We need learners and thinkers on the humanitarian frontline

When humanitarians go to communities in crisis, we must first observe, see things and try to understand the dynamics. If community members are surviving in the middle of a problem, it follows that they have more knowledge and skills than us to address it.

Sometimes, we think we know without knowing. We make the mistake of being very prescriptive. We tell communities how to live, how to act, how to function. And that's a fundamental problem. Instead, we have to devise strategies to build upon local wisdom and support community initiatives.

We must go to communities with our mouths shut and eyes and ears open to learning.

Tacit learning is very important, but it’s often overlooked in our sector. Those with tacit knowledge are disregarded because they have perhaps not been educated at Harvard, Cambridge or another fine university.

Experience and perspective are critical to tacit learning. Decades ago, if I was in a community, I would not see gender discrimination, even if it was happening right in front of my eyes, because it was nothing unusual for me. It was a very accepted norm. Now, I can clearly see gender discrimination because of my perspective.

It’s very important to see the things as they are, convert this into knowledge and apply it to seek solutions. But often learning doesn't become knowledge and knowledge doesn’t become practice. Some humanitarian actors might think applying knowledge will mean losing their hegemony.

Over 35 years in the humanitarian sector, spent in different countries and with global responsibility for humanitarian programmes, I’ve become disillusioned by this hegemony of North over South, the disregard for local knowledge, wisdom and practices, and the control of money, coordination and decision-making.

People talk about things they know very little about, after hardly any time on the ground. They don't know the realities, yet still they talk about system change, dominating the discussion.

I began to ask why it was always Northern organisations working in Southern countries? Why couldn't an Indian organisation also work outside India - South-South cooperation based on an Indian value system, not just following the Western architecture?

That's why I established Humanitarian Aid International (HAI) in 2016, to meaningfully seek solutions and work on the real empowerment of local organisations, without the rhetoric.

I have realised the humanitarian system is largely not identifying problems or seeking solutions, but rather raising resources to sustain itself. Our sector has become very money-driven, but we are not using that money to seek solutions, so the needs continue to increase.

Money is important, but that's not the first and last thing. We need to demonetise the humanitarian system and live up to our organisations’ visions and missions, not just use them in our project proposals to raise funds.

People used to join an organisation because they shared the passion and believed in its mission. Now, people are doing jobs for the salaries, not for the sense of purpose. And when staff of INGOs are paid six times more than staff of local organisations, do you think people will stay with a local organisation or quickly jump? Then, who will work in the communities?

This salary disparity and constant brain-drain has to be addressed. Our institutions are losing their intellectual capital to a significant extent.

We need learrners, thinkers and philosophers on the frontline. But why would they stay there? Those with this capacity are somewhere else, disconnected from the communities, drawing bigger salaries. Time for thinking, coming up with new ideas, assessing the situation and transforming approaches - that's not happening at the moment.

A humanitarian’s job is not just to distribute food, provide WASH and shelter. Our primary job is to lead the process of transformation. We have lost that intellectual capacity.

I try to provide motivation, inspiration and instill a sense of purpose in the young humanitarians working for HAI. We maintain a constant dialogue and make efforts to bring in money to give them as good a salary as we can. We can only dream of paying as much as INGOs, but enough for a decent, comfortable life. We are a tiny organisation, but we are trying to support as many frontline workers, frontline thinkers, frontline learners as possible.

So let’s make small but meaningful changes. Don't just drive for big change all in one go.