Why her understanding could never be mine, and mine could never be hers

When asked to contribute to ALNAP’s Annual Meeting blog series on relevance in humanitarian action, I felt compelled to share an experience that altered the way I perceive the world. It has created a conflict in my beliefs around how our present global society reacts to humanitarian crises.

In 2001, with no understanding nor experience in emergency management, conflict, international relations (or any other related disciplines for that matter), I was selected by the United Nations to act as an electoral officer for the presidential elections in East Timor. Back then, the possibility of being a humanitarian worker, was a distant dream and to say that I was prepared to face this challenge would have been a profound lie. And yet, I accepted the offer.

I arrived in East Timor hoping for the best but knowing that my chances of helping the local population were scarce. Not because I distrusted the capacities of the humanitarian system to create positive change, but because I didn't believe in myself as a source of that change. The large differences I perceived between me and the isolated community where I was deployed meant an almost immediate communication breakdown.

Why her understanding could never be mine, and mine could never be hers

UN Photo/M Kobayashi.

It didn’t take me long to understand that the inefficiencies in the international operation were a result of clashing cultural, ideological, spiritual and many times historically constructed realities of affected people and the international humanitarian workers and related personnel.

During one field trip, I met a 12- or 13-year old girl who approached me and began to share details of the most atrocious experience. Looking down at the dust floor where we sat, she relayed the graphic details of her life as a sex slave during the war after her family had been brutally murdered.

It took me years to be able to grasp the essence of this interaction. Observance of the facts about the conflict of the country and even some familiarity with her experience certainly did not suffice. For me, as for many other emergency personnel, much more was needed to fully understand things as the local population did. Back then, I was convinced that my perceptions were correct, but later on I realised that I was only making sense of part of the story.

Why her understanding could never be mine, and mine could never be hers_2

WaterAid/Dean Sewell.

It was my own definition of sense-making that was both biased and extremely limited.

I am glad (but also embarrassed) to say that it was only recently that I began to understand the “hidden” message that this girl may have been trying to communicate. It was certainly not about the facts or even her feelings. What I believe she wanted was for me to understand that this happened to her, a girl in East Timor, and that it would never happen to me, and even if it did, we would never experience it in the same way. I can now see that she wanted to convince me that there are unique circumstances that shape our realities in ways that others will never comprehend and that it is our most significant responsibility to have this crucial distinction, constantly present, every single time we step into someone else’s territory, even if the purpose is to help.

Why her understanding could never be mine, and mine could never be hers_3

UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

We must push ourselves to acknowledge different vantage points at play in humanitarian response, and be aware that what defines our interpretation, even (or especially) during a humanitarian crisis is driven by different and many times opposing logics, irrespective of whether we are engaged in the same quest. Our failure to do so will most surely generate additional unwanted disruptions and obstruct our abilities to deliver relevant assistance.