“We can and must do more to live up to our human duty to help and protect those in dire need.” Marking World Humanitarian Day, senior OCHA official John Ging outlines the importance of humanitarian assistance, the challenges aid workers face, and what can be done to address current humanitarian crises.
Exactly 11 years ago, 22 aid workers were killed in the bombing of the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq. Since then, 19 August has become a day to honour the humanitarian workers risking their lives in the line of duty.
We asked John Ging, Director of Operations at OCHA (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), about the broader issues surrounding the delivery of aid in conflicts and natural disasters.
Elders team: The world has experienced an apparently limitless need for humanitarian assistance over the past few years, with grave crises erupting in countries including Syria, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Philippines.
Is the humanitarian community overstretched?
John Ging: We are in an unprecedented period of crisis. There are more refugees in the world than at any other time since World War II, and the UN and its partners are responding to an unprecedented four level-three crises – the highest level assigned – in parallel. Globally, there are 108 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. Humanitarian organisations require some $17.1 billion to meet their needs, and only 50 per cent of these needs have been funded so far this year.
“Globally, there are 108 million people in need of humanitarian assistance.”
The humanitarian system is certainly overstretched – with each new crisis we struggle more and more to find the staff and resources to respond as those in need deserve. But the problem is not that the resources do not exist, it is a question of priorities. Humanitarian funding currently comprises just 1 per cent of global international spending. We’re not asking for 50 per cent, or even 10 per cent, but just 2 per cent to save the lives and alleviate the suffering of those affected by conflict and natural disasters around the globe.
I strongly believe that we can and must do more to live up to our human duty to help and protect those in dire need. I am not convinced that all of the other 99 per cent of global international spending is having such a profoundly life-saving and life-changing impact as a mere 1 per cent additional spending for humanitarian action would have.
Like other humanitarian organisations, OCHA is guided by the four principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. However, humanitarian aid is sometimes seen to be ‘political’.
What steps should be taken to ensure that humanitarians are perceived as impartial actors?
It’s critically important that all humanitarian actors safeguard these principles – delivering on the basis of need and need alone. For the United Nations this is particularly important in integrated missions which include peacekeeping, or in contexts where military assets are used to help deliver assistance.
We must ensure that decisions taken by humanitarians are taken independently of military or political imperatives. Additionally, investing in communicating with and reaching out to affected people is key to ensuring that the humanitarian mission and mandate is delivered with integrity and well understood.
How can we communicate the sanctity of humanitarian space to people who seek to constrain it?
“No effective accountability means, effectively, no protection.”
Outreach and dialogue are very important, but the protection of humanitarian workers is ultimately about accountability. Governments, militaries and warring parties must be held accountable for any violations in their responsibilities to respect and protect aid workers. No effective accountability means, effectively, no protection.
Syrian girls at a refugee settlement near the Syrian border. Photo: Jonathan Hyams | Save the Children
The Syrian conflict has led to one of the most severe humanitarian crises in recent history.
How is it that the international community can agree to create a safe corridor to remove Syria’s chemical weapons but has not yet been able to create sufficient space for humanitarian assistance inside the country?
This fact certainly exposed the scale of the deficit in commitment to humanity among global political leadership at that time. However, with the recent unanimous adoption of Security Council Resolution 2165 – overriding the objections and obstruction of the Syrian government to the delivery of humanitarian assistance – we are now witnessing a new chapter in political commitment to humanity. Certainly for the hundreds of thousands in Syria who have received aid for the first time in three years through cross-border convoys enabled by this resolution, it is providing them with a long overdue lifeline of help and hope.
A Palestinian searches through rubble of his destroyed home. Photo: UN Photo | Shareef Sarhan
Gaza is also experiencing a terrible humanitarian crisis. You previously served as the Director of UNRWA Operations in Gaza.
What needs to be done – both in the immediate and the long term – to secure access for humanitarian aid in Gaza as well as safety and security for the workers who deliver it?
“We also need political will to extend to ensuring the safety and security of all aid workers.”
The good news is that there is a solution in place; the bad news is that it is not being implemented. The Agreement on Access and Movement to Gaza, signed by Palestine, Israel, Egypt and brokered by the United States of America in late 2005, is still the most effective access solution for Gaza. What is now needed is the political will of all parties to implement this agreement; we also need that political will to extend to ensuring the safety and security of all aid workers.
What does World Humanitarian Day mean to you personally?
“We need more humanity... more humanity will make it a better world for everyone.”
It is a day when we are reminded of the bravery of fallen colleagues and the eternal sadness felt by their families. It is also a day to remind the world that we need more humanity and that more humanity will make it a better world for everyone.
John Ging is the Director of the Operational Division at OCHA and the lead adviser to the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs on operational decision-making. Prior to joining OCHA, he was the Director of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) Operations in the Gaza Strip.