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What does it take to be a humanitarian?

18 August 2017, Impact of Our Work, Voices from the Field, Emergencies

With an increasingly unpredictable international world order, delivering aid where it’s most needed has become more dangerous than ever.

Last year, more than 300 aid workers were killed, wounded or kidnapped; the second-worst year on record. It takes a unique resolve (and a small amount of crazy) to want to work on the ground – in the name of humanity – in some of the world’s toughest places.

Generally, people who are in the greatest need live in the most challenging, luckless or brutal places on earth. Places rocked by bloody conflict, seared by merciless drought or devastated by natural catastrophe. Places not many of us would choose to visit.

Here, three members of our humanitarian team share some insight into what it takes to work in the field – what personal impact it can have and why it’s worth the discomfort, the frustration and the risk.

Unni Krishnan – Director, Emergency Health Unit

What does it mean to be a humanitarian?

"It is a simple truth that we are one humanity and supporting each other is key for our survival and development. Being a humanitarian is about being compassionate to fellow human beings; standing in solidarity with people and supporting them in their difficult moments. Universal values and principles guide them without any discrimination based on religion, nationality, race etc. Humanitarianism is a simple and powerful idea that reminds us that, as humans, we have much in common to unite us.

"Some of the most inspiring humanitarians I have come across are ordinary people, doing extraordinary things in some of the most challenging contexts. Such frontline workers – sometimes ordinary villagers and health workers – teach an important lesson: you don’t need to be perfect to be brilliant. It is a myth that you need to be an "expert" to be a humanitarian. Having certain skills and a deeper understanding on certain issues is definitely helpful, but don’t mistake this for the only criteria."

What kind of personal qualities do you think one needs to work in this field?

"Compassion, empathy, flexibility, collaboration, rights, values and principle are some of the key mantras:
  • Firstly, it is about being a compassionate fellow human being and having the ability to connect with people and to listen to their problems or aspirations.
  • Flexibility – humanitarian work unfolds in dynamic, fast-changing and unstable settings. Being prepared to expect the unexpected.
  • No compromise when it comes to values and principles. Rights, dignity and integrity are not vitamin supplements and options.
  • Being a team player. Recognise that there is a contribution everyone can make, however small or big it may be.
  • Positivity and being a 'possibilist’. As a humanitarian, our job is not just to describe how bad a situation is, but to start doing something about it. Humanitarianism is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer to shape humanity.
  • An ability to demystify and simplify complex settings and get priorities right. Voltaire said ‘when people are hungry, they need short speeches and long bread’. Don’t complicate!
  • Be responsible and do no further harm. Your action (or inaction) can have huge consequences.
  • Most importantly, it is always possible to do something to make the world a better, just and safe place for children. If in doubt, put a child’s face to the future you envision. It is always possible to do something."

Nichola Krey – Head of Humanitarian Affairs

What sort of psychological impact can humanitarian work have on you and your colleagues?

"Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other stress-related disorders can accumulate years after an event has taken place. Stress anxiety disorders are not uncommon among humanitarians and in general, working on the front line can take a huge toll on your physical and mental health.

"Long hours, insecure and uncertain environments, and exposure to various viruses and bugs can impact your immune system and sleep patterns. Then there is the difficultly humanitarians face transitioning back into the normal rhythm of home or family life once they have returned from a deployment.

"A lot of us feel very flat and it does take some adjustment to reconnect with loved ones again. This can be really isolating and can sometimes lead to depression if it is not managed properly. It can also be damaging to relationships."

How do you deal with it? How do you manage the potential for stress or PTSD?

"Individual humanitarians have different thresholds of stress and trauma. Nonetheless, managing stress during and after a deployment may reduce the chances of it accumulating into something more insidious and chronic.

"Ten years ago, stress and trauma experienced by humanitarians was rarely spoken about. Today, thanks to the help of support groups like Fifty Shades of Aid, humanitarians are much more open about the personal pressures they face and employers are becoming better at supporting humanitarians to take mandatory downtime and counselling.

"It’s more important than ever that employers put policies in place that require humanitarians to take this downtime. If given the choice, some humanitarians won’t take it because they feel 'fine' but this resilience can erode over time."

Claire Mason – Humanitarian Policy and Advocacy Advisor

How do you respond when you feel your life might be in danger?

"There have been a number of times when I felt my life could be in danger, but I’ve always put my faith in the plans we put in place before we enter a potentially dangerous or risky situation. These plans guide how we will react, both as individuals and as a group, if things go wrong.

"We don’t just jump in the car and decide to visit a high-risk area. A security assessment is always done first and we have a thorough pre-trip briefing before we go. When you get in the car, everyone has their game face on and is on high alert.

"There is also clear chain of command – there is always one person who has the authority to decide whether a situation is too risky and we need to pull out. We all follow that decision; no questions. Despite the best laid plans though, and as the statistics show, things can obviously go very wrong. So, we have also been trained for the worst case scenarios – how to help a colleague if they get shot, what to do if our car is hijacked or we are kidnapped.

"Every time I go into a dangerous situation, I am genuinely worried these things might happen and sometimes I have had sleepless nights before I go on trips and wonder if I should pull out. To give in to those fears, even when you know there are clear plans in place to maximise your safety, is exactly what those who attack humanitarian workers want. So, while you should always listen to your gut and pull out if you are genuinely concerned, it is also crucial to push ahead and have faith in the plan, in your colleagues and your organisation to ensure a humanitarian presence is maintained and respected."

What sort of influence do you think aid organisations (like Save the Children) can have on foreign governments who can play a role in ending conflicts?

"I think humanitarian organisations have a key role to play in changing the minds and influencing the actions of foreign governments, especially when it comes to the impact of conflicts on children.

"From working in some of the world’s most challenging contexts, we can speak firsthand about how much children are suffering, and bring significant pressure to bear on foreign governments to do what is right and act to improve their situations. Ideally by ending the conflicts that they are caught up in.

"Sadly, this is a lot easier said than done and change is slow to come.

"The reasons behind conflicts are complex and often beyond the power of most foreign governments to change, especially as most present-day conflicts are civil wars and foreign governments are not the key aggressors.


"Many foreign governments will have some kind of stake in the game though – they may be selling arms to warring parties or have vested economic or political interests – and so we pressure them to do what is within their power in order to influence change. However, as we know too well, this can be a very long game and in the meantime, children’s situations worsen and their need for assistance becomes increasingly acute.

"So, we also apply pressure on foreign governments to do what they can while we wait for change to come. For example, we maintain constant pressure on them to fully fund humanitarian responses. We also regularly push them to use their diplomatic weight to ensure humanitarian access is maintained, supported and protected. We’ve had many wins in these respects but as World Humanitarian Day highlights, conflicts continue unabated, humanitarian response still remains very high risk and humanitarian access to people in need continues to be restricted – so we need to keep the pressure up."

Images: Olivia Watson/Tim Muir/Guilhem Alandry/Save the Children
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