In memoriam – World Humanitarian Day 2012

Today, August 19th, is World Humanitarian Day. On this day we remember humanitarian workers who have died while helping others in need. This day was carefully selected, because on this day back in 2003, twenty-two humanitarians died in Bagdad, Iraq during a bombing of the UN compound.

In a fantastic social networking experiment, UN OCHA, humanitarians, their friends and celebrities from around the world broadcasted a single message of hope to over 1.1 billion people. Furthermore, the singer Beyoncé, released a song dedicated to those humanitarian workers called I Was Here. In the beautiful lyrics and video that accompanied, the selfless work of humanitarians around the world is highlighted. Furthermore millions of people around the world committed to doing a good deed for someone else today in a sign of solidarity and helpfulness worldwide.

This social networking experiment, which is an amazing feat, is a great example of how social networks can be utilized to reach large numbers of people over a short period. Considering UN OCHA itself is a newcomer to social media, then it is especially interesting to see how quickly they are adapting to this new world and it is hopefully just the first step in an increased visibility and usage of social media in humanitarian situations.

But in this blog post I wanted to focus on my colleagues who have lost their lives in the line of duty. Since 2011, 109 humanitarian workers have been killed, 143 others were wounded and 132 have been kidnapped. Sadly these statistics are unfortunately part of a growing trend that shows insecurity of humanitarian workers has greatly increased. There are a number of reasons for this increase, such as changes in the geopolitical environment, overall increase in humanitarian workers, less respect for neutrality of humanitarian workers and organizations and more complex environments that humanitarian operations are performed in.

The Red Cross movement is doing a great job worldwide in increasing awareness both in conflictand natural disaster areas. But we must address this issue from multiple angles, not just from the awareness perspective. Don’t get me wrong, awareness is a very important angle and hopefully organizations like the Red Cross movement will embrace new methods and technologies to spread the messages of neutrality and respect for humanitarian workers.

There are other areas we must also address. One is to involve the affected communities more in the humanitarian work we do. Even when dealing with complex emergencies, it is important to get the affected community to become an integrated part of the approach taken. By making them part of the operational planning and execution, then the assistance becomes theirs. A community driven response ensures that those who are helping become better “protected” by the community itself. I often tell people about my many visits to the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, which according to UN security rules are off-limits for UN workers due to security threats. I never feel threatened there, because I am accompanied by people who are part of the community and are doing good things for the community and nobody would ever think about hurting. This “shield by association” is amazingly powerful and does not only provide shielding against attacks, but it also enables information about threats to be more readily shared with humanitarians from the community.

Over the last few years we have seen more and more involvement of the affected communities, through programs like Communication with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) and organizations like InterNews. In my mind this is the first step down a path we must follow, a path where community participation increases from the simple informative stage it currently is in to the more citizen power stage that enables full citizen involvement. We need to borrow lessons learnt from the urban planning field and drive for increased community participation. As that field has shown, then technology can play an interesting role in improving that citizen participation. I call on our colleagues in the UN to use their convening power to start a deeper discussion on community based humanitarian response.

At the same time we must also improve how we manage and handle information, both information coming from the affected communities, the national governments and the response organizations. Through better information sharing, we can lead to more effective decision making and more coordinated response. This in turn enables humanitarian workers to focus their efforts where the need is most and at the same time overlay that information with security and safety information that then influences their operational planning. More coordinated response also allows for increased involvement of the community, better planning of humanitarian convoys and more focused delivery of response. This in return can save lives of not only humanitarian workers, but also of those affected.

NetHope along with its partners has started on addressing parts of that big puzzle through its Open Humanitarian Initiative. We welcome additional partners in that effort, especially those who also share our vision that involving local communities and organizations is one of the important keys to better response efforts. For those interested in learning more about the Open Humanitarian Initiative, then we encourage you to attend our Google+ hangout scheduled on August 30th at 8-10am PST, 11am-1pm EST, 3-5pm GMT, 5-7pm CET.

We must all be open to the fact that the world is evolving rapidly and that we in the humanitarian community must be willing to evolve with it. Communication technology has enabled us to reach large part of Earth’s population. We must leverage this communication revolution to increase awareness, better involve affected communities and better share information with each other, so that the trend of humanitarian workers being killed in the line of duty is reversed.

Together we can make a difference, one that someday may even save our own life or the life of someone we know.

Published August 19th 2012 at DisasterExpert