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In My Words: On World Humanitarian Day, honor aid workers

In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Professor of Sociology Tom Arcaro honors the work performed by humanitarian aid workers around the world on Aug. 19, World Humanitarian Day. 

This column was distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate and was published by Burlington Times-News, the Greensboro News & Record and the Fayetteville Observer. Views expressed in this column are the author's own and not necessarily those of Elon University. 


By Tom Arcaro

Today we commemorate the humanitarian aid workers who serve as the link between our charitable giving and those in need around the world. 

‚ÄčThis year at least $27.3 billion in humanitarian aid will be leveraged to support the many millions of victims suffering from conflict and disaster. Humanitarian aid workers deserve our appreciation and our thanks.
As part of my decades-long research into global aid and development issues, I have been chatting with, interviewing and surveying humanitarian aid workers from around the globe. To say they are committed to their work is a gross understatement. Once a year we honor the hundreds of thousands of humanitarians serving on every continent, many in “red zones” where daily work activities bring them into harm’s way.
It was 15 years ago on Aug. 19 that 22 humanitarian aid workers were killed in Baghdad, Iraq. Among the dead was Brazilian Sérgio Vieira de Mello, a UN special representative with more than 30 years of experience serving the world’s population responding to both natural and human generated disasters.
In August 2009 the first World Humanitarian Day took place as a heartfelt tribute to Mello and the countless other humanitarian personnel who, acting on behalf of all humanity, paid the ultimate price. Today marks the 10th commemoration of these lives and others since 2003 that have been sacrificed.
Pausing on World Humanitarian Day to honor these women and men is important because they represent the best impulses we have as humans. They live out the Golden Rule in the most explicit way possible, doing unto others as they would have another do unto them. 
Indeed, that is exactly the response I received from a Jordanian woman when I asked her why she became a humanitarian worker, dealing with the needs of Syrian refugees every day. She said simply, “I know that could be me and my family, and I would want to be helped and comforted.”
If indeed sociologist Emile Durkheim was right and there is a global “collective consciousness,” then humanitarian aid workers, I would argue, are the conscience of that consciousness. They are a voice to which we should lend an ear as we renew our understanding of global social issues.  
More than 400,000 strong, aid and development workers toil in all corners of the world. Some on deployment give first-line aid to Syrian refugees in Jordan while others manage logistics in Kenyan refugee camps. Still more deal with the ongoing crisis in Yemen, and even more do their work in the innumerable cubicles of headquarters offices in every major city around the world.
These women and men work with local communities to provide shelter, food, water, sanitation facilities, and, most importantly, pathways to safety, normalcy, and dignity. I assert that these women and men are more in touch with our global zeitgeist more than any other occupational group. They see both the absolute best and unspeakable worst of humanity.
Humanitarian work involves coordination and cooperation between international workers — sometimes called “expats” — and local women and men, citizens of the nations where humanitarian disasters demand attention.
As one aid worker puts it, "As local as possible, as international as necessary." The rich national and cultural mixture of those responding to global disasters make this work force a microcosm of the world’s population. They truly represent humanity.
The stresses that these humanitarian workers deal with are not just life-and-death security concerns. There is a large and constant gap between the needs of the populations they serve and the funds available to meet these needs. In 2017 only 41 percent of funding goals were met, leaving many workers to make impossible choices as they spread scarce resources far too thinly.
The vast majority of the humanitarian aid workers I have talked with tend to bristle when their profession is overly romanticized. But I disagree. 
The work they do embodies what is right with humanity, heeding a call to work with those whose lives have been rent apart from normalcy. They walk with their brothers and sisters in need toward a more secure existence marked by freedom and dignity. 
They deserve our respect and appreciation on World Humanitarian Day, and every day.

Owen Covington,
8/19/2018 3:50 PM