Members of Concern Lebanon volunteering with clean-up efforts in Beirut. Photo: Concern Worldwide.Members of Concern Lebanon volunteering with clean-up efforts in Beirut. Photo: Concern Worldwide.Members of Concern Lebanon volunteering with clean-up efforts in Beirut. Photo: Concern Worldwide.

'Humanitarian workers are being tested like never before'

'Humanitarian workers are being tested like never before'

Ahead of World Humanitarian Day, Concern's Chief Executive Dominic MacSorley reflects on another challenging year for the aid sector and the need to engage younger generations

Many humanitarians work in their own communities, going to extraordinary lengths in extraordinary times to help people whose lives have been upended by crises and the global COVID-19 pandemic.

These first responders are often people in need themselves — refugees, members of civil society organisations, and local health workers. They bring food, shelter, health care, protection, and hope to others amid conflict, displacement, disaster, and disease. In response to thousands of people whose homes were destroyed or badly damaged by the recent chemical explosion in Beirut, families opened up their homes to help their neighbours. 

Part of Concern’s emergency response is providing resources to support the network of localised volunteer groups that have sprung up to help the clean-up and recovery. These groups include migrant workers, architects, and engineers who are responding with their hands and their hearts. Working alongside our own teams, the dedication, perseverance, and self-sacrifice of these real-life heroes represent the best of humanity as they respond to the immediate humanitarian needs of this latest disaster.

Destruction across Beirut city, following the explosion in the port area on 4th August 2020. Images taken by Concern Worldwide team conducting response assessment. Photo: Dom Hunt / Concern Worldwide.
Destruction across Beirut city, following the explosion in the port area on 4th August 2020. Images taken by Concern Worldwide team conducting response assessment. Photo: Dom Hunt / Concern Worldwide.

#RealLifeHeroes

This year, the theme of World Humanitarian Day is #RealLifeHeroes, focusing on the courage of those on the front lines; those who face unprecedented hurdles to save and protect despite the conflict, insecurity, and risks linked to COVID-19. The urgency of sudden-onset humanitarian crises does not abate with COVID, nor does the compassion of everyday humanitarians.

Adding to the major challenges, COVID-19 has become a force multiplier of already dire humanitarian needs, with 168 million people already in need of humanitarian assistance before the pandemic broke out. The secondary impact of COVID-19 on the poorest and most vulnerable are now becoming alarmingly clear with hard-won global development gains now in reverse. A recent World Bank study estimates that 70-100 million people are slipping back into extreme poverty.

Challenges continue to mount

At Concern, we are seeing first-hand how COVID -19 is already compounding and amplifying existing crises. Kenya, for example, is dealing with a vast infestation of crop devouring locusts, floods, and now COVID-19, with a resurgence of conflict over scarce resources between ethnic groups in the north which we haven’t see for a number of years.

At the same time, humanitarian workers around the world are being tested like never before, struggling with unprecedented movement restrictions and insufficient resources as needs are outpacing funds. And all too often, they risk their own lives to save the lives of others.

Concern Worldwide Chief Executive Dominic MacSorley
In recent weeks alone, attacks have killed aid workers in Niger and Cameroon and since the onset of the pandemic, scores of health workers have come under attack across the world.
Dominic MacSorley - Chief Executive, Concern Worldwide

According to Humanitarian Outcomes’ Aid Worker Security Database, major attacks against humanitarians last year surpassed all previous years on record. A total of 483 relief workers were attacked, 125 killed, 234 wounded and 124 kidnapped in 277 separate incidents. This is an 18% increase in the number of victims compared to 2018.

So, as we pay tribute to the courage and commitment of those on the front line of the crisis, it is important that we also reflect on what needs to change in order for us to be more effective, more responsive to needs and more responsible to the humanitarians we rightly praise.

What needs to change

One thing we need to do is to be more honest about the scale of resources needed to address this global crisis. Last month, the UN launched its revised Global Humanitarian Response Plan to combat the spread of COVID 19 in 64 counties. At $10.3 billion, it represents the biggest UN appeal ever launched but, in truth, it is grossly underestimated. Underfunding among the big donors is creating a lack of certainty when NGOs should be scaling up and responding even more.

Full credit goes to the Irish Government for not just being flexible in managing the disruption to existing grants but for maintaining the current level of overseas aid funding and committing to the 0.7 in the new Programme for Government. However, we need to see this approach adopted by others.

We also need to address the lack of public media attention for other ongoing crises. The Syria conflict has lasted almost a decade, and yet public outrage = is diminishing each year. Ebola in West Africa was one of the biggest humanitarian stories of the past five years, but its re-emergence in DRC in 2018 received limited media coverage.

A burial team pray before they collect a corpse from inside a house in the east of Freetown Sierra Leone in 2015 Ebola outbreak. Photograph: Michael Duff
A burial team pray before they collect a corpse from inside a house in the east of Freetown Sierra Leone in 2015 Ebola outbreak. Photograph: Michael Duff

Attention matters, and we have must do better at telling the story. We need to continue to engage young people, not just online or on their phone -  but through genuine solidarity. I would suggest that we need to not overuse the language of rights and international humanitarian law. These are critically important but we are now in an era of a new language -  the language of global solidarity, the fundamentals of global justice and a shared existence on our fragile planet. The language of connection, virtue, compassion, generosity, and humanity does not require translation.

Concern Worldwide Chief Executive Dominic MacSorley
We need to capitalise on the energy and aspiration of youth - the vibrant movements for change - and ensure that this energy is directed towards the most marginalised communities.
Dominic MacSorley - Chief Executive, Concern Worldwide

The challenge is to figure out how to channel that energy into an international perspective, into the type of vigorous solidarity that can end wars. 

Finally, we need to make this connection to celebrating humanitarian heroes on the ground. We need to be less cautious and be more positive about our work and what we are achieving. We have seen through COVID-19 a long-overdue appreciation for frontline health workers. We must remind ourselves and others why our work is important, how we have frontline aid workers that stay and deliver and carry out their work with conviction and professionalism - often in circumstances that were already extremely challenging. 

We have to get ahead of the curb of negativity and leverage the hope demonstrated lately by groups standing in solidarity and demanding action in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement and the climate crisis.

There is a pool of energy, and an opportunity, to inspire again about humanitarian issues.

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