Today we mark the fourth annual World Humanitarian Day. The United Nations created this day to honor those who have lost their lives in humanitarian service or serve in risky humanitarian endeavors. Earlier this year, I visited the UN offices in Baghdad and saw the memorial to the 22 people who lost their lives in an attack on this date in 2003.
There is humanitarian need throughout the world, and so you will find these workers on nearly every continent saving lives, relieving suffering and striving to protect vulnerable people.
Who are today’s humanitarians? Whereas once caring amateurs made up the ranks of humanitarian organizations, the field has undergone a professionalization. The people doing the best work have years of experience or schooling in public health and medicine, water and sanitation engineering, shelter construction, HIV/AIDS prevention, women’s reproductive health, human rights, and protection of rights of the displaced.
Humanitarians design programs to resolve, and not spark, problems. They seek to adhere to established international standards. They take steps to prevent violence and corruption. In the best circumstances, they speak the local languages and appreciate the local culture. They speak on behalf of the powerless or facilitate aid recipients speaking up for themselves.
Some work for international organizations, like the UN and the Red Cross movement, or for not-for-profit organizations and other private groups. The State Department and USAID partner with and provide support for many of these organizations.
More and more, humanitarians come from the very places that are in need of help. This is how it should be: local people are usually the first responders to any crisis. This is why a portion of aid programs ought to go towards building resilience in communities that are prone to crisis so that they can better withstand adversity.
In my recent travels, I’ve seen how people in Burkina Faso have shared their pasture land with grazing animals belonging to refugees from Mali, and how Jordanians have opened their homes to families fleeing Syria.
What role can be played by concerned people in the United States and other developed countries? For those who want to work in crisis zones, there is still a need for people with specialized training. Experts can help train others and transfer needed skills. Also useful are people who can describe and justify aid programs to donors and apply for grants. Fundraisers help explain to philanthropists how small investments can yield great benefits.
Many others are needed to play a part, even in small ways. Modest private contributions to reputable aid organizations add up to flexible funds used to address neglected crises. Americans can volunteer to welcome refugees who have fled war or oppression and have been resettled in U.S. cities and towns. Social media offers more and more opportunities to learn about humanitarian issues and speak out about them.
World Humanitarian Day is a global day to celebrate humanity and the spirit of people helping people. This year, the theme is “I was here” — a simple motto that invites everyone to make a contribution — big or small.