Humanitarian work is a noble endeavor. As a political scientist, I know that humanitarian aid is often used for political purposes and that well-meaning humanitarians can do a lot of damage. But in my heart of hearts, I still believe that there is something good and noble about working in the humanitarian field –delivering food and water to desperate people, protecting refugees and displaced people fleeing persecution, building houses for those whose homes have been destroyed by wars or typhoons. It’s not always the most politically popular work, as evident to those working with Central American children arriving on U.S. borders, or negotiating access for food deliveries in Al-Shabaab-controlled areas of Somalia. The humanitarians who work in these – and dozens of other — situations deserve recognition and support.
They also need practical support because the fact is that humanitarian work is becoming more dangerous – a theme which the United Nations picked up in deciding to commemorate August 19th as World Humanitarian Day. On this date eleven years ago, the U.N. headquarters in Iraq was bombed, killing 22 people, most notably Sergio de Vieira de Mello. According to some reports, the number of humanitarian workers killed in action has tripled in the past decade. Most recently, 30 aid workers were killed in Gaza between July 8 and August 12, including 11 United Nations Relief and Works Agency staff members, 11 medical personnel and 8 firefighters, while another 74 were left injured. In South Sudan, six aid workers were killed in the first week of August. As of last week, the World Health Organization reports that more than 170 health-care workers have been infected by the Ebola virus and at least 81 have died. Forty-three staff members of the Syrian and Palestine Red Crescent have been killed in Syria since the beginning of that conflict.
Aid workers have always died on the job, but now they are working in more dangerous places. There is an expectation that even in the midst of chaos and war, humanitarian agencies will figure out a way to provide assistance. And the paradox is that places where the humanitarian need is the greatest are often precisely the areas where it is most dangerous for aid agencies to work. Most worryingly, aid workers are increasingly targeted because they are aid workers. The International Committee of the Red Cross reported over 1800 violent incidents against health personnel in 2013.
World Humanitarian Day is a time to remember the humanitarian workers who risk their lives in dozens of places every day. These are the people who are working when bombs are falling, houses are collapsing and disease is spreading. We also need to remember that today’s humanitarian heroes are mostly local and national staff and volunteers who suffer higher casualty rates than Western aid workers and whose deaths receive far less media attention. Local community leaders are often assassinated when they seek to protect and assist their own people, as is the case with leaders of displaced communities. World Humanitarian Day reminds us that there are many humanitarian heroes. Given the growing number of humanitarian crises in the world today, many more will be needed in the future.