to understand what the immediate needs are.”

Beyond ensuring that their workers are properly trained and come home safe, humanitarian organizations face the added challenge of operating with a unique set of stakeholders. Navigating tense political waters while maintaining 100% neutrality in the face of conflict makes humanitarian operations uniquely complex. “We hold no opinion about who is right or wrong [in conflict],” says Larke. “Our only opinion is on who needs aid.”

Establishing legislative environments that are conducive to humanitarian work is sometimes an added challenge, as noted by Lauter. And even when the government supports NGOs and awareness is raised, the public sometimes turns a blind eye and chooses to focus on domestic problems. “It only lasts for so long before [international issues] come to our own doors,” she explains.

WFP Operations in Homs
A young boy sits in front of a destroyed building in Homs, Syria. September 2012. Credit: WFP/Abeer Etefa

“What factors help in making humanitarian work successful?”

Whether due to conflict or natural disasters, humanitarian organizations step in to provide services when governments are unable or not willing to ensure that their citizens have access to basic human rights. “As soon as we get involved,” explains Larke, “our first thought is ‘how do we get ourselves out again?’” Ultimately, the goal of humanitarian organizations is to build local capacity for countries to adequately respond to crises, and to be able to provide for their populations. For the UN OCHA, getting government buy-in and approval of their operations is required prior to establishing a presence. “We only intervene if we are invited to do so,” says Larke. That being said, the organization then has to work within a complex network of stakeholders (sometimes including rebel groups and armed opposition groups) to negotiate access to people in need.

Building local partnerships is key to achieving impact. For Compassion International, these partnerships are at the core of their operations. “We help churches launch child development programs, and support them as a local institution to grow their ability to support kids,” explains Sarmiento. With over 300 church partners in some countries and with programs ranging from education to health to spiritual development, the organization has a holistic view on child development and is able to achieve its impact largely due to their 60+ years of deeply-rooted partnerships with local institutions.

Beyond local partnerships, international coalitions also play a big role in the humanitarian sector. One such group is the Global Emergency Response Coalition (GERC), a partnership of eight international NGOs including CARE, World Vision, and the International Rescue Committee. “It is the first time that major NGOs have united in this way to tackle an issue,” explains Lauter. The coalition focuses on addressing the famine currently threatening more than 20 million people in countries across sub-Saharan Africa and Yemen.

Urban response, Iraq
15 September 2014, Dahuk, Iraq: Now, winter is fast approaching, threatening to compound the already dire situation. It’s estimated that 600,000 people are in immediate need winterization assistance, including thermal blankets, heaters and fuel. Credit: OCHA/Iason Athanasiadis

“What trends have you observed in this sector?”

Refugee crises, climate change, urbanization… Our world is constantly changing, and with it, so is humanitarian response. Two important trends to note are the increase in humanitarian crises related to armed conflicts, and the increase in aid needed in urban areas. “[Armed conflicts] are man-made, and can be un-made by man,” notes Larke. “You tell yourself that it can’t continue, but it does.” The ripple effects of armed conflicts are increasing the need for humanitarian aid at an unprecedented rate.

Classic humanitarian response is thought of as being intervening in drought-striken villages in remote parts of developing countries. Not anymore, says Larke. “We do still have these situations,” he explains. “But on top of that, we’re dealing with urban situations where people are on the brink of survival.” Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, for example, are pouring into neighboring countries and into informal settlements. “They disperse” says Larke. “It’s hard to reach them, and hard to give them the aid they need.”

In response to these external trends, the humanitarian sector has been steadily expanding over the last decade. Sarmiento shares that “Compassion International continued growing through the economic recession. People are increasingly wanting to invest in improving the state of our world.” She explains that technology advances have helped organizations scale their impact, and have played a key role in making it easier than ever for people to donate to causes dear to their hearts.

Food response in Syria
Food aid being delivered in Syria. Credit: WFP

“How can we become humanitarians in our everyday life?”

Making our world a better place does not have to be reserved for those willing and able to intervene in conflict-torn areas, refugee camps, or post-earthquake zones. All you need is a big heart, and an impulse to help. “Ask yourself: ‘who am I?’” suggests Larke. “Find your passion, and mobilize your community.” Support can take the form of monetary donations, volunteering, or sharing your expertise that might be useful for humanitarian first-responders. “Everyone should have a cause,” says Sarmiento. “Find a trustworthy organization, and support solutions as close to the ground as possible.”

Companies that support their employees with volunteer time off and matched funds help support humanitarian workers and organizations around the world, and play an important role in scaling the impact that these individuals have every day on the lives of those in need.

Follow the links below to support the organizations mentioned in this article: