Responding to Terrain

Posted on: August 21, 2016 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: General posts on the humanitarian aid industry

Responding to Terrain

Along with (as of this writing) 2,623 others, I have signed the “United Nations, International Organisations, World Governments – Protect Aid Workers Now!” petition.  In response to the events at Terrain in South Sudan, the aid community came together in many virtual fora, perhaps most dramatically so in the Facebook group “Fifty Shades of Aid.”   One outcome of those responses is the petition.

The discussions in that group continues to be a rich mixture of passion, compassion, insight and measured analysis of not just the events near Juba but others like it all over the humanitarian space.

If you have not done so, sign the petition.  Now.

In the preface to Aid Worker Voices I offer the thought that, collectively, aid workers are the conscience of our growing global consciousness.  That this segment of humanity needs to be heard from and listened to is indeed the premise of my book.  Most immediately, though, the issue is the protection of the humanitarian space.

A couple years ago I wrote the short piece below, sadly more relevant now.  It is pointed at a mainstream American audience, so take that into account as you read.  Share with me if you have any thoughts or feedback.

Supporting those on the front lines of support
By Tom Arcaro –

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

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022. A revised second edition of 'Confronting Toxic Othering' is now available from Kendall Hunt Publishers

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:


Comments are closed.