World Humanitarian Day 2013 – worth celebrating?

14/08/2013 at 1:07 pm Leave a comment

By Hilary Minch

It is easy to be cynical about World Humanitarian Day (WHD).  The shiny, americanised promotional videos (Beyonce last year or this year’s Kid President Video complete with chicken nuggets) certainly don’t help.

The reason for not dismissing World Humanitarian Day altogether is that it does try to raise awareness of humanitarian assistance worldwide and the people who risk their lives in order to provide it.

The number of people in need of humanitarian assistance in 2013 is a staggering 73 million people.  According to the UN’s Overview of Global Humanitarian Action (mid-year report), “Global humanitarian action has entered uncharted territory in terms of the number of people needing help and resources still to be secured, mainly because of the Syria crisis. The Syria Humanitarian Assistance Response Plan aims to help 6.8 million people inside Syria in 2013, and the Syria Regional Response Plan for refugees and affected host communities intends to help another 5.3 million people. Their combined resource requirements have added $4.4 billion to the amount needed for humanitarian action in major crises this year, which now totals an unprecedented $12.9 billion to help 73 million people”.

Watching a recent Al Jazeera documentary on Darfur, Darfur – a decade of disaster, I was reminded of the time in 2006 when I worked in Darfur with Irish aid agency Goal. I remember well the sweet tea; the call to prayer; the strange beauty of the haboub; waking in the morning with sand in my teeth; the noisy donkeys; the great team in the El Fasher office; the disappointment that the UNICEF ambassador to visit us was Mia Farrow and not George Clooney; Friday’s volleyball; the banning of Danish butter from the souk following the publication of the cartoon; the insecurity; the curfew; the lifting of the curfew for the world cup; the dirty water and endless tummy upsets; the unpredictable days; UN Co-ordination meetings; car hijackings; the disaster of the helicopter crash in which one of Goal’s staff members,  Hadja Hamid, was killed; the evacuation of the team from Jebel Marra; colleagues from UNOCHA, UNICEF and other NGOs rallying around to support Goal with kindness and practical assistance. I didn’t work closely with Goal’s beneficiaries but I think of them often, the women and children especially, displaced from their homes and villages in horrific circumstances and still not safe in the IDP camps where I suspect they are still seeking refuge after 10 long years.


Just like one day on the ground in Darfur, the humanitarian landscape is rapidly changing. The excellent Humanitarian Futures series on IRIN describes the rapid changes in humanitarian work, and argues that humanitarian agencies must become more innovating and less risk averse.

Some risks “that should be keeping humanitarians up at night” says Paul Knox-Clarke, head of research and communications at learning network ALNAP, include new disease outbreaks, cross-border epidemics, the threat of operating in situations where there is biological, nuclear or chemical contamination; and climate-change-related disasters – more volatile hydrological cycle and increased flooding, water shortages, disasters hitting mega-cities with poorly developed infrastructure, and chronic drought, such as in the Sahel.

Another of the critical challenges is the quality of data and local context analysis. More information about groups vulnerable to HIV infection during emergencies – including those labeled “most at-risk populations” (MARPs) – is needed to improve humanitarian HIV programming.

According to one of the members of the Dóchas Humanitarian Aid Working Group: the best part of being a humanitarian worker is:

“We all know that at least we can say we tried. Or the rewards when we do succeed. Especially the most sincere ones conveyed in ways you could never imagine. Making connections with people even if only very briefly but they are brief moments that count all the more be it your local staff or affected populations. And the camaraderie of fellow humanitarians. The sense of belonging ….of actually not feeling you’re mad for believing in what you do”.

And the worst:  

“When your best just isn’t good enough.  The frustration. Or sometimes when you feel like you just don’t have an answer. Or when you something you feel you have achieved doesn’t survive….the one step forward, two steps back scenario. Communities seemingly on the recover being beset by yet another travesty. And the misrepresentation of people affected by conflict as somehow responsible for their own downfall. The apathy, intransigence, the lack of urgency especially at the political level …..”.

These recent blogs and reports from members of the Humanitarian Aid Working Group are worth reading to give a flavor of what life is like in humanitarian settings:

While the 73 million men, women and children in need of humanitarian assistance in 2013 may not be celebrating World Humanitarian Day, perhaps some at least, like Victorine, a representative of the local water committee in Mambingi in the DRC, will appreciate the modest support they are receiving funded by ordinary people from across Ireland.

“There is no way we can thank you other than through song and dance.”



Dóchas resources:

New Irish Aid Guidelines for NGO Professional Safety and Security Risk Management:

Also read:

World Humanitarian Day 2013 in the Irish media:


Entry filed under: MDGs, NGOs, Overseas aid. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

African Philanthropy on the rise Note to Development NGOs: Time to become a Don Juan, not a Don Quixote.

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