What does it mean to be a humanitarian?

Ann Witteveen (second from left) in South Sudan with Oxfam Public Health Officer, Elizabeth (far left) and family who is living in the Minkamman refugee camp.
Photo: Ann Witteveen (second from left) in South Sudan with Oxfam Public Health Officer, Elizabeth (far left) and family who are living in the Minkamman refugee camp. Credit: Oxfam

“Rather than being a human, be a humanitarian”
― Kowtham Kumar K

Today, August 19th, is World Humanitarian Day.
 
Currently, Oxfam is responding to over 35 humanitarian crises around the globe. Because of Oxfam’s long-term programing already running on the ground, Oxfam teams are well positioned to respond quickly during times of natural or man-made disaster.  
 
Recently, I sat down with Ann Witteveen, Oxfam Canada’s Humanitarian Manager, before she headed off to Islamabad to monitor a water and sanitation project at the Jalozai refugee camp. Ann has spent over 15 years travelling to different countries, managing humanitarian responses and working closely with people who have seen their lives plunged into chaos.

 
Q:  What do you find the most challenging – in terms of being on the ground during a time of need?
 
A:  Seeing how tough some of the living conditions are for people, especially in camps. In South Sudan these resemble urban slums when just beyond the barbed wire are thousands/millions of acres of African plains and forests – all too dangerous for people to live in because of rebel fighting.  It’s very upsetting to see little children with nothing to do, no stimulation, no toys or books - the adults too busy trying to survive to pay them any attention. Seniors as well, who must help with building shelters, carry food aid, make long treks to water points.

 
Q:  Which crisis concerns you the most and why?
 
A:  All the crises at the moment – Syria, Central African Republic, Ebola in West Africa, South Sudan, Iraq and Gaza are deeply concerning and each is incredibly complicated. Personally I am most connected to South Sudan because I worked there in 1998-1999 during a famine that killed 1000’s. I left the region in 2003 but have followed South Sudan’s progress - celebrating with the creation of a new country that should have brought peace and development.  That seems more of a dream now – it needn’t be like this.
 
 
Q:  If you had one “magic solution” and could fix these crises, what would it be?
 
A:  There is no one magic solution, but let’s be clear – all these crises are human-created. They are caused by men/groups of men who want to keep power, at any cost. Peace is the only solution but it will take time to negotiate. In the meantime, we can’t just let people caught up in the maelstrom suffer and die.  There is some hope – because of technology, some of the power is shifting, everyone can know what is happening, as long as we care enough to find solutions and act.
 
 
Q:  What is the number one thing you want Canadians to know about the people that you serve and why you do this work?
 
A:  They are human beings just like you and me. They don’t deserve their misfortune and they have a right to assistance that is provided timeously and effectively.  I believe that everyone has a right to humanitarian assistance and that it should be done professionally with respect for the rights of people, not as an act of charity.
 
 
Q:  What do you find the most rewarding – in terms of being on the ground during a time of need?
 
A: The ingenuity and stoicism of disaster victims, especially women quietly doing their best for their families. And seeing that we are getting better at providing support - for example - giving cash transfers versus food aid allows people to have dignity over charity. Even more important is our improved ability to predict disasters and prepare for them. 

Finally, working with local staff who make up the vast majority of Aid Workers in the world and who are often affected by the disaster themselves. Their courage and dedication is inspiring. They also are often more at risk than global staff, just a couple of weeks ago several South Sudanese staff were singled out and killed in Mabaan County, South Sudan by militia member whose only quarrel with them was their tribe.
 
 
Q:  The news is full of stories of people in crisis – it’s hard to know how to help?  What can we do as Canadians?
 
A:  Three things:

  1. Care and feel solidarity with other human beings who have had the misfortune to be affected by a disaster or a war. Take a moment and remember how lucky we are to live in such a prosperous and peaceful country.
     
  2. Ask our government to provide humanitarian support according to its commitments; based on need, not linked to trade deals or votes and to support diplomatic solutions to conflict.  (We should also be asking our government to sign the Arms Trade Treaty).
     
  3. Give, if you are able, to humanitarian organizations like Oxfam – the scale of many emergencies makes aid costly. Your support demonstrates your commitment to the alleviation of suffering. Organizations like Oxfam can use that to encourage government and other groups to financially support efforts.


What is World Humanitarian Day?
 
World Humanitarian Day takes place on August 19th. It commemorates and remembers 22 aid workers who were killed in a bombing at the UN headquarters in Baghdad on August 19, 2003. It's a day to commemorate all people who have lost their lives in humanitarian service and to celebrate the spirit that inspires humanitarian work around the world.


Beth Dimsdale is an Oxfam Canada Fund Development Officer.

 

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