Being a humanitarian -- from the desk or the field

Editor's note: In an effort to raise public awareness of humanitarian assistance worldwide and the people who risk their lives to provide it, the UN General Assembly has designated August 19 as World Humanitarian Day. This year's theme is "People helping people," celebrating everyday humanitarians helping people around the world. From wherever you are today -- at home, at a desk, or in the field -- be inspired by the spirit of aid work in those around you and in yourself.

In my new job at World Vision, I was recently sent to assist our response to the drought, food crisis, and famine across the Horn of Africa. I had spent several weeks learning the systems of World Vision from my desk in Washington, D.C., and was anxious to get back out to the field, where a real disaster was unfolding.

Before World Vision, I had spent more than four years overseas, working in relief settings. I love this line of work for its fast-moving nature and its tie to the headlines of what we see in the news. This is a chance to do something that matters.

During my time in the Horn of Africa, I was sent to World Vision Somalia to help develop programs in or near the famine-affected regions. We had the difficult task of trying to assist people in an area from which World Vision had been expelled about 18 months previously. Through security analysis and networking, we devised a few options for how to assist in Southern Somalia, and we made plans for a trip to that region.

We took a chartered flight and spent seven hours on the ground. We talked to local government authorities and the local health board. Then, we planned to look at the living conditions in the informal transit camp and evaluate the capacity of local Somali organizations to implement assistance we hoped to provide.

In the end, we were nearly unable to visit the transit camp -- having spent more time than planned with some of the local authorities -- but I pleaded for at least a quick drive-by so that I could compare the conditions with those of other internally displaced persons (IDP) camps I had worked at in Haiti and Sudan.

Layla Mohamed, 23, fled the Mogadishu conflict with her husband and 5 children, but now finds herself fighting to save her 1 year-old baby girl, Zam Zam. World Vision staff discovered her in an IDP camp for drought and conflict refugees on the outskirts of Garowe, Puntland, Somalia. ©2011 Jon Warren/World Vision

As we came to the camp, I was reminded of the conditions seen in Darfur in 2007. As people fled from fighting in South Darfur, they arrived at government-controlled areas in search of food and safety. These people had only twigs to build simple dome-shaped shelters in the rough and arid landscape. They had left their homes and fields and had an uncertain future -- just as the Somalis do today.

Even though we only got to drive by, I was so grateful after the trip that I could plan upcoming projects using this recent experience and the one four years ago. Being weaned off the rough-and-fast field environment can be a little hard. I try to realize that people affected by disasters are still in need of proposal writers, program managers, and fundraisers in the headquarters of humanitarian offices throughout the world. However, it excites me to be there with people -- learning about their needs, and thinking about past experiences and disasters and how we can use all of that to provide effective support to those affected by the current disaster.

Thus, I often think: If I were fleeing from my home in fear for my life, due to a food crisis or conflict, would someone else on the other side of the world -- sitting in their air-conditioned office, Starbucks coffee in hand -- write a thoughtful proposal advocating for assistance for me? If Somali children -- who are fleeing their homes right now -- don't receive nutritious food and education and safety, will they have a chance to play a role in building a better future for their families in 20 years? Will they have a chance to advocate for better governance?

This thought reminds me that all humanitarians -- whether they're in the field, making direct contact with people in great need, or sitting behind a desk in a cubicle -- play a vital role in delivering relief to those who are suffering. Consequently, the role of humanitarian workers truly is a global, diverse one -- not simply in terms of whom they reach, but also in terms of where and how their work is done.

Betsy Baldwin is a program officer with Humanitarian and Emergency Affairs at World Vision U.S., currently on assignment tracking and monitoring drought and famine in the Horn of Africa.

In light of World Humanitarian Day and Betsy's post, what does being a humanitarian mean to you? What, do you believe, is the role of humanitarians in our world? How can we inspire the spirit of a humanitarian in those around us?

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