On Sunday, 19 August 2012, thousands of aid workers around the world will be remembered as part of World Humanitarian Day. ALNAP’s recent ‘State of the Humanitarian System’ report states that in 2010 there were roughly 274,000 humanitarian workers globally, with figures having grown over the past decade to include a larger number of national and expat staff. Amongst these were a growing number from developing countries such as Liberia, the Philippines and Zambia.
World Humanitarian Day was established in memory of the 22 UN staff who were killed in the 2003 bombing of the UN headquarters in Iraq. The attack shook the humanitarian sector, and whilst humanitarian workers had been killed ‘in service’ previously, this attack signified the targeting of a central symbol of the sector: the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and his staff. As the graph below shows, the number of aid workers involved in severe security incidents has seen a sharp increase over the past decade.
Source: Development Initiatives based on Humanitarian Outcomes (2012), Aid Worker Security Database, https://aidworkersecurity.org/ (accessed 31 July 2012)
The purpose of World Humanitarian Day is threefold: it provides an opportunity to raise awareness of humanitarian aid to the general public; it is a chance to reflect and remember those who have lost their lives whilst working to help others; it recognises all those who are working in emergencies right now. The media, especially in the West, are very good at covering the terrible scenes of a natural disaster or conflict, but rarely do we see portrayals of the individuals who work tirelessly to bring relief.
It is also a good time to remind ourselves of the central principles of humanitarian action. The Red Cross and NGO Code of Conduct is most often used for this purpose. Adopted in 1994, it lists ten core commitments for upholding the core principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. At the forefront of this is the humanitarian imperative: that every citizen has the right to receive humanitarian assistance. This means that no person should be left to suffer alone and that those most in need should be assisted first.
The humanitarian imperative is difficult to act out in many circumstances due to security dangers, problems accessing those in need and the procurement of appropriate aid. Yet, we have already seen numerous examples of how the sector can adapt to new challenges and it is this resilience and determination that we should recognise when remembering aid workers on Sunday.
The ALNAP report acknowledges the need to improve leadership within the sector. This is reliant on organisations allocating adequate resources towards the training of their aid workers. As last year’s Inter-Agency Standing Committee ‘Real-time evaluation of the response to the Somalia crisis’ noted, “Local agencies have a number of comparative advantages over international actors. Those that lack technical and administrativecapacity need support from international sources to build that capacity. This should pay long-term dividends”.(1) The difficulty is that to do this requires donor funding and as the graph below shows, total official development assistance (ODA) from Development Assistance Committee (DAC) donors dropped by 10% between 2010 and 2011.
Source: OECD DAC
With competing priorities and pressures on many donor aid budgets these suggestions will not be easily integrated. Donors are focusing more and more on demonstrable results, which disincentivises the allocation of limited resources to capacity-building, the direct results of which are harder to demonstrate. But without adequate equipment, leadership, information and capacity, the humanitarian imperative cannot be upheld and the effectiveness and efficiency of our aid will not improve.
On Sunday, let’s remember the challenges faced by aid workers and reflect on how we can best support them.