World Humanitarian Day: The challenge of saving lives
By Philippe Guiton, Humanitarian and Operations Director, CARE International
I started my humanitarian career as a volunteer logistician in Abéché, a town in north-eastern Chad, in January 1985. I was quite young, 27 years old. I arrived during the third year of the massive famine in the Sahel of the mid-80s.
A lot of people were dying. Those who were still strong enough came to the towns – yet many were too weak and it was often too late save them.
Mostly the children perished in hunger. It was a very hard start for me.
It was my first job as a humanitarian aid worker and I was thrown into utter devastation and misery.
Working in isolation
Every three weeks, a small plane landed on the dusty airstrip, containing a bag of letters from my organisation headquarters. I had three weeks to reply to the requests, typing them all up on my rusty typewriter before the next flight would arrive.
My team and I were completely on our own. I had to make most decisions without consulting our headquarters. When I first arrived, there were no telephones and no long range radios.
Reaching remote areas
From Abéché to the capital N’Djamena I had to travel 750 km of dirt road. When it did not rain, we could manage to cover the distance in about 16 hours by car. Yet we had to be ready to sleep in the bush if we had a flat tyre, if the road was blocked or became a pool of mud in the rainy season.
I was ‘in’ for the long haul – having signed a contract for two years with only one month of leave in Chad. There was no ‘rest and recuperation’, or R&R in our NGO lingo as we nowadays call the regular breaks for aid workers based in challenging and remote areas.
I did not see my friends and family for two years.
I lost contact with my friends at home. We had no email, no Skype, no Whatsapp, no means to stay in touch but letters delivered by mail.
Today, when I deploy to our humanitarian missions, I am in constant contact with my family through the internet. I can coordinate with my team instantly, sharing real-time data and information.
Getting aid to people in need
Thirty years ago, one of our main challenges was getting the aid to people in need. There were no roads to the villages. It took the trucks a really long time to get to the places where people needed our assistance.
When we organised distributions of relief supplies in remote locations, we always had to factor in many days.
While I was there, Chad was at war with armed groups in the east and south, and with Libya in the north. I witnessed two bombings very close to where I was. Yet insecurity came mostly from banditry and rogue armed soldiers. Aid workers had no serious problems at military and police check-points. Flags on our vehicles were the best protection. NGOs did not have security staff.
This has changed around the world. Aid organisations such as CARE have robust security protocols and mechanisms in place to keep their staff safe – for good reason.
In 2016, 288 aid workers were attacked [killed, wounded, or kidnapped], mainly in Afghanistan, South Sudan, Syria, Somalia and Yemen.
Today aid workers are a target in some areas and the numbers of kidnappings of aid workers for financial gain or political reasons have increased over the years. In some countries we are forced to keep a low profile because international NGOs are perceived as representing a foreign agenda that is seen as a threat to some communities.
Too often, the lines between peacekeeping operations, military actions and humanitarian assistance have been blurred.
Governments and militaries are using development work to win ‘hearts and minds’, making it increasingly difficult for local communities to understand the difference between actors.
Professionals and specialists
Over the past 32 years, I have seen the humanitarian aid system change dramatically. In the 1980s, aid workers used to be mostly northern volunteers, and many had no specific training.
Basically whoever was ready to go to the field could get a job.
You had to be flexible though as the tasks were broad: I was a driver, a constructor, a mechanic, I had to negotiate with authorities and with soldiers, and I had to organise aid distributions.
Today, humanitarian aid is a profession, and humanitarians have specialised skills.
We employ logisticians, team leaders, accountability officers, finance and procurement managers, experts in water and sanitation or food security, communications specialists and so forth.
Answering to the people we serve
When I started in Chad, there was very little accountability to our donors and to the people we served. We did not have clear standards and guidance. It was only after the Biafra war and the big Sahelian famine of the 80s that humanitarian work started to become structured and humanitarian work became a profession.
Today, we have after-action reviews, analyses, assessments, complaints mechanisms and other tools and procedures to ensure we are accountable to the most affected and we can openly inform our donors about our impact.
Humanitarians from the global South
The other major change in the humanitarian system is that the big majority of the humanitarian workers are now from the global South. At CARE, 97 percent of our staff are from the countries where we work in. We also support and train local organisations to deliver emergency aid.
32 years ago I arrived in Chad with just one backpack, with passion and a vision to help others. I had very little supervision and learned quickly to make decisions on my own. The people I met at that time opened my eyes to a different reality, and these early encounters with people in need changed me deeply.
While humanitarian work has transformed itself over the course of the past decades, our purpose remains the same: provide life-saving assistance to people affected by natural disasters and conflicts.
Written by Philippe Guiton, Humanitarian and Operations Director, CARE International
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