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Modern humanitarian action should respect the traditions and dignity of those in need

By Judy Ho, International Ministry Officer, World Vision Hong Kong

The origin of today’s global humanitarian system, including the United Nations agencies, international NGOs and the Red Crescent Movement, can be traced back to 1859, when Henry Dunant was inspired to assist victims of the Battle of Solferino and founded the Red Cross. This was the start of increasing international cooperation, engagement and fundraising to provide relief to victims of conflicts and disasters such as the Ethiopian famine.

Today, humanitarian assistance is saving more lives and feeding more hungry people in more places. At the same time, humanitarian crises are becoming more frequent and complex, lasting longer and affecting more people.

Forced displacement due to conflict and natural disaster is increasing, reaching 65.3 million at the end of 2015, a figure unmatched since the end of the Second World War. The humanitarian response system needs to catch up with the rapid changes and challenges with a different mind-set – an approach that promotes dignity, empowers local community and embraces local traditions.

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A group of Nepalese women affected by the 2015 earthquake hold out their identification cards as they wait in line for cash assistance. Photo: World Vision.

A changing facet of humanitarian response is the type of assistance organisations provide in emergency situations. Humanitarian organisations have traditionally supported crisis-affected people with food or other supplies. But this is gradually changing. Evidence from numerous studies has shown that survivors of conflict and disaster wish to maintain their dignity by receiving cash instead of food or other “in-kind” aid.

A 2015 study by the Overseas Development Institute on Syrian refugees in Lebanon found that more than 80% of beneficiaries preferred cash assistance to distribution of food or other supplies. Today a family in crisis may receive an envelope of cash, a plastic card or an electronic money transfer to a mobile phone with which they can buy food, pay rent and purchase whatever they need locally. This is also having a positive impact on local businesses by stimulating the economy in host communities.

Local empowerment was a core element in the relief and rehabilitation efforts after the devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake in Nepal. Trustworthy organisations like World Vision, working in close coordination with government agencies, local partners and other humanitarian agencies, used their local networks, resources and expertise to provide practical support. Local communities gradually restore their lives when health institutions are repaired, homes are rebuilt, and children regain the sense of security in Child Friendly Spaces.

The response is meeting emergency needs, restoring services to a higher standard, and empowering locals with skills and opportunities to sustain themselves. It is a modern way of carrying out humanitarian action asking “what support can I provide?” instead of “what can I give?”

The Ebola outbreak in 2014 in West Africa is an example of how the international humanitarian response failed to respect local traditions. The death toll of Ebola increased exponentially because of traditional burial rituals in the region. Many families would keep the deceased body at home for several days and make body contact with the corpse frequently before burial.

As pointed out by Margaret Chan, Director of World Health Organisation, “there was no trust in the community. When they see people in space suits coming in to their village to take away their loved ones, they were very scared… and they hide their sick relatives at home. They hide dead bodies at home. And these are extremely, extremely dangerous in terms of spreading the disease.”

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A family that survived the Nepal earthquake says they are grateful that a nearby birthing centre has been rebuilt, so they can bring their new-born there for check-ups. Photo: World Vision.

That is why international NGOs such as World Vision identified the need to promote safe and dignified burial practices in close partnership with local stakeholders on managing, training, and paying the burial teams. As burials became “dignified” and faithful to spiritual traditions, the hope was to allow families to pay their respects to their loved ones, while preventing the further spread of the virus.

Today, as we celebrate World Humanitarian Day, which aims to recognise aid workers who risk their lives in humanitarian service and to mobilise people to speak up for humanitarian action, let us be reminded of what the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon once said, “Each of us has the power and responsibility to inspire our fellow human beings to act to help others and create a more humane world.”

When being part of the humanitarian response, we must take on the challenge with a different mind-set – one that promotes dignity, empowers the local community and embraces local traditions.

Modern humanitarian action should respect the traditions and dignity of those in need