Sunday August 19, 2012
By TAN SHIOW CHIN
With an estimated 62 million people around the world needing humanitarian assistance, the UN and its agencies bear a heavy responsibility to provide aid.
THE late American labour leader Walter Reuther once said: “There is no greater calling than to serve your fellow men. There is no greater contribution than to help the weak. There is no greater satisfaction than to have done it well.”
Although he was referring to his own life philosophy, which guided his career-long commitment to improving the lives of blue-collar workers and their families through trade unions, Reuther could have just as likely been talking about aid workers.
Dedicating their careers to saving lives and alleviating suffering while maintaining human dignity, aid workers often sacrifice opportunities for better renumeration, comfortable living and working environments, and even occasionally, their own lives.
They are most often found in places where natural disaster has struck, or conflict and violence has broken out or is ongoing. According to The State of the Humanitarian System report by the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP), this includes 103 natural disasters and 93 complex emergencies/transitions in the 2009-2010 period.
And while the image of an aid worker is frequently that of a foreigner, most likely from a Western country, most aid workers are usually locals helping out their fellow citizens in times of need.
For example, of the number of aid workers who were killed, injured or wounded last year, 28 were international workers, while 208 were locals, according to the Aid Worker Security Database.
Of these, 86 were killed, 127 were wounded, and 83 were kidnapped.
In honour of these altruistic people, and to increase awareness of the need for both humanitarian aid worldwide and international cooperation to provide such aid, the World Health Organisation (WHO) marks Aug 19 every year as World Humanitarian Day.
This date was designated as such by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in Dec 2008, in memory of the day in 2003 when a bomb was exploded at the UN headquarters in Baghdad, destroying the building and taking the lives of 22 people, most of them UN staff members.
The UN system
The UN and its various agencies are probably among the most well-known of the humanitarian aid organisations.
With a total of 193 member countries, one of this international body’s core missions is to “help nations work together to improve the lives of poor people, to conquer hunger, disease and illiteracy, and to encourage respect for each other’s rights and freedoms”, as well as “to be a centre for harmonising the actions of nations to achieve these goals”.
The many specialised agencies under its umbrella allows for specific areas to be looked after by experts in that field, while the overall response to a particular disaster or emergency is overseen by one coordinating office – the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), under the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator.
OCHA not only brings together both international and national aid agencies at the needed time and place, but also helps consolidate international appeals for financial assistance during specific situations, promotes disaster preparedness and prevention, and facilitates sustainable solutions.
One of the ways it does this, is by serving as the secretariat for the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, which is the main forum for coordination, policy-making and decision-making between UN and non-UN humanitarian bodies.
There are also various UN agencies that are responsible for specific areas that are invariably affected by natural disasters or emergencies, like food, shelter, hygiene and health.
To quote a line from the UN World Food Programme’s (WFP) website: “Whether refugees are fleeing war, floods are washing away homes or drought is destroying farmland, hunger is often the first emergency.”
And the WFP is the agency that steps in to meet this need. From mobilising emergency food rations in the first 24 hours of the emergency to working with other international organisations and local bodies to set up a regular food distribution system (for the duration of the emergency), and planning for special food supplements to combat malnutrition, the WFP is the first responder for emergency food needs.
Meanwhile, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) starts planning for the future by working to help restore the destroyed or disrupted local food production process. They help provide vital materials like seeds, fertiliser, fishing equipment, livestock and farm tools to help local farmers, herders and fishers get the local agricultural and fisheries scenes going again.
Coming in a close second to food is shelter.
This is taken care of by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), now known as the UN Refugee Agency.
Like the WFP, this agency is the first responder for emergency non-food items.
Within 72 hours of an emergency, it can mobilise the deployment of both trained personnel and non-food item kits for an emergency impacting up to 500,000 people.
The kits, which come from its Central Emergency Stockpiles in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Dubai, United Arab Emirates, includes item like blankets, sleeping mats, plastic sheets, mosquito nets, kitchen sets, jerry cans, water buckets, and tents.
As with the FAO for food, the long-term impact of people being displaced from their homes by natural disasters or conflict is taken care of by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and UN-Habitat.
The IOM is responsible for assisting refugees, both during and after emergencies, especially in helping to find long-term solutions for displaced populations.
Meanwhile, UN-Habitat helps to rehabilitate human settlements in critical areas such as housing; land; essential infrastructure and services, like water supply; and urban planning.
A plan for health
Natural disasters and conflict invariably damage or destroy the local health system, exacerbating whatever loss of life and disability the emergency itself has already cost.
This is where the World Health Organisation (WHO) steps in.
Its main objective is to reduce both the loss of lives and spread of disease. But as a specialised technical organisation, it does this through the emphasis and promotion of risk reduction and emergency preparedness programmes by the national government, rather than primarily through providing medical supplies or raising funds.
The WHO provides training, tools, guidelines and advice to countries, so that they already have action plans in place should an emergency strike.
