The urgency of reading: books in humanitarian emergencies
In humanitarian emergencies, reading and writing are essential to healing and reconstruction.
Over 100 writers, intellectuals and public figures have mobilized to promote access to information, books and cultural activities for disaster victims in times of humanitarian crisis.
When a humanitarian catastrophe occurs, international organizations and governments set up medical outposts, drop emergency food supplies from helicopters, and hand out clothing in disaster zones. Naturally, absolute priority is given to what we call ‘basic needs’: food, water, shelter, and health.
While there is no question that organizations and governments must devote the majority of their efforts to promoting the physical wellbeing of disaster victims, more attention should be given to nourishing the mind as a second measure to help victims cope with catastrophe and move forward.
Following the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Libraries Without Borders (LWB) sent an emergency mission to Haiti to help Haitian organizations distribute books and educational resources to internally displaced persons.
While some aid agencies in Europe and North America have asked whether the provision of books is a humanitarian priority, LWB’s years of dedicated humanitarian assistance in Haiti and 20 other countries have demonstrated that books and educational opportunities for disaster victims are essential to healing, rebuilding society and recapturing lost humanity. LWB has witnessed firsthand the solace and intellectual stimulation that books and storytelling activities can bring, even in the most harrowing of circumstances. They give hope to disaster victims by helping them envision a future after the rubble is cleared and houses are rebuilt. Amid humanitarian crises, international organizations must provide nourishment not only for the body, but also for the mind.
Today, however, the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, published by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, do not include nourishment of the mind as a fundamental necessity in post-disaster zones.
In order to challenge the United Nations and other international organizations to implement initiatives that respond to this need – and to place this fundamental issue at the heart of the international agenda – Libraries Without Borders is launching this international call to action on access to books and information resources in humanitarian emergencies.
As part of LWB’s campaign, it has also launched a research and development mission with the aim of examining existing research on information, books, and culture in emergency and post-emergency situations. The mission, which will help identify areas for future pilot projects and development, will result in an international symposium to be held in Paris in June 2013. This event will bring together humanitarian aid workers along with culture and information experts to discuss new practices in the field of humanitarian relief. Libraries Without Borders will also use this occasion to suggest prototypes of informational and cultural tools for rapid deployment in humanitarian emergencies.
Having gained the endorsement of over 100 prominent individuals, the international call to action will open to the public for signatures on 28 November 2012.