Humanitarianism is about putting the needs of vulnerable and suffering people first and putting everything else that gets in the way of action in our mental back pockets. We need, especially now, to stick to the plain fact that there are people in dire need, who deserve a response based on our common humanity.
The world has become a much more dangerous and difficult place. Yet there is greater mistrust and less space for humanitarian action.
There is a growing global mistrust of what is often perceived as a western “mid Atlantic” humanitarian/political agenda. Some Western governments are using the language of humanitarianism as a fig leaf to cover their political and military objectives. We have not found enough leaders from other parts of the world willing to translate and defend the principles of humanitarianism in their own religious and cultural concepts.
Access to displaced and vulnerable communities is a major challenge now in Syria, Iraq and Gaza. In Syria, for example, the U.N. has had to say to the Syrian regime that they are not going to wait for permission; they are going to go in and distribute in parts not controlled by the government with or without government permission, which the U.N. rarely does.
Locals doing it better
If you haven’t built up trust with local partners it is extremely difficult to ratchet up and increase one’s presence in the middle of a conflict. In Gaza, some sort of truce or ceasefire is essential to enable an effective humanitarian response. The wonderful thing is that the U.N. is well placed to tell us what is needed and how we should be responding. I worked for years in Gaza with the Palestine Red Crescent, a very well trusted and competent organisation. So there are well-tested avenues that can be supported in Gaza, but we need a ceasefire.
DEC members, such as Age International, have been very successful in delivering aid in Gaza, mainly working through local staff. And the British public has been as generous as ever in supporting this work reaching out to the most vulnerable.
Many of the best international NGOs have learnt that the way forward is to strengthen local partners, local capacities, local leadership, and let them defend humanitarian values, space and actions. We have overly relied in the past on a “fly-in” model, and we have geared up all the response capacity with the relevant stocks of human skills, goods and services in European and North American organisations. We need to relocate that leadership, with access to those relevant goods and services in national and regional bodies so that humanitarian aid will look and feel different so as to better respond to the different and often contested contexts.
In my years of witnessing emergency responses it became clear that local community members are often the real heroes and heroines of humanitarianism; the neighbours, the grannies, the teenagers who are the survivors of a given tragedy and carry the life-saving burden. It is also these people, who often before tragedy strikes, have tried to do something to build up the resilience and the strength of their own local communities.
What has got me through many painful moments, whether it was in Darfur or South Sudan, Rwanda or Myanmar, was the privilege to be able to identify these people and give them additional resources so they could redouble their efforts. They know what needs to be done. Sadly we sometimes skew the whole picture by thinking and projecting ourselves as the most important actors.
However, humanitarian actors need to remain politically astute and recognise that some regimes see empowerment of local communities and organisations as a threat to their power base. They have learnt to manipulate the most vulnerable for their own ends, using access to aid as a way to control populations and to garner support.
Older people must not be forgotten in emergencies
As a board member of Age International, it’s comforting to see that people are waking up to the fact that the world is ageing and that we have not made the best use of older people’s skills and knowledge. I have realised that in my active field days, most of us were “age-blind”. We carried out general distributions of food, water and medicines and hoped that the aid trickled down to the people who needed them most. But we didn’t distribute this aid in a way that worked for older people. For example, older people were often pushed to the back of the queue, and even if they got the food, often they don’t have the strength or the resources to grind the grain or would find certain foods hard to digest.
Thankfully this is now changing, but it’s not just the duty of organisations like Age International and HelpAge. All humanitarian NGOs can learn from this body of expertise about how we can best reach out to older people and understand both their needs and their contribution.
There are thousands of children’s charities, which is obviously a good thing, and I know it’s important to invest in the health and wellbeing of the citizens of tomorrow, but we have to remember that older people play vital roles in their communities. Take HIV/AIDS in Africa, for example. Thousands of older people are the primary caregivers of young children because their own sons and daughters have died of AIDS-related diseases.
Brendan Gormley was chief executive of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), a network of the UK’s leading humanitarian agencies working together following emergencies, from 2000 until 2012, and is a board member of Age International, a UK charity focusing on older people in developing countries.