Monday marks World Humanitarian Day, a day set aside to honour those who work for relief and emergency response agencies around the world. For me, this day brings back memories of the summer of 1984. While North Americans enjoyed the warmth and sunshine, tens of thousands of Ethiopian children died of starvation in one of the worst famines in recent history.
It was several months before worldwide TV broadcasts alerted stunned viewers to the scope of the human tragedy. As portrayed on the news that October, the main heroes were the humanitarian workers battling to save lives in Ethiopia, despite lack of interest from the outside world.
Back then, many North Americans embraced a somewhat traditional view of the “humanitarian worker.” This selfless man or woman parachuted into a poor country from the rich world, to be hailed as a hero by the helpless local population.
I don’t want to take away from the achievements of the humanitarian workers of the day. Their tireless efforts in countries around the world helped countless children survive to become parents and grandparents today.
But the nature of overseas emergencies is changing. And so is the profile of the humanitarian hero. Because of climate change and drought – not to mention the numerous civil wars tearing countries apart – humanitarian workers need to better reflect the communities in which they’re being called to work.
For World Vision, many of our humanitarian workers are local, born and raised in the countries or regions where they serve. Some learned to read and write in the very schools they now visit. Many have personally experienced the desperation of poverty. They live with those they serve, sharing their sorrows and sometimes, making the ultimate sacrifice. Earlier this summer, two World Vision workers in Sudan were killed when a grenade was fired toward their building. One of the victims was the father of a baby girl. In 2010, one of our offices in Pakistan was attacked, and six humanitarian workers gunned down.
This approach to selecting humanitarian workers has empowered all involved. For those hired, it means a good job and a chance to serve the country they love. For those served, it means looking into the face of someone who truly understands what you’re up against – a trust that can’t be flown in from overseas.
This trust can make the difference between life and death. In many parts of the world, for example, modern humanitarian work includes constant preparation for the threat of drought. For a parent, the acceptance of new farming techniques and drought-resistant seed is a real leap of faith, when you only have one chance to produce the crop that will feed your children for the coming winter.
Trust is critical when it comes to persuading parents to turn from social traditions that marginalize their daughters. I was truly humbled to witness a conversation between one of my World Vision Canada colleagues, our staff in Lebanon and a refugee mother from Syria. Gently, respectfully, my colleagues dissuaded the panicked mother from selling her terrified adolescent daughter into marriage. She felt it was the only way to pay off the debts she had incurred to shelter and feed her children. Despite years of experience in humanitarian situations, I honestly don’t know what I would have said under those circumstances.
The humanitarian heroes I’ve described seem so different from those I met at the outset of my work with World Vision 40 years ago. But there’s one thing that never changes: the belief that you’re never working hard enough, giving enough of yourself. There is always more that needs to be done. This is what drives many of our best and brightest young people to consider careers as humanitarian workers. To them, and to those who came before them, I want to say “thank you” on behalf of all Canadians.
Dave Toycen is president and CEO of World Vision Canada