Thinking about global humanitarian interests in the midst of a global pandemic —
Today marks the 11th anniversary of the institutionalization of the World Humanitarian Day. This day was formalized by the United Nations General Assembly in 2009 in memory of the August 19, 2003 bomb attack on the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, Iraq, which killed twenty-two people, including the chief humanitarian in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello. For all intents and purposes, it is a day that reminds the global community of the realities of the predicaments of vulnerable people in over 60 countries in the world, and the dangers that humanitarian workers face in their efforts to bring relief to their fellow humans in dire need. However, this year, the call to remember is more pressing as the global pandemic is exacerbating both humanitarian needs and escalating the risks faced by humanitarian workers.
According to the United Nations, in 2019, 483 aid workers were violently attacked. Out of this number, 125 were killed, 234 were wounded and 124 were kidnapped in a total of 277 separate incidents. In spite of these tragedies, however, there are success stories of global humanitarian work. For example, 28.9 million children were vaccinated globally against measles; 32.2 million people were provided with access to safe water for drinking, cooking, and personal hygiene; and 92.6 million children and caregivers worldwide had access to mental health and psychosocial support. These successes were championed through the efforts of the United Nations, Red Cross/Red Crescent, Humanitarian Coalition and Military organizations as well as from generous contributions from states, foundations, and others across the globe.
As the United Nations marks this day in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it is a time for us at UFV as part of the global community to pause and ponder our common humanity and deep interconnectedness and to join efforts in addressing global humanitarian challenges. Today is a solemn reminder of Ubuntu (humanity towards others). This day celebrates the heroism of aid and health workers who are working around the clock to bring critical and life-saving support and protection to the most vulnerable people in the world whether they are in the frontlines of societies ravaged by violent conflict or communities facing natural disasters. Today is the day to activate the Ubuntu in us and look at our own backyards and beyond at those who are suffering and need help; to say “thank you” to the people who have made it their vocation to bring relief to people in need. Today is a day for deep reflection and action for the common good of humanity; but also, a time to critically reflect on how best to give agency to those most impacted by humanitarian crises.
The COVID-19 pandemic, along with recent climate-related natural disasters, violent conflicts, and the resurgence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, have exposed the complexities of systemic socio-economic inequities in the global north and global south counties, and power disparities in the international system and their ramifications for global humanitarianism. These inequalities, which are engendered by racism and ethnocentrism, economic deprivation, and abuse of human rights and state power, among others, demand global action as experts are calling for a rethink of the global humanitarian response system; a system characterized often by western bias and insensitive to local culture and traditions.
To be sure, humanitarian crises are separate from the general need for aid and development assistance in vulnerable communities. Humanitarian crises are generated independently by or through combinations of natural disasters such as flooding, and man-made emergencies such as war, that lead to protracted food insecurity, diseases, homelessness, and myriad of vulnerabilities. In 2019, 79.5 million people around the world were forced to flee their homes, including 26 million refugees. The United Nations estimates that due to the complexity of factors, the number of people who will experience humanitarian crises will exceed 200 million by 2022. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in its Global Humanitarian Overview 2020 estimates that 167.6 million people will need humanitarian aid and protection, and the United Nations and its partners will require $28.8 billion to reach 108.8 million of the most vulnerable in 55 countries.
However, these projections were made prior to the COVID-19 pandemic; and, already an additional nine countries have spiraled into a humanitarian crisis. Aside from the potential spread of the disease, the closure of state borders affects supply chains, causing many challenges such as food insecurity among vulnerable populations. Moreover, the restricted mobility of humanitarian workers and closure of essential services, including schools and health centers, further marginalizes vulnerable populations. UNICEF’s recent report in May of this year indicates that the number of children who are suffering from humanitarian crises is at the highest point in history due to COVID-19. The aftermath of the Beirut explosion two weeks ago that killed over 200 people with 110 missing, injuring several hundreds of people, destroying the port of Beirut and parts of the city, and displacing hundreds of thousands of people, calls further attention to the challenges of global humanitarian needs. As the United Nations Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, argues, the Beirut explosion “…will have repercussions far beyond those we see in front of us now”. Indeed, Ubuntu teaches us that the problem is not for the Lebanese alone as Mr. Lowcock called on “donors, international financial institutions and the wider international community [to] come together and put their shoulder to the wheel. We will best serve the Lebanese people with a collective response.”
The stark revelations of global humanitarian crises require international collective response; solidarity with and agency for vulnerable populations, and support for frontline workers. At the political level, and given the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic, it is important for member states of the United Nations to uphold and support their international obligations of promoting peace, security and human rights, and racial equality around the world. To draw inspiration from Martin Luther King Jr. we must remind ourselves that humanitarian crisis anywhere is a threat to humanity everywhere. It is in this context that Canada, which has been a longstanding supporter of the United Nations, must review its international aid envelope upwards from the paltry 0.28% of GNI, which falls far short of the United Nations target of 0.7% of GNI. While Canada has shown commitment in addressing recent humanitarian crises such as the Rohingya Crisis with Prime Minister Trudeau’s appointment of the Honourable Bob Rae as Special Envoy to Myanmar, we can do more for humanity by striving to meet the United Nations target. At the administrative level, the effective tackling of global humanitarian crises will require coordination between humanitarian actors, including NGOs and civil society