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Aug 22, 2017

The changing world of humanitarian work

Oxfam India   /   Pankaj Anand

Millions of people in South Asia have been displaced over the past few days and more than 245 have died due to monsoon floods and landslides in parts of northern India, southern Nepal and Bangladesh.

While one part of world deals with disasters propelled by climate change, the other is living in times of exacerbated conflict. Helping these two worlds win their battles for peace and survival are some brave men and women. They are the heroic aid workers.

This World Humanitarian Day, the United Nations has decided to bring the attention of the world to the targeting of these humanitarian aid workers in conflict zones with a campaign ‘#NotATarget’.


These men and women provide humanitarian service to the most vulnerable and at-risk populations in some of the most challenging situations, often going beyond the normal call of duty.

But, why should India care about the humanitarian workers?

Well, India is among the world’s most disaster prone countries. This year alone we have seen one of the worst multiple disasters – floods across Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Manipur, Odisha, Rajasthan, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. Drought in South India has been near-calamitous.

I have travelled extensively to flood affected places in Assam this year and last year. In the midst of widespread destruction and the untold stories of the suffering, it is the resilience and resolve of the humanitarian workers that brings hope to thousands awaiting help.

But, these strong humanitarian workers are as vulnerable as the survivors affected by crisis. They need the support and commitment of not just the development sector but also governments and donors.

On this day, I am reminded of the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) held last year that witnessed representation from 180 Member States, hundreds of civil society, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moons idea was to generate commitments to reduce suffering and deliver better for people caught in humanitarian crises, and to demonstrate support for a new ‘Agenda for Humanity’.

Humanitarian workers need free access to serve communities in distress. They also need a secure environment during disaster response. The ‘Agenda for Humanity’ outlines the changes that are needed to alleviate suffering, reduce risk and lessen vulnerability on a global scale. It also enjoins upon the world leaders and all humanitarian actors to be mindful of their core responsibilities.

Indian Ambassador Rahul Kulshreshth at WHS had welcomed UN’s commitment to improving capacities locally and a new aid architecture for humanitarian work. More importantly, outlining India’s position on humanitarian financing, he had said that the northern countries have an obligation to provide 0.7% of their GDP for development work in southern countries. Therefore, humanitarian assistance should be counted as additional to development assistance, and not part of the same basket of assistance.

As a humanitarian worker, it is time for us to sharpen our ability to reinforce the national and local systems. Who knows better about the underlying threats and priorities of the communities than the local actors themselves? But for this to happen the we will have to invest in local capacities. This will also require direct and predictable financing to national and local actors coupled with sustained support in building their capacities to respond to disasters.

The question of sharing of resources has always been a vexed one. Greater resources in the hands of local and national organisations is the sine qua non in the new order of things. The Grand Bargain, an agreement between 30 of the biggest donors and aid providers, has made a commitment to provide 25 per cent of global humanitarian funding to local and national responders by 2020. It is time to walk the talk!

The overall milieu in which the humanitarian workers have delivered is all set to see gradual change. It is time we not only embrace the change but also be a catalyst of change for our humanitarian brethren.

Most importantly, it is important that India, in keeping with its stated position on humanitarian financing, plays an important role in monitoring progress. 

This said, what will never change is the resolve of humanitarian aid workers who will keep working hard to provide relief and rehabilitation to people in greatest need. WHD reminds us why celebrating their work is paramount in a changing humanitarian landscape.




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