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World Humanitarian Day: Time to recall aid workers who lost their lives

August 19, 2015
Written by Feargal O’Connell, Country Director, Concern Worldwide, South Sudan

On World Humanitarian Day, Concern Worldwide’s Country Director in South Sudan reflects on his personal journey to becoming an aid worker and the increasingly dangerous nature of humanitarian work.

Feargal O'Connell

Feargal O’Connell, Country Director, Concern Worldwide, South Sudan.

Normally I have a terrible memory but this day is written into my mind in indelible ink. The biggest, whitest, fluffiest clouds raced across the bluest sky I had ever seen. I was in Zimbabwe. I was 15 years of age and I was about to become an aid worker.

I was there to visit a school, which was run by the Order of Carmelites as was my school in Dublin – Terenure College. The visit was the start of a twinning project between the two schools. Fr. Louis, our guide, was bringing us to visit an elderly couple he had been supporting with a monthly bag of millet. We travelled along a bone-breaking bumpy dirt road. The soil was red and fields were yellow – all the primary colors were on display.

We pulled into the couple’s homestead and sat outside their wattle and mud hut. We chatted. Fr. Louis translated and told us their story. They were refugees from the civil war in Mozambique. They had lost their whole family and they were destitute. In spite of that, there was laughter and joy and such a warm welcome for these strangers from Ireland. It was like being at grandmas’ house. We were sent away with an armful of corn.  When it was offered we looked over at Fr. Louis and he gestured for us to accept it. The most important thing I learned that day was that you can lose everything through poverty, but still hold on to your dignity and your pride.

Organizations like Concern are required to work in increasingly dangerous environments as the intersection grows between violent conflicts and humanitarian needs.

As we drove away my mind was racing with questions about how this couple could survive in the long term. What it was like for those who stayed behind in Mozambique? I was irrevocably struck by the shared humanity of it – the way that people from such different parts of the world could share such warmth, jokes, and laughter. I left with what one of the founders of Concern Worldwide, Aengus Finucane, called “fire in the belly.” Ten years later I joined Concern. I became a part of a global family of others with fire in their bellies who are spurred by the humanitarian imperative to respond to unacceptable levels of poverty and suffering.

Today, the 19th of August, we mark World Humanitarian Day. Twelve years ago today 22 aid workers were killed in a bombing at the UN headquarters in Baghdad. It marked a watershed for aid workers and the global humanitarian community. Previously the majority of aid workers deaths were caused by road traffic accidents. Since the start of the new millennium, aid workers are more likely to be killed in violent circumstances.

Concern Worldwide distributes water and high-energy biscuits in Tomping.

Concern Worldwide distributes water and high-energy biscuits at a UN base in Tomping, South Sudan.

In 2003, 143 aid workers were the victims of serious attacks. This figure has risen steadily over the subsequent ten years peaking in 2013 with 474 attacks. One hundred and fifty-five aid workers lost their lives in 2013 because of the work they do – saving lives and alleviating suffering brought about by humanitarian disasters. It is no coincidence that the majority of refugees arriving in Greece are from two countries ranked as the most dangerous for aid workers: Afghanistan and Syria.

Organizations like Concern are required to work in increasingly dangerous environments as the intersection grows between violent conflicts and humanitarian needs. The “war on terror” and prevalence of asymmetric conflicts has also made humanitarian work more dangerous. In 2014, the five most dangerous countries for aid workers were Afghanistan, Syria, South Sudan, Central African Republic, and Pakistan. Those who want to strike at what they perceive as Western influences can see aid workers as a soft target.

I am now Country Director for Concern in South Sudan. While that 15-year-old with fire in his belly is still part of me, my priorities are more focused now. First and foremost, we must do everything we can to keep our 240 staff members as safe as possible in one of most dangerous countries for aid workers. Secondly, trying to balance the budget as the needs grow every day is a constant challenge.

A family at a distribution in Tomping.

A family at a distribution of food, supplies, and water from Concern Worldwide and other humanitarian organizations at a UN base in Tomping, South Sudan.

With the civil war here we are now facing a situation where 1.5 million people have been driven from their homes and as a consequence over four million people do not have enough food to eat. It is a disaster on a massive scale. Simultaneously, money is tighter than ever. We are in a situation where we just about have the resources to build the shelters and provide the emergency nutrition and water services to tens of thousands of displaced people. But we struggle to find the funding for the things that help us deliver those services in a safer way.

On World Humanitarian Day we should pause and remember all those with fire in their bellies who have tragically and senselessly lost their lives in the line of duty.

All too often there is no money left over for vehicles, radios, satellite phones, and security training for field workers and experienced staff to analyze security trends and advise our field teams on the front lines. We should not have to make the choice between either opening a nutrition center for malnourished kids or security training for our staff.

While I spend every day thinking about the safety of my colleagues in South Sudan, today is a day that we can all stop and think about the wider humanitarian community. On World Humanitarian Day we should pause and remember all those with fire in their bellies who have tragically and senselessly lost their lives in the line of duty. At the same time, we must acknowledge the continued sacrifices that aid workers all around the world are making on a daily basis. Most importantly, we must all do whatever we can to make their work as safe possible.