Politics of Poverty

Local aid workers, heroes of World Humanitarian Day

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Shortly after typhoon Haiyan, Vincent Malasador gives support and reassurance to a woman in Papaya, North Cebu, Philippines. Photo: Jane Beesley/Oxfam

Eighty percent of aid worker fatalities since 2001 are people from the countries and communities in crisis.

Shannon Scribner leads Oxfam America’s Humanitarian Policy team in Washington.

Today is World Humanitarian Day, a day designated to coincide with the anniversary of the 2003 bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad that killed 22 people and injured more than 100. While most people around the globe don’t recognize this day, for me it’s a day to reflect on those living in humanitarian disasters and to recognize those who put themselves in danger to help others.

For the first time in history, the United Nations and the world’s aid agencies are responding to five major humanitarian crises at once: refugee crises in Syria and Iraq, civil wars in Central African Republic and in South Sudan, and a devastating Ebola outbreak in West Africa, among other ongoing humanitarian and conflict situations. Here are just a few highlighted:

Oxfam is one of the many organizations providing lifesaving assistance to people living in these disasters. But my job does not put me in danger anymore. These days I sit safe and comfortable in Washington, DC. I am not one of the heroes that you often hear about. I am not there when the typhoon hits.

There are so many people that are working in these disasters and put their life on the line to save the lives of others, within Oxfam and other humanitarian organizations, and more importantly within the local nonprofits and civil society organizations that are the first to respond during disasters and conflicts in their communities. They don’t flee the trouble. They go into the disasters and the conflicts in order to provide food, clean water and shelter to people who would not have it otherwise. These are the people I think about today.

Attacks on aid workers have steadily risen over the years—from 90 violent attacks in 2001 to 308 incidents in 2011—with the majority of attacks toward local aid workers. Local aid workers often face more danger because they can get closer to the crisis to help others. Because local aid workers are familiar with the landscape, speak the local language, and understand the local culture, and this also puts them more at risk. That is why it is not a surprise that local aid workers make up nearly 80% of fatalities on average since 2001. The Aid Worker Security Database, ran by the advisory group Humanitarian Outcomes, illustrates the human cost of aid work – particularly to local aid workers. The New York Times reported today that the number of attacks on aid workers in 2013 set an annual record, at 460, the most since the group began compiling its database, which goes back to 1997.

Graph from the Overseas Development Institute. http://bit.ly/XykJOL

So what can be done? As the Humanitarian Policy Manager at Oxfam America I feel like I should have the answer, but I don’t. I wish there was an Ice Bucket Challenge for humanitarian disasters that would raise the awareness about what aid workers do, and risk.

I think the most important thing is to care:

We can do better. And there is no better time to start then today – World Humanitarian Day.


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