Humanitarian aid work gets more complex and less safe

Following are excerpts of a Newsweek Opinion piece by Thomas Arcaro, professor of sociology at Elon University:

The need for humanitarian support globally is rising at a much higher rate than can be met by currently available material and human resources. In our imperfect world there will always be a need for humanitarian efforts, and those tasked with directly addressing these needs feel both a personal and professional responsibility to deliver.

My research and book, “Aid Worker Voices,” focus on aid workers. Many veteran aid workers observed that the core aspects of the work have slowly become more complex in the last several decades. A lack of safety is an increasingly palpable fact of life. They report seeing friends and colleagues get raped, kidnapped and, yes, even beheaded.

One respondent said about the difficulties inherent in her profession that she just wants to “get back to the work that I am fiercely proud of,” instead of fearing for her safety.

Humanitarian principles like neutrality and impartiality that once seemed so self-evident have been drawn into question, especially on the politically and ethnically complex battlefields of Iraq and Syria. Humanitarian safety protocol that seemed straightforward in places like Aceh, Malaysia or even Port-au-Prince, Haiti, appear almost quaint now on the battlefields in the Middle East where even aid convoys have become targets.

Tufts University researcher Antonio Donini put it this way: “Humanitarianism started off as a powerful discourse; now it is a discourse of power, both at the international and at the community level.” Aid workers are caught in power squabbles as they try to deliver needed supplies, medical care and support for those in need.

The confines of the system within which aid workers struggle to work includes the humanitarian aid industry, and the larger economic and political forces that shape our world.

[Newsweek] 

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