Praise for ‘the cowboys’ on World Humanitarian Day

18 August 2010
Comment
Today is the second annual World Humanitarian Day. The day aims to increase public awareness about humanitarian work and the importance of international cooperation, to honour humanitarian workers in the field , and commemorate all of those who have lost their lives in the line course of duty. This year, the day has three key messages that focus on the purpose of humanitarian aid to save lives and alleviate suffering: the diversity or humanitarian aid workers (most of whom come from the countries in which they work), the rising number of violent attacks on aid workers and the need to respect the principles by which they operate.

Despite, or even because of, its noble ambitions, attention to humanitarian action often focuses on its risks and failures. Two of the four key messages for today concern threats to humanitarian work – namely the insecurity faced by aid workers as their actions become associated increasingly with a Western political agenda. Even the origins of World Humanitarian Day reflect the spectre of tragedy and loss; 19 August marks the anniversary of the death of Sergio Vieira de Mello, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General to Iraq, and 20 of his staff in the Canal Hotel bombing in Baghdad.

Given the gravity of the work carried out by the humanitarian sector, and the appalling cost of failure, it is all too easy to focus on its weaknesses and lose sight of its positive achievements. Yet it is precisely our strengths as a sector that enable aid personnel to overcome the obstacles inherent in the complex environments in which they work. In recognition of all those have worked to promote the humanitarian cause, the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI would therefore like to add our own messages that speak to the resilience of humanitarianism and our capacity for innovation and change.

The first is that the very challenges faced by humanitarian aid workers have served as an impetus for learning and improving the way assistance is provided. While humanitarian and development workers are painted respectively as ‘cowboys' and ‘cardigans', let's not underestimate the thinking that takes place among the cowboys (and cowgirls). Evaluating practice has been key to improving performance, by asking if aid agencies provided the right assistance in the right way and how they can do better. Self reflection on values and standards has resulted in minimum standards of assistance and numerous codes of conduct. Initiatives like the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership have made agencies more accountable to the people they serve. Evidence of learning ranges from blogs by aid workers to professional courses on humanitarian action, with countless cases in between.

The second is that innovations in humanitarian assistance are making it a far more sophisticated sector than it once was. Examples abound, from tackling malnutrition through new and commercially available food products to incorporating technologies like mobile phones, satellite imaging and GPS for more effective information management and communication. Distributing cash rather than in-kind goods is an innovation that enables people to choose the assistance they need – whether in response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans or the earthquake in Haiti. Once considered risky, cash transfers are now seen as a common approach that can empower people affected by a crisis and even support local economies.

Finally, the variety of humanitarian actors means that the opportunities for learning and innovation are equally diverse. Media images of foreign workers arriving en masse after a crisis are misleading: local actors are the frontline of humanitarian action, be they individuals or organisations, first-time responders or established aid workers. Nor is government support for international humanitarian response the sole domain of the Western countries. Diversity amongst donors is now the norm, with humanitarian responses often supported by more than 50 governments. For 2010, Saudi Arabia ranks as the fourth-largest government donor to the Haiti earthquake relief.

As we recognise the achievement of humanitarian workers and the diversity of the humanitarian enterprise, so too must we acknowledge that much remains to be done. Humanitarian access and the protection of aid workers must remain a top priority, including efforts to promote understanding of humanitarian principles and compliance with international humanitarian law. There are still problems, not least in targeting aid to the most needy and keeping aid workers safe, but for one day at least let's celebrate the lives that humanitarian aid has saved.