Reflecting on humanitarianism

August 19th marked World Humanitarian Day, a date designated to raise awareness of “people helping people” and acknowledge the contribution of humanitarian workers who travel to the frontlines of natural disasters and conflicts to provide support and relief for affected communities.

According to ALNAP, in 2010 there were an estimated 274,000 humanitarian workers around the world.  In theory, humanitarianism should be quite simple: providing support for people who most need it. The roots of humanitarianism are centred in the belief that there is a moral imperative to ameliorate the suffering of others. However, in practice it can (and has) been a space full of moral, political and economic challenges. For a great overview of some of these tensions, check out these compiled perspectives from different international experts and thinkers on what humanitarianism means to them.

Humanitarianism has changed dramatically over the past decades, as the geopolitical landscape has evolved, and globalisation has increased. Aid workers in many places can no longer rely on an emblem affiliated with their role to protect them from being targeted, and indeed in many places they are actually sought out by warring parties. Since 2011, 109 humanitarian works have been killed and 132 have been kidnapped.

A recent exhibit by Tom Stoddart for the International Committee of the Red Cross called “Perspectives” highlights the extent to which medical relief personnel have become increasingly targeted in conflict zones. The politicization of aid, tensions between concepts of humanitarian action, humanitarian intervention, and increased scrutiny over a perceived lack of accountability and coordination within the humanitarian systems has, at times, cast a shadow over the critical work of humanitarians, and the principles which they rely upon to guide their efforts.

So what are these principles? Humanitarian work is typically guided by the seven fundamental principles developed by the ICRC in 1965. Additionally, view OCHA’s messaging on humanitarian principles. Many or all of these principles have been adopted by various humanitarian organisations, and the principles of humanity, universality, neutrality and impartiality are widely held up as the cornerstones of humanitarianism.

As new actors and new technologies become integrated into humanitarian action, there is an increasing need to ensure that these new tools and communities reflect the core notions that engaging in humanitarian space is predicated on. There is also a growing call for the existing system to respond and adapt to the changes and challenges presented by a shifting operational environment.

World Humanitarian Day is an opportunity to reflect on these principles, to celebrate those who embody them through their work, to consider those affected by humanitarian disasters and think about how we can all help each other a little bit more.

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