World Humanitarian Day: an important day to remember, but we must move beyond

August 18, 2020

Photo credit: Oleksandr Ratushniak / UNDP Ukraine

Originally published in Українська правда.Життя on 19 August, 2020.

The world marks the World Humanitarian Day (WHD) on 19 August, 17 years ago a date when  then Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and 21 of our colleagues perished in the bombing of the UN headquarters in Iraq. This  year, the WHD is remembering #RealLifeHeroes, focusing on what drives humanitarians to continue to save and protect lives despite conflict, insecurity and risks.

This year is not like any other, not only for me for many of us working in the humanitarian and development field in the times of COVID-19. In 2003, I miraculously survived the Baghdad bombing for the silliest of reasons. In between, having served alongside the best humanitarian workers in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Ukraine among other places, our motto has always been; We stay and deliver. It is never about us and always about the people we serve. It is never our priorities put first but always those of the communities we support focusing on the most vulnerable among them. We give a voice to those who have lost the means to make their voices heard. We serve humanity and we do it at our best. And this was Sergio.

Vieira de Mello, a national of Brazil, worked for more than 30 years in various UN humanitarian missions. A foundation set up in his name pushed for the dedication of a day by the UN to commemorate humanitarian workers who have been killed while carrying out their missions.

In many ways, humanitarian responses are just the first steps in an important but complicated journey to build back better in a manner that is more resilient and sustainable.  Quite often the conditions that lead to the need for a humanitarian response are but symptoms of much deeper issues that must be addressed. Unfortunately, short-sighted budgeting constraints sometimes limit the extent to which countries can be put back on their feet with solid footing – despite the fact that the resources needed for early, effective and sustained recovery often pale in comparison to the costs of repeated humanitarian responses.

World attention

Since the first World Humanitarian Day in 2009, around 100 aid workers have been killed each year in conflicts around the world. The conflict in Ukraine offers no exception: in 2014 Swiss aid worker Laurent DuPasquier, who worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross, was killed when a shell landed near ICRC headquarters in eastern Ukraine. And in 2017, U.S. citizen Joseph Stone, a paramedic who was part of a patrol of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM) was killed, and two other SMM monitors injured after their vehicle was heavily damaged by an explosion near Pryshyb in the non-government controlled part of Luhansk Oblast.

It is important to mark Humanitarian Day not only to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice to help their fellow human beings, but also to draw the world’s attention to ongoing conflicts and crises. In this fast-paced, interconnected, and globalized world, with a news cycle that is measured in hours, the spotlight on important events quickly switches from place to place.

According to the UN, nearly 168 million people will need humanitarian assistance and protection this year. This is one in about 45 people in the world and is the highest figure in decades. The UN and partner organizations aim to assist nearly 109 million of the most vulnerable people, which will require funding of $28.8 billion. And needs are increasing on hourly basis.

Lingering conflict

While the conflict in Ukraine no longer dominates the front pages of the world’s newspapers, it and its effects linger on. The east of the country is littered with landmines and unexploded ordnance, which regularly maim and kill civilians, many of whom are children. More than a million people have been displaced from the conflict zone, and forced to make new lives for themselves in other parts of the country. Many have lost jobs, property and livelihoods, and are facing poverty. The conflict itself, of course, rumbles on at a low level, causing military and civilian casualties, damage to property and vital infrastructure, and political, economic and social instability that holds back development and prosperity for the entire country.

UNDP, with its focus on development, has been at the forefront of the UN organization’s response to the conflict in Ukraine, working with the entire UN family and other international partners to repair vital infrastructure in the Donbas, including hospitals and schools under the Early Recovery Programme funded by the European Investment Bank. UNDP also is working to rebuild the economy in eastern Ukraine, promoting new businesses in the Donbas and organizing online business courses, in which successful entrepreneurs share their experiences of how to start a business, where to look for funding, how to attract investment, how a creative approach can multiply earnings, and how to safeguard a business against further crises.

Countrywide, UNDP is helping Ukraine recover and to become more resilient, responsive and transparent through promoting good governance and parliamentary reform, as well as working to support gender equality, digital transformation, and human rights.

Exacerbated by COVID-19

The coronavirus has exposed deep cracks in our societies, forcing the most vulnerable to suffer disproportionality more than others. In Ukraine, these include women, the elderly, and members of marginalized ethnic and social groups. While we must respond effectively to the immediate and humanitarian needs of those suffering the most, we must also focus on fixing those cracks that allowed for that suffering in the first place.  We must take this opportunity to examine the problems from a new perspective, to focus on underlying problems, and to plan a recovery that emphasizes resilience, sustainability, and fairness, leaving no one behind.

This World Humanitarian Day, we honour those who have lost their lives in the service of others, and the #RealLifeHeroes who continue selflessly to work to in the service of humanity helping people trapped  in crises in Ukraine and around the world.