The Unsung Heroes of Global Humanitarian Assistance

August 19th marked the 12th annual World Humanitarian Day, which celebrates humanitarian assistance in developing countries. World Humanitarian Day began in 2003, dedicated to the twenty-two aid workers who were killed by the bombing at UN headquarters in Baghdad that year. According to the World Health Organization, “82.5 million people in 37 countries need humanitarian assistance.” While foreign aid and international NGOs are play an important role in humanitarian response, the efforts made by local aid workers are just as important. A core part of a functioning civil society, local aid workers are often more sensitive and attuned to the needs of the local population since they share a common culture, environment, and language. Given their unique position, local aid workers are typically the first to respond to a crisis, thereby reducing the number of lives lost and damages incurred from the outset. For example, local aid workers were delivering assistance to those affected by the Ebola outbreak in 2014, six months prior to the World Health Organization’s declaration of a public health emergency.

Unlike their unwieldy international counterparts, local aid workers are better equipped to combat some of humanitarian assistance’s greatest weaknesses, including the timely, low cost, and culturally sensitive distribution of aid. Local aid workers can also access areas, people and knowledge that many foreign parties are unable to tap. In spite of their essential role in crisis management and their capacity to promote sustained philanthropic development, local aid workers often lack the resources marshalled by larger international groups. According to a research study conducted by Oxfam, “Between 2007 and 2013, the resources provided directly to [local aid workers] averaged less than 2 percent of total annual humanitarian assistance.”

People free a man from the rubble of a destroyed building after an earthquake hit Nepal on April 25th 2015. (Source: EPA/Narendra Shrestha)
People free a man from the rubble of a destroyed building after an earthquake hit Nepal on April 25th 2015. (Source: EPA/Narendra Shrestha)

Though mobilizing local aid workers is a more effective solution in most emergency situations, without adequate funding and resources, local aid workers are unable to properly address and respond to a crisis. In response to the Nepal Earthquake that struck in April 2015, the Nepal Flash Appeal distributed $422 million to over 70 organizations, but Nepalese organizations received just 0.8% of those funds. In spite of their limited funding, approximately 1,800 local Nepalese aid workers led relief and recovery efforts to minimize the damage caused by the earthquake, compared to approximately 450 Indian aid workers who responded.

In addition to the paltry funds and resources, local aid workers are also more susceptible to on-the-ground hazards. According to the Overseas Development Institute, “attacks on aid workers have steadily risen over the years, from 90 violent attacks in 2001, to 308 incidents in 2011, with the majority of attacks directed towards local aid workers.” Particularly in those countries racked by civil war and cultural conflict, local aid workers may be caught in crossfire, while international aid workers can depend on the protection of foreign and domestic governments.

Emphasizing the importance of local aid workers may be the first step in realizing World Humanitarian Day’s mission to commemorate those who have risked their lives to help other people. In advance of the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit, scheduled to take place in Turkey in 2016, it is imperative that policy-makers embark on initiatives that recognize, strengthen, and protect the crucial role of local aid workers in global humanitarian assistance. To maximize the efforts of local aid workers, communication with international civil society organizations must be improved, funding must be increased, and the distribution of resources must be better organized. When all of these needs are met, the world will be better equipped to confront future disasters and humanitarian crises.

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