More than ever before, the humanitarian aid system as we know it is being stretched, questioned and tested. Among those bearing this strain are the individual aid workers.
Humanitarian aid workers around the world provide vital material and medical support to millions of people displaced by violent conflict. These women and men are the link between donor organizations and people in need.
But in places like Iraq, for example, there is a major strain on the humanitarian aid system. The number of internally displaced persons who stand to benefit from humanitarian support is growing as an Iraqi-led military coalition attempts to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State. Nearly 3 million Iraqis were displaced in the past 18 months.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are over 50 million war refugees worldwide, the most since WWII. This number is likely to swell in the coming weeks as combined forces continue moving into northern Iraq and the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East gets worse. More funding is needed so that aid workers can do their job safely, efficiently and effectively, according to an official from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs now on the ground in Iraq. In July, the U.N. requested US$284 million, and as of Nov. 19, only 65 percent of this total had been secured. Preparing to care for the displaced as the onset of colder weather approaches has become a high priority.
The need for humanitarian support globally is rising at a much higher rate than can be met by currently available material and human resources. In our imperfect world there will always be a need for humanitarian efforts, and those tasked with directly addressing these needs feel both a personal and professional responsibility to deliver.
My research and book, “Aid Worker Voices,” focus on aid workers. I’ve surveyed and interviewed more than 1,000 worldwide, many with multiple years of service and numerous long-term deployments across the globe. Their responses provide insights on the challenges of their day-to-day work to save and restore people’s lives.
Here’s some of what they shared with me.
Many veteran aid workers observed that the core aspects of the work have slowly become more complex in the last several decades. A lack of safety is an increasingly palpable fact of life. They report seeing friends and colleagues get raped, kidnapped and, yes, even beheaded.
Here’s what one respondent said about the difficulties inherent in her profession:
“There are issues facing workers in this job that are so serious and so important that it needs the whole industry to stand up and shout about it.”
She went on to say that she just wants to “get back to the work that I am fiercely proud of,” instead of fearing for her safety.
But that walk forward tends to happen on shifting sands.
Humanitarian principles like neutrality and impartiality that once seemed so self-evident have been drawn into question, especially on the politically and ethnically complex battlefields of Iraq and Syria. Humanitarian safety protocol that seemed straightforward in places like Aceh, Malaysia or even Port-au-Prince, Haiti appear almost quaint now on the battlefields in the Middle East where even aid convoys have become targets.
On the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, delivering aid and support has deep political implications. The idea that “the friend of my enemy is also my enemy” takes on dizzying levels of complexity here, as everyone tries to make sense of the scorecard listing who is supporting or fighting whom in these theaters.
Tufts University researcher Antonio Donini put it this way: “Humanitarianism started off as a powerful discourse; now it is a discourse of power, both at the international and at the community level.” Aid workers are caught in power squabbles as they try to deliver needed supplies, medical care and support for those in need.
Aid workers know the world differently than most others from less cosmopolitan professions. Doing their job effectively demands they understand cultural and political dynamics.
Tough, complicated jobs
One survey respondent observed, “Humanitarian aid work is more and more like firefighting. We are not the ones in charge of pursuing those causing the fires to stop them, we just jump from one emergency to the other, and that will not change things for good.”
Though an overwhelming majority - 90 percent - of survey respondents were at least moderately optimistic about the positive impact of humanitarian aid work, many had sobering thoughts.
A female worker currently working in an African nation said:
“Humanitarian aid work operates within a system that is built on inequality – we won’t see large-scale change happen in the lives of people, in terms of long term development, until we start to challenge the structures and systems that result in this inequity in the first place. And the heart of those institutions is within North America and Europe – until we recognize how dependent we are on the oppression and marginalization of others for our own betterment and benefit … humanitarian aid work is just another cog in this bullshit machinery.”
The confines of the system within which aid workers struggle to work includes the humanitarian aid industry, and the larger economic and political forces that shape our world.