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“Locals Know Best” – A World Humanitarian Day Reflection
“Locals Know Best” – A World Humanitarian Day Reflection
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“Locals Know Best” – A World Humanitarian Day Reflection

Among the many international days that are commemorated there is none that resonates with me as much as World Humanitarian Day, which falls on Aug 19 each year.

Why Aug 19? It was that fateful day in 2003 when the United Nations headquarters in Iraq was bombed and 19 people were killed, including the UN’s chief diplomat, Sergio Vieira de Mello. It was also in that same year and country that my colleagues and I were injured while on a humanitarian mission.

This day commemorates humanitarian aid workers – too many of whom have been killed in the line of duty, many of whom I have been lucky to count as friends; all of whom I hold in the deepest respect. On this day we should remember humanitarians and the incredible work they do.

The theme for World Humanitarian Day this year is “It Takes a Village”, recognising that humanitarian action is a collective endeavour involving people from all walks of life. As the UN notes “whenever and wherever people are in need, there are others who help them. They are the affected people themselves – always first to respond when a disaster strikes – and a global community that supports them as they recover”.

This recognition is important and timely. As we see the emerging humanitarian implications of the planetary health challenges we face and consequent increasing humanitarian needs, going forward cannot be “more of the same” for two reasons.

Firstly, the UN’s humanitarian agencies and large international humanitarian non-governmental organisations and the donors that pay for them need to let go of the resources and the power that they have amassed over the last six decades and accept that local people know best how to prepare for and respond to disasters and crises. But for the locals to be enabled to do so, the resources need to flow to them rather than to outsiders. They need to be enabled to “buy in” additional services if they decide they need them. I have worked on the issue of “localisation” for many years now and remain disappointed that systemic change is so slow.

The most recent analysis of the importance of rethinking how the humanitarian system delivers was laid out earlier this year through a lessons-learning report that the Australian and Indonesian governments commissioned via the SIAP SIAGA programme in Indonesia. The report looked at the impact Covid-19 has had on disaster management in the region.

Entitled “Because resilience is local” (available at bit.ly/siap_report), the report admits that it has nothing much new to say about the need for root and branch change in localising preparedness for and response to disasters but calls for urgent acceleration in implementing what has already been agreed at international, regional and national levels. The report stresses that the reality is often that local communities are increasingly taking matters into their own hands despite rather than because of the big international agencies.

Secondly, as we look to the future, it’s quite clear that humanitarian organisations – whether international, regional, national or local – are going to be faced with increasing challenges for which they remain currently poorly prepared.

My argument in this newspaper over the last nine months [in the monthly Planetary Health Matters column in StarLifestyle] is that we need to work with the planet and that the health of the planet and everyone living on it are linked.

For humanitarians there are some particular challenges:

Politics – where we are seeing that humanity’s leadership is becoming overwhelmed by the increasing intensity and breadth of crises – both man-made and climate-induced – which have a humanitarian dimension to them. At the same time there is the constant and near-global distraction of our now digitised world.

This combination is causing governments to retreat from multilateralism and their humanitarian obligations under law as demonstrated in the patchy global response to Covid-19 and the climate crisis as well as the slow but seemingly unstoppable closing of borders to migrants, including genuine refugees. This has negative consequences for health, especially the health of the most vulnerable people.

Economics – where humanitarian needs already outstrip the capacity of governments and global humanitarian actors to respond. Unless rapid and bold action is taken to address our current planetary health crisis, needs are set to multiply in ever increasingly complex emergencies, as demonstrated by the Covid-19 pandemic and current performance around human-induced climate change, environmental degradation, and the resulting potential for conflicts.

The current situation in Europe is a case in point where, in addition to climate change-induced intense heat waves, the Ukraine conflict is leading to entirely human-induced fossil fuel and grain shortages and related inflationary trends that are driving humanitarian needs.

That our systems are poorly prepared for these eventualities has been amply demonstrated over the last decade and more and more acutely in the last 24 months.

The societal aspect – where humanitarian action is increasingly used as a bandaid in prolonged crises, while the UN Security Council wrings its hands but ultimately does very little, leaving increasing numbers of people in highly vulnerable situations for years on end, usually living in unsustainable, unhealthy conditions outside formal social protection systems, in temporary camps that produce high carbon emissions.

As we commemorate World Humanitarian Day this coming Friday, let us remember that while it does “take a village”, humanitarian assistance should be provided to the most vulnerable people caught in a disaster or crisis based on an assessment of needs. Who better to make this assessment than those who know best: the professional local humanitarians who live among and work with those in need.

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Dr Jemilah Mahmood, a physician and experienced crisis leader, was appointed the executive director of the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health at Sunway University in August 2021. She is the founder of international aid agency Mercy Malaysia and has served in leadership roles internationally with the United Nations and Red Cross for the last decade.

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