Opinion: In a time of high crisis, the humanitarian's work has never been so important

In South Sudan, running out of battery can mean losing touch with your loved ones. The ICRC and the South Sudan Red Cross have set up temporary phone-charging stations so that displaced people can get news to their families. Photo by: ICRC / CC BY-NC-ND

Last week brought the news — confirmed in an independent scientific study — that Red Cross volunteers in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone may have prevented up to 10,000 Ebola cases during the 2013-2016 outbreak. Given how infectious the deceased infected people were, and given the deeply valued traditional burial practices of the region, we changed the rhetoric of “dead body management” to the more respectful “safe and dignified burials.” We earned the trust of the people we care for.

In situations of hardship and disease, it is natural and right that people want to show compassion and care in washing and touching the dead. But sometimes the right thing to do is the risky thing to do, and people simply cannot mourn and bury as they want to. So they entrusted the Red Cross with the responsibility of accompanying them as they in turn accompanied their own loved ones to their final place of rest. It’s unusual to measure success by the number of people safely buried, but in this case we could justifiably do so.  

Never has the scale of humanitarian need been greater. In 2017, we face an unprecedented four possible famines in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria. The situations in Yemen and Somalia are compounded by two of the worst cholera outbreaks in a decade. We see the world’s highest ever number of displaced people — almost 66 million of them, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees — fleeing natural hazards but mainly man-made disaster, and the highest ever numbers of people in need of some form of humanitarian assistance. 

Reading or hearing the news becomes in itself a call for disaster preparedness. Over the past few weeks, it was London and Portuguese fires, Chinese mudslides, explosions in Pakistan, floods in Myanmar. And these are just the relatively high-profiles crises. There were many other emergencies. Storms and fires in South Africa and floods in Brazil barely merited a byline story. 

Aid groups ask for help in dealing with forgotten crisis of Lake Chad Basin

Experts responding to the ongoing Lake Chad Basin crisis call on the international community for both funding and visibility to prevent the spread of malnutrition, illness and other residuals left behind by Boko Haram fighters. The Lake Chad Basin crisis was listed as the “most underreported crisis of 2016” with experts saying it has been largely forgotten to other global crises.

Then there are the slow-burning crises, the gradual if accelerating walks toward the cliff. Last week brought searing images taken by a Red Cross cameraman at a refugee camp in northern Cameroon. How many of us know that Cameroon houses 18,000 refugees from what we call the “silent emergency” of the Lake Chad region? How many even know that the crisis — featuring a lake that is a tenth the size of what it was 50 years ago, and 17 million affected people in four countries around it — even existed? And how do they feel to be told that this is a situation that needs $1.5 billion of our scarce resources?

The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement knows, for sure. We are the world’s largest humanitarian network, with 17 million volunteers across 190 “national societies” — almost every country on earth has one. We are there before, during and after any crisis. We neither fly in nor fly out: we are part of the communities we serve. 

And we often pay a terrible price for taking principled humanitarian action in a humanitarian space that is shrinking. This year alone, 19 of our volunteers and staff have been killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan, Germany, Mali, Mexico, Nigeria, Syria and now, so sadly after another killing last week, the Central African Republic. 

In Geneva last week, we reviewed global progress on a deal — the “Grand Bargain” — that was concluded at last year’s World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. Donor governments have promised to become more flexible — reducing earmarked funding and providing longer-term funding in exchange for relief agencies becoming more transparent on how funding flows, reducing their management costs and improving their planning. We also agreed to work together on increasing funding for local organizations.

One year after its inception, we have seen signs of progress, but change is slow and we have to keep up the sense of urgency.

But even the Grand Bargain cannot bridge the huge gap between the resources currently available and today’s spiraling needs. Where is the money from the donors? And from every possible source we can tap — from companies, foundations and individuals rich and poor who have compassionate hearts for their fellow human beings?

The United Nations is appealing for its largest amount ever this year — $22.2 billion. And yet given that only 60 percent of the need was covered last year, we will continue to face the challenges of having to do more with less, knowing that the lack of funding will have dire consequences for millions in desperate need.

We are collectively tasked to respond to some of the worst crises in recent, badly bruised memory, and also to invest more in disaster preparedness, which so dramatically reduces the cost of remedial action. We already know for sure that the monsoons and the hurricanes will come — the task is to be ready for them.

Disaster preparedness works. Some of the forgotten crises in fact denote good things. Bangladesh, for instance, no longer loses lives to flooding by the tens of thousands as it did a generation ago, because humanitarians have built local resilience and the infrastructure to match: water sources and water treatment facilities at higher levels; temporary shelters; stockpiles of medicines to treat the venomous snake bites that come with flooding, and more.

And on the other side, how are the humanitarian agencies performing?  

Many reported successes last week, and all were honest enough to share where they had fallen short. We heard results from those who responded to Hurricane Matthew in Haiti in Oct. 2016, and saw categorically that lives were saved because we — the international humanitarian community — were better prepared, better targeted in our aid, and better coordinated. The country that was laid to waste by earthquake and cholera in 2010 came back fighting six years later.

International funding and international organizations are clearly fundamental to humanitarian aid, but it is equally plain that local actors can and must be empowered to handle local crises as much as possible. Yet there is currently very little investment in their long-term capacity and only 0.4 percent of humanitarian emergency funding currently goes directly to local civil society organizations, and only 1.6 percent to affected governments.  

As we saw again in the Ebola crisis in West Africa, the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement is proof positive that the local dimension adds indispensable value.  

Spare a thought, then, in a sometimes cynical and an increasingly frightened world, for the humanitarians whose task has never been so important. 

And uphold them in the humanity that is the highest principle of humanitarianism, as they help people recover the thing that is most important to them, which they may have lost on their way: their dignity.  

Join the Devex community and access more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Elhadj As Sy

    Elhadj As Sy is the chair of the Kofi Annan Foundation. Prior to that, Sy assumed the role of secretary-general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. He has extensive experience in leadership roles in the humanitarian sector, having previously served at a senior level with UNICEF, UNAIDS, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, and other agencies for more than 25 years.