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In My Words: Supporting those on the front lines of support

The recent kidnappings of Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers in Syria are the backdrop to a newspaper column from Professor Tom Arcaro on the responsibilities people have to assist aid workers.

The following column appeared recently in the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News, the Roanoke (Va.) Times and the Gaston Gazette in North Carolina via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Viewpoints are those of the author and not of Elon University.

Professor Tom Arcaro

Supporting those on the front lines of support
By Tom Arcaro - arcaro@elon.edu

 
Spin the globe in the last decade and disasters pop up like so many ugly weeds:  the tsunami in Sri Lanka, the earthquake in Haiti, the famine in the Horn of Africa. Now we are faced with a massive humanitarian crisis in Syria where multitudes of children and innocents -“collateral damage” in a civil war - seek refuge in makeshift camps.
 
All of these events evoked strong emotion and then an outpouring of financial support. Americans, compelled by a basic sense of common humanity, give a great deal to organizations that care for victims of humanitarian crises. Indeed, various estimates put the dollar figure given by Americans at more than $300 billion per year.
 
Humanitarian aid workers use our donations to provide frontline care to millions of our world’s most desperate populations and, critically, connect those of us who donate money to those who are suffering in the countless ragged encampments on the borders of disaster zones. Their job is as risky as it is critical.
 
Estimates are that last year alone, 272 aid workers were victims of violence, including 91 kidnappings, 115 injuries and 66 deaths. These numbers from the Humanitarian Outcomes international consulting group do not include the additional psychological trauma that can lead to depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress syndrome, and, yes, even suicide.
 
Aid workers put themselves in harm’s way every day – look no further than the seven people from the Red Cross/Red Crescent just kidnapped in Syria - and for that, for being our point of contact and the human expression of our financial and material donations, we owe them our thanks.
 
Here’s how we should show our respect for the job they do in our name:  
 
First, we must begin by seeking to understand more deeply the complexities of these humanitarian crises. We need to have an insatiable desire to know the world around us, far outside of our comfort zone of the United States. Spend 15 minutes each day reading international news, and be sure to check out foreign news sources. I recommend the BBC or Al-Jazeera, both of which give perspectives you won't find in the American press.
 
Second, we need to understand that some giving can be toxic, especially if it is done paternalistically, in a way that is culturally inappropriate, or inefficiently. We must vet on a regular basis any aid organization to which we donate. Some organizations are not much more than well-run scams, doing little to actually make a positive impact as they promise. We should give, but ever mindfully.
 
Third, by understanding more deeply, we can avoid giving inappropriate or unnecessary material items known in the humanitarian aid world as “stuff we don’t need.” Examples are many and can be found when looking at the history of the response to the earthquake in Haiti where crates of expired medicines sat on the tarmac of the airport for weeks.
 
Finally, and most importantly, we can support aid workers – and thus help them better serve those caught in the humanitarian crisis – by not remaining neutral in the face of extremism.
 
The international medical organization Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French acronym MSF, withdrew this summer from Somalia when it concluded that its workers could no longer be assured of safety. Unfortunately, the new normal in the humanitarian aid world is that in some locations local political factions or religious fundamentalist groups can basically abuse aid resources for political purposes, manipulate humanitarian space, and even directly target aid workers in violent attacks, more or less with total impunity.
 
This threat to the sanctity of humanitarian space is made possible by the inaction of those who consider themselves moderates, both here and abroad.
 
We must be more aggressive in our challenge to extremists – both political and religious - and show an aggressive intolerance toward, well, intolerance.
 
Our points of contact, the humanitarian aid workers now on the ground in hot spots around the globe, need all of us to be more mindful in our giving, our knowing and our responsibility to help regain the sanctity of the humanitarian space.
 
Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology and director of the Project Pericles program at Elon University.

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Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

Eric Townsend,
Staff
10/22/2013 1:00 PM