Watching out for women
While everyone is affected during an emergency, women and children are seen to be especially vulnerable.
Not only are they deemed to be more easily victimised, they also have needs particular to their respective groups.
There are two UN agencies that specifically look after each of these groups during emergencies (and in general): the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) for women, and the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) for children.
However patriachal a society might be, it is the women who are the true backbone of the community. They are the ones taking care of everyone, maintaining the household, working behind the scenes at community events, and often, even contributing to the local economy through agricultural and small trading activities.
During emergencies, they are frequently the ones holding the family together, responsible for seeking food, shelter and help, often without the presence of their husbands.
But, they are also more vulnerable to sexual assault; self-neglect as they look after themselves last; and reproductive issues.
With this in mind, the UNFPA strives to identify and meet the specific needs of women, in order to help them look after their families better.
Some of these needs can be met directly, like providing supplements such as iron folate and vitamin A for lactating mothers, or distributing hygiene kits, which include sanitary supplies and toiletries, and even head coverings for Muslim ladies, as well as contraceptives for both family planning and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.
The agency also seeks to ensure that the needs of women are considered during the planning of aid distribution and emergency shelter design.
For example, food aid is more likely to go to those who need it if women are the ones collecting it. Women are also more likely to be aware of their family’s needs.
They are also usually the ones responsible for collecting water and firewood while in camps, and often have to leave the safety of the camp to do so.
Another safety issue arises when toilets and washing facilities are placed away from the living areas; thus, potentially leaving females vulnerable to attack.
Measures such as proper lighting, regular safety patrols, escorts for collection trips outside the camp, and separate living facilities for females without accompanying male family members or friends, are among those planned for by the UNFPA.
Looking after the young
Children are an extremely vulnerable group in emergency situations, with a whole host of areas in which they can be affected.
These include disease, malnutrition, violence, psychological trauma, and separation from, or the death of, family members, as well as education.
According to the Unicef website, measles, diarrhoea, acute respiratory infections, malaria and malnutrition are the major killers of children during emergencies.
So, the organisation’s first response after a natural disaster or beginnings of conflict is to set up the supply and administration of emergency immunisations and vitamin A supplements, as well as feeding centres.
In addition, Unicef also works with its sister agencies to ensure safe supplies of drinking water, and improving sanitary conditions for the local people.
A specific and crucial aspect of the organisation’s work involves the education and protection of children.
To this end, Unicef helps rebuild schools and sponsors educational programmes that not only continue child education, but also allows them a safe place to just be children, provide a routine they can count on, and help heal their psychological trauma.
The agency also actively implements programmes that help track down family members of children who have been separated from their caregivers, and reunite them.
A unique aspect about children in armed conflicts is that they can be both the perpetrator of violence and a victim at the same time. There are an estimated 300,000 child soldiers (aged below 18) who are involved in over 30 conflicts worldwide.
These “soldiers” lack the maturity to truly understand the violence of war and killing, and more often than not, are forcibly recruited into armed groups.
Unicef actively works to prevent such recruitment, as well as to ensure that child soldiers enter and benefit from demobilisation programmes.
There is also an emphasis on protecting children and women against sexual abuse and exploitation, as well as against the transmission of HIV/AIDS.
In the long run
After the immediate crisis is over, the country or region involved has to start the long process of redevelopment and rebuilding what has been destroyed.
This is where the UN Development Programme (UNDP) comes in.
Among the most important areas under its care are helping local stakeholders regain control over their own rebuilding process, helping to provide a sense of justice and security to the people of the country or area, and assisting in rebuilding the economy.
The UNDP does this by supporting responsible and accountable local institutions; promoting inclusive political processes; fostering relationships between the authorities and the people; and working with those involved in the justice and security systems, like the police, judges, lawyers, civil servants and NGOs.
It also helps to rebuild the local economy by working with both the local and international authorities, as well as the community, to improve working conditions and creating new income-earning opportunities.
As with many of its sister UN agencies, the UNDP is also concerned with the prevention of such emergency situations in the first place.
In this matter, the organisation works with a country’s authorities to put in place plans and processes to reduce and manage risk from natural disasters, and to enable dialogue and resolutions between opposing parties during armed conflicts.
Most of these activities are financed by the Thematic Trust Fund for Crisis Prevention and Recovery – a special funding mechanism that allows for speedy disbursement of monies to needed areas, and flexibility in receiving and utilising donations that may be specific in their endowment or for general use.
Of course, the UN and its agencies are not the only international aid organisations out there.
Among the other well-known organisations are the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).
Other organisations like the International Medical Corps and Project Hope deliver both immediate emergency aid and longer-term help in rebuilding local health systems; while bodies like Partners in Health focus on delivering long-term community-based healthcare programmes to address specific diseases like HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis.
Like Unicef, Save the Children focuses specifically on the welfare and protection of children in emergency situations, and works closely with Unicef.
Meanwhile, organisations like Oxfam and Care focus on activities and programmes that aim to alleviate poverty, as well as providing immediate humanitarian aid.