A thought for World Humanitarian Day

This year’s World Humanitarian Day falls as two major international emergencies make news headlines.

As a result of the 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Haiti, 1,400 people have lost their lives, nearly 7,000 are injured and hundreds more are still missing. Emergency responses are now being hampered by Tropical Storm Grace which has dumped more than 25 cms of rain over the areas hardest hit by the quake.

And in Afghanistan the humanitarian community is bracing itself for a long-term catastrophe, with thousands attempting to flee the country as the Taliban tighten their grip. 390,000 people have been displaced since the start of the year and 9.4 million people are in need of assistance. All of us will have seen the terrible footage of events at Kabul airport and devastated infrastructure in Haiti and no one is underestimating the size and gravity of the challenges ahead.

It is also true that humanitarian agencies tend to rise to the big challenges. Year in, year out, they are successful in reaching crisis-affected communities in situations where the odds are stacked against them. A small part of this success is due to the improvements made in learning from past emergencies and applying them in new responses.

Key lessons from the 2010 Haiti Earthquake include articulating recovery strategies from day one and customising responses not only on needs but also on context and local capacities, and these should help guide the current response.

Even the most devastated communities and governments retain capacities and it is important to slow down and allow meaningful engagement following from the immediate phases. These lessons and more can be found in our Earthquakes section and in the ALNAP Lessons Paper Responding to earthquakes.

Afghanistan presents a different set of challenges including access and protection, human rights and humanitarian diplomacy. We know from past experiences that there are no easy answers to these complex issues but there are still learning resources available including lessons and experiences from Syria and several practical guides on humanitarian diplomacy and protection, for example. 

One of the biggest impediments to applying lessons in Afghanistan will inevitably be the fragile security situation. The country has been consistently amongst the top five most insecure contexts for aid workers and remains one of the most violent places to operate in, with an all-time number of aid attacks higher than any other country. More broadly, the latest Aid Worker Security Database figures show that 475 aid workers were the victims of major attacks in 2020 worldwide:108 had been killed, 242 wounded and 125 kidnapped.   

"Amid the noise and blanket media coverage, World Humanitarian Day can also provide us with a moment for reflection."

Amid the noise and blanket media coverage, World Humanitarian Day can also provide us with a moment for reflection. Many of us will have been involved, or know colleagues who have witnessed situations where humanitarian workers have been attacked, injured or killed. No humanitarian agency is spared this kind of trauma and, largely out of respect for the privacy of the victim’s family and friends, they do not come to light in the same way as other aspects of our lives. Our deepest sympathies and condolences go to those directly affected as the painful knock-on effects are also felt by many other people.

Many humanitarian workers will respect a minute’s silence on 19 August to remember those humanitarians that have risked and sacrificed their lives in providing succour and care to the most vulnerable people affected by disasters and conflict around the world. And then, as always, they will bravely face the challenges ahead.

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