World Humanitarian Day
Written by Mollie Knight
Content Warning: death or dying, violence
The time has come again to celebrate another UN observance! Today is World Humanitarian Day, a day that aims to bring together people from across the humanitarian system to advocate for the survival, well-being and dignity of people affected by crises and for the safety and security of aid workers. In that vein, I thought it would be a great opportunity to use this platform to raise awareness of some of the humanitarian crises that are happening currently and what you can do to help. It is not a light topic, but an important one.
The origins of the World Humanitarian Day hail back to 2003 where, as a result of a bombing on the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, 22 aid workers were killed, including the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello. Five years after the bomb attack, the UN General Assembly designated the 19th August as World Humanitarian Day.
This year’s theme is ‘It takes a Village’, which aims to show the importance, effectiveness and positive impact of humanitarian work. Here’s what the UN had to say about the theme:
“There is a saying that goes: It takes a village to raise a child. Similarly, it takes a village to support a person in a humanitarian crisis. With record-high humanitarian needs around the world, this year’s World Humanitarian Day builds on this metaphor of collective endeavour to grow global appreciation of humanitarian work. Whenever and wherever people are in need, there are others who help them. They are the affected people themselves – always first to respond when disaster strikes – and a global community that supports them as they recover. Far from the spotlight and out of the headlines, they come together to ease suffering and bring hope.”
By highlighting the collective nature of humanitarian work, this theme will shine a light on the multitudes of people and workers that support crisis-affected people. The UN has curated some beautiful digital art to tell the stories of this, sometimes invisible, workforce - which I have featured throughout this blog post.
The phrase “it takes a village” also connotes this collectivist approach to life that is commonplace in many countries across the world. This community-orientated way of dealing with problems sometimes feels starkly different to how things are in Europe or the USA, but can have real benefits for addressing crises, helping in natural disasters and supporting vulnerable community members. By emphasising group needs, collective harmony and interdependence, people have the connections to work together and consideration of how things will impact the whole group - much like how humanitarians and aid organisations must work together to create a network of positive change.
According to the Global Humanitarian Overview, this year alone, 274 million people will need humanitarian assistance and protection. This has increased from 235 million people last year, which was the highest number in decades. The UN estimates to assist the 183 million most in need they will require $41 billion.
Thinking back at what has taken place this year, this isn’t necessarily a surprise. Russia invaded Ukraine 177 days ago, and more air strikes are expected in the coming months. Only a few days ago, after a shelling in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, at least 3 people were killed. As a result of this invasion, Ukrainians have faced hunger, lack of access to clean water, homelessness (even after they have escaped as refugees) and safety. It’s estimated that at least 12 million people in Ukraine will need humanitarian aid this year.
The Health Worker
Russia’s invasion in Ukraine has had impacts on the global scale too. We’ve all heard about the cost of living crisis on the news recently and there’s an argument to be made that the war in Ukraine has exacerbated these crises, especially the global food shortage. With Ukraine, the world’s 4th largest grain exporter, being locked-down and Russia, who is the world’s largest exporter, not exporting as much as before, there are serious concerns about global food supply. This lack of grain is having an especially detrimental impact on African countries, who usually get over 40% of their wheat from Ukraine and Russia. Since the start of the war, there is a shortage of around 30 million tonnes of food in Africa.
This food shortage as a result of the war in Ukraine and the aftermath of the global shut down during the pandemic has led to an increase of 46 million more people suffering from chronic undernourishment, compared to 2021. East Africa, in particular, is struggling. Thanks to four years of poor harvests, unpredictable weather and an increase in global food prices, it is estimated that up to 20 million people in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia are facing extreme hunger and severe malnutrition every day, including young children and babies. Though the first ship to depart Ukraine docked in Syria on Tuesday and another ship carrying food aid bound for Africa also left Ukraine’s ports, there are still huge worries about the threat of famine for the world’s poorest thanks to the soaring rise in fuel cost, fertilisers and food staples.
The Security Advisor
It has been over a year now since the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan. Many people fled Afghanistan after the Taliban took control on August 15th, including the former president Ashraf Ghani, leaving behind a “panicked nation”. During the evacuations a deadly blast killed 200 people, including 13 US workers who were aiding evacuations. Since the takeover, mass-hunger is spreading and there are fears that the entire population may fall below the poverty line by the end of the year. The situation for women is particularly dire, as women’s rights are practically non-existent under Taliban rule. The situation is felt more acutely by women as they have virtually no access to education, income, health care and aid, as well as facing increased gender-based violence. You can find out more about the situation for women in this harrowing photo-essay.
The Water Specialist
Of course one of the biggest threats to human life across the globe is environmental breakdown. As briefly touched on already, unpredictable weather patterns can lead to reduced crop yield, bad harvests and a break-down of traditional farming methods, which is only adding fuel to the fire in terms of the global food shortage. Thanks to this, diets are forced to change, with countries like Papua New Guinea becoming more reliant on imports and less-nutrient dense foods, increasing the risk of malnutrition. With rising temperatures also comes heat-related mortalities and water scarcity. Even as I write this, the UK is facing a drought that could last until next year.
Though physical environmental changes, like frequent natural disasters and rising sea levels, are also big a threat, for me the most worrying is the increased spread of diseases. With temperatures rising, vector-borne diseases, like those carried by mosquitos, are spreading rapidly. Dengue fever, an illness transferred from mosquito bites, appeared in Afghanistan for the first time in 2019.
Though the current global circumstances are tragic and (rather) dire, it is thanks to humanitarians and aid organisations that issues like these have been successfully resolved or lightened in the past. Since 1948, the UN has helped end conflicts and ease political upheaval by operating peacekeeping in many countries, including Cambodia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mozambique, Namibia and Tajikistan. They are able to make these interventions based on their ‘responsibility to protect’ principle, which means that countries part of the UN agree to intervene in the worst forms of violence and persecution. Plenty of charities have also run successful aid operations, like the British Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières and Oxfam, as well as countless local charities and groups. The British Red Cross is actually celebrating 10 years of their ‘surge-team’ delivering relief all over the globe - you can read more about their success story here. Without these organisations and without the invaluable volunteers or workers within them, some of the past humanitarian crises could still be impacting us today. We really owe a big thank you to the work of many individuals who are really working to make the world a better place.
I know it’s been a heavy read so far, but there is hope! In times of global crisis, I always feel slightly lost at what I can do to make a difference and it can all feel overwhelming, but I don’t want you to come away from reading this with massive climate anxiety and pessimism about the world – there are practical things you can do to help.
Education and awareness is a huge factor – if you’ve made it this far you’re already on the right track! I always find Today in Focus is a great way to find out what is going on in the world and you can listen to them while you wash up, do your laundry or whenever you listen to your podcasts (I am personally a strong believer in the combo of a mental health walk and a good podcast)! Then talk to people about what you’ve learned, the news cycle moves so quick so it’s important to keep people talking about the big issues.
Obviously donating is also a great way to contribute, there are loads of great charities out there that you can send a little money to. If you’re not in a financial position to donate money (trust me, I get it) then why not try donating some old bits and bobs to charity shops like Oxfam, who use the money made from donations to support people in need. You can also organise fundraisers and do sponsored activities on behalf of charities – you’d be surprised how much you can make out of a classic bake sale or sponsored walk!
Volunteering your time can also be a great way to make a difference. Charities across the UK are always looking for volunteers to work phone lines, help at events or work in their charity shops. You can also volunteer your skills with relief charities such as RedR if you have helpful expertise, like: engineering, health, child protection, logistics, search and rescue. The UN also runs the UN Volunteers programme where (after a rigorous application process), you could be selected to work in the field during humanitarian crises.
I hope you feel inspired to continue to educate yourself and others about campaigns for people’s rights around the world – maybe you’re considering becoming a humanitarian yourself! Let us know your ideas for a creative fundraiser or any other relevant causes and links in the comments below. To see more of the UN’s digital illustrations, see their dropbox. Happy World Humanitarian Day everyone!