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On why we are (Standing) still here

Today is World Humanitarian Day (WHD). It was on August 19, 2003, when the United Nations lost 22 colleagues in the tragic attack at the Hotel Canal in Baghdad, Iraq. Since then, we commemorate WHD every year, paying tribute to the many humanitarian workers who have sacrificed their lives to bring relief to the millions and millions of people affected by crises.

As of August 9, a total of 5,771 national humanitarian workers and 714 international staff across the globe have been either killed, wounded, or kidnapped while accomplishing their mission, as reflected by the Humanitarian Outcomes’ Aid Worker Security Database. Humanitarian work has become a highly risky responsibility.

We also acknowledge that the intensity, frequency, and overlapping nature of a new generation of crises -ironically captured by experts as “polycrisis”- is making humanitarian work still more complicated to the point of exhausting the capacities of an already overstretched humanitarian system.

While the demand for aid continues to grow, available funding falls tragically short. The gap between humanitarian needs and funding allocations is striking. Based on July 2023 report, requirements for the Global Humanitarian Overview (GHO) have increased to $55.2 billion to assist 248 million of the 363 million people in need. However, contributions just reached 25 percent of the total funding.

From our field perspective, we are presently experiencing three major challenges, which are impacting our plans, work, and ambitions:

First, climate change, which has a multiplier effect on pre-existing vulnerabilities. And the Philippines knows very well about that. The country lies within the typhoon belt and is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire exemplifying the intricate interplay between exposure to natural hazards, climate change impact, and humanitarian responses. More frequent and intense storms, such as the most recent super typhoon Odette in 2021, are exacerbating an already fragile situation and making the recovery process more arduous and expensive. These are compelling reminders that our conventional ways of relief must learn from experience and adapt if we want to effectively address the changing dynamic of climate emergency.

Second, the “unpredictability” of many emerging crises or -put into less diplomatic words-, the uncontrolled nature of some crises that are escaping any measurement of their intensity, duration, and impact. The protracted crises in Syria and Yemen, as well as the emerging ones in Ukraine, Sudan, and now Niger, stand as self-evident examples of such disasters.

Third, the growing threats and risks that encircle humanitarian workers who are trying to save lives in the most challenging circumstances. While these dedicated individuals and organizations strive to provide support and relief, they still find themselves navigating a hazardous landscape.

In this unprecedented context, the significance of humanitarian work becomes even greater and more meaningful. However, it would be a mistake to think that the solution to humanitarian crises is, simply, more humanitarian support. No. The solution will always be political in nature. In fact, investing in good governance will always be critical. This means the capacity to better prevent conflict and improve resilience to natural disasters, as well as the capacity to find and sustain durable solutions to those most affected and most in need.

Effective and accountable governance mechanisms form the bedrock upon which prosperous and resilient societies are built. By fostering transparency, accountability, and inclusivity, we lay the groundwork for sustainable development and the prevention of crises before they escalate. The proactive identification and mitigation of risks are instrumental in circumventing the impacts of crises. Allocating resources toward preventive measures can potentially avert ill effects. Finally, upholding the dignity and rights of every individual, regardless of circumstance, not only aligns with our moral compass but also contributes to stability, inclusivity, and sustainable development. Efforts also need to target those who face particular risks in humanitarian contexts, including women and persons with disabilities.

The Philippines has faced these problems through the years. And humanitarian actions in the country are being practiced in all seasons using different strategies and approaches.

Recently, the humanitarian country team in the Philippines have been chosen along with other three country teams (Colombia, Niger, and South Sudan) to contribute to the improvement of the humanitarian system from their specific perspectives.

The project, known as the “Enhancing Resilient Communities (ERC) Flagship Initiative will make the most of the longstanding experience of Filipino institutions and organizations in addressing the humanitarian impact of a wide range of shocks. Still more important, the initiative will be an opportunity to bring together the humanitarian and development communities and overcome artificial silos created by a very narrow aid architecture.

In this learning journey, the development of tailor-made responses that will not only take into account the needs and vulnerabilities of communities but also their strengths, capacities, and assets will be a key to success. Experience shows that the highly standardized humanitarian industry has sometimes precooked solutions that were disconnected from the socioeconomic and cultural specificities of affected communities.

As smartly framed by a recent report, just listening to communities is not enough to transform the prevailing humanitarian system. Communities, as first responders, are expected to be part of the decision-making process and not just the subject of quick-needs assessment.

The ERC Flagship Initiative is also a unique opportunity to build alliances and reenergize coalitions to learn from each other and set a common sense of purpose in a context where multilateralism has been put at risk. More than ever, joining forces, capacities and resources appear as the most effective way of coping with, adapting to, and recovering from present and future shocks. At the heart of this process, solidarity remains the main engine for resilience building.

This World Humanitarian Day, actions towards resilience have many faces. And so why are humanitarian efforts still important, and why are we standing still, despite many odds?

… because we are called to serve, #NoMatterWhat.

By Gustavo Gonzalez, UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator

Journal Online
A collection of noteworthy information on various topics from the Philippines and the rest of the world.