When close to a billion people go to bed hungry every night, being a humanitarian is not a choice, says Unni Krishnan, Head of Disaster Preparedness and Response.
On World Humanitarian Day, I am reminded that close to a billion people go to bed hungry every night, making humanitarian work crucial.
24 hours from when you are reading this piece, approximately 24,000 children will have died worldwide from preventable diseases. This is an everyday reality, but these deaths can be stopped with access to clean water, health care, immunisation, safety and education.
When I am asked what inspired me to get involved in humanitarian work, I ask myself if there is any choice when faced with this reality.
Our news headlines are currently dominated by humanitarian crises – the Ebola outbreak; the lingering conflict and food crisis in South Sudan threatening the lives of over four million people; the conflict in Iraq; the occupied Palestinian territories and Israel. In such a world, “ordinary” humanitarian workers are putting their lives on the line for the sake of others, refusing to give up, providing a source of everyday inspiration amid the crises.
Brave people, selfless volunteers
The bravest people in the world are not those who climb Mount Everest, Formula 1 drivers or the armed guards protecting presidential palaces. I believe that the bravest people today are the frontline workers, providing life-saving humanitarian assistance. Take the health workers and the undertakers battling the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. They know the huge risk of contracting the deadly disease, which kills up to 90% of its victims. The current outbreak has claimed 1,145 lives, though reports indicate these numbers could be higher.
It’s not just the threat of the highly infectious virus they have to battle. Health workers and undertakers have all come under attack. The fact that dead bodies are a source of infection has put a stop to burials in usual places. More than 160 health workers are reported to have been infected, half of whom have died. Yet, there has been an armed attack on the patient unit care in Liberia. The outbreak is taking a heavy toll on the frontline workers – including emotionally.
Getting our priorities right
In a world characterised by violence and human suffering, humanitarian work can only be built on the strong foundations of humanitarian values and principles. We talk in our reports, proposals and budgets of the millions in need, but these are not just statistics – these are real people like you and I, with names, relations and emotions. It is vital to recognise the rights of the people humanitarian agencies serve, as expressed in the Humanitarian Charter.
There are 51 million displaced people in the world right now. But this does not necessarily mean that public engagement with these issues is higher than before. Last year, the global arms expenditure was US $1.75 trillion (i.e. 1750 billion dollars). A small portion of this money is sufficient to provide clean water, health care, education and shelter for all people on earth, and provide humanitarian assistance in all disasters and conflicts.
Earlier this year, during a visit to a Plan Child-Friendly Space in South Sudan in the peak of the armed conflict, two children caught my attention – a case in point demonstrating why humanitarian work is so crucial and the difference it makes. In a group of 100 children, Madiha, 9, and Lina, 4, stood out. It was not their unusual silence that caught my attention, but the way they frequently hugged each other, seemingly involuntarily.A few days earlier they both witnessed the execution of their parents in Jonglei before fleeing to relative safety. Madiha’s first instinct was to protect Lina. As they made their escape, this nine-year-old child was transformed into a mother and father to her four-year-old sister, leaving her childhood behind.
Plan is making a lasting difference to the lives of these children and many others. They show inspirational grit and determination, and remind me that while you may not be able to stop a disaster, humanitarian work can reduce the risks, bolster resilience and save lives. World Humanitarian Day is a special occasion to recognise the ordinary humanitarian workers on the frontline doing extraordinary work in very challenging situations – far from ordinary, they are the true heroes.