A Thought for World Humanitarian Day

By John Mitchell on 16 August 2017.

We humanitarians are a self-critical bunch. Independent evaluations, research studies, conferences and popular books on humanitarianism tend to focus on a bewildering array of failures, problems, challenges and frustrations. On the one hand this is a good thing as it shows we are open to changing and improving but, on the other hand, it can create a pervasive feeling of gloom and doom.

And as World Humanitarian Day 2017 approaches, it appears the demands for humanitarian assistance are greater now than in living memory. We are working in a particularly unstable world characterised by an escalation of conflict-related crises and mounting numbers and flows of displaced people, asylum seekers and refugees. And the challenge of meeting the needs of these people is heightened due to alarming decline in respect and adherence to international humanitarian law.

We are also seeing escalating risks for the safety of aid workers and, as the Emergency Relief Coordinator made clear at ECOSOC recently, “the gap between resources and needs continue[s] to rise”. The job seems bigger, increasingly dangerous and more complicated whilst the money, staff and materials needed to do the job properly are woefully inadequate.

It is not a happy narrative and I wish it were not the case. But, although all the above is true, it does not reflect the whole picture. Not by any means. Data from OCHA’s Global Humanitarian Review tells us that a lot of aid is still getting through in a variety of extremely difficult situations. For example, in 2017 over 2.2 million people received food in response to the Syria crisis, 3.3 million people were reached with emergency aid in South Sudan; and 5.8 million people received humanitarian assistance in some form in Yemen. And there are many other examples.

These figures reflect a fundamentally important truth about the people who choose to work in humanitarian assistance. In the past couple of years, I have heard many moving accounts from my old colleagues in the Red Cross/Crescent Movement about the astonishing bravery and achievements of staff from The Syrian Arab Red Crescent (to give just one example) who have managed to get aid into some truly terrible situations.

It also chimes with the key informant interviews we do for the State of the Humanitarian System report. Over the years, we have found that interviewees always articulate all the challenges and worries mentioned above but, at the same time, they usually come up with vivid examples of how humanitarian aid managed to save lives in very difficult situations and, to some extent, restore hope and dignity.

This is also reflected in the views of those who are affected by crises and, when gathering affected communities’ views from Kenya and the Philippines for the Global Forum, many people were struck by the answers to the question, ‘What is the main thing you want to say to humanitarians?’ Along with suggestions for improvement, ran another theme: Thank you (watch video above).

Whilst it is important to identify the challenges and inefficiencies of our humanitarian system, it is also the case that the bravery and fortitude of aid front line workers is still making things work against the odds. I think many of us live with this kind of ‘cognitive dissonance’ – and it can be uncomfortable because both sets of narratives are profoundly strong, equally true and, unfortunately, somewhat contradictory.

So, on August 17th World Humanitarian Day 2017, I will be thinking about the challenges we need to overcome, but I am also going to celebrate the fact that humanitarianism has come a heck of a long way in my life-time and the world is a better place for it. But most of all I will be thinking of those who have risked and sacrificed their lives to achieve this better world.