Thursday, August 19, 2010

A day to commemorate (and celebrate) aid workers

Today. August 19th, is the second year of what is being called World Humanitarian Day. Who needs another international day you may well ask - there are so many at this stage that we can barely fit them into a full calendar year.

Like others, I was probably a bit cynical, or at least non-committal when WHD was introduced last year (you know it's got legs in the humanitarian world when we give it its very own acronym!). However, this year I have literally bought the tee-shirt and will probably take part in a quiet procession later on this evening in Geneva to remember colleagues who are no longer with us. Why the change of heart - maybe a gradual realization that we have more than enough cynicism in our 'business' and a to set aside one dignified day a year to remember slain colleagues is pretty decent actually when it boils down to it.

For me, unfortunately, this list of murdered colleagues, and colleagues who have died in the line of duty (to borrow a military metaphor) is too long. So today I will be especially thinking of Rita and the Jacaranda that grows in her honor in the DRC. I will be thinking back to my first mission with the ICRC when six colleagues were slain as they slept in Chechnya on 17th December 1996. And, some dear former colleagues will spring to mind from the long list of aid workers whose lives have been cut short as they tried to effect positive change in their homelands in places such as Iraq, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia and too many other locations. And, most recently, in Afghanistan, when ten aid workers were mercilessly executed - our Wayfarer-in-Chief, Bob McKerrow, has written a moving and personal account of this recent tragedy in his blog.

As long as WHD remembers those of all nationalities, expatriate or not, it will be worth commemorating. I posted the video here which has been put together for the day. It is especially gratifying to see a video that doesn't glorify 'disaster porn', that doesn't bastardize 'branding porn' and that focuses firmly on the principle of principles that binds us all together - Humanity.


Thursday, August 5, 2010

Hunger is far from being History

On Tuesday Niger marked its 50 years of independence from France - but there is little or no reason to celebrate. Instead of fireworks, monuments, public holidays or parties, half of Niger's 13.5 million people are facing famine.

Niger has the dubious distinction of being known as the poorest country on the planet. Right now it is on the cusp of a famine. In the aidocratic world of humanitarian action people can get quiet hysterical about terminology: is Niger 'food insecure', is it suffering from food shortages, drought or famine. It is categorically facing famine and it is estimated that 1.5 million children are currently at real risk of death from starvation.

Why is it that despite all the awareness, despite the grand political ambition to rid the planet of hunger, despite billions being pumped into food aid and hunger alleviation programs - why is it that more than 35 years after the momentous World Food Summit (Rome, 1974) when Kissinger famously proclaimed a veritable war on famine and promised “that within a decade no child will go to bed hungry” - why is it hunger is a daily reality for a cool billion people? The fact is we have collectively failed to tackle hunger. We are - to our eternal shame - worse of now than we were in 1974.

I want to post a video here of Saray Amadaou, a mother of ten children, who struggles to keep the wolves of starvation from her door by feeding her family from grains scraped from the dry earth. The Disasters Emergency Committee in the UK posted the video on their Facebook page and it sparked some interesting debate. "Why", one lady asked, "Why do you have 10 children and if the Red Cross helps you, will you see this as the opportunity to have more children?". Others offered their opinion explaining that large families were actually coping mechanisms because of hunger and high infant mortality. Nevertheless, the fatigue, the frustration, the futility with seemingly never-ending food crisis is palpable (and understandable).

What do you think? Should the Red Cross Red Crescent and other aid organizations practice 'laissez faire' knowing that millions would die a horrible death or do we continue to provide 'emergency rations' keeping people barely alive as we seek out the magic 'sustainable solutions' formula and battle against a host of external factors such as currency fluctuations, bio fuels, epidemics, desertification, trade, conflict or weather and climate related disasters?

And, hunger, despite what we might think, is not solely an African problem. The situation is arguably worse in Asia. In Pakistan, hunger is now a direct consequence of the horrific floods that have decimated the region. Wheat prices have doubled this year and are set to rise another 30% before the year is out - food riots are again surfacing in North Africa and the Americas.

Global hunger is a reality.  Making hunger history is still a lofty ideal. Why are we so far from making hunger history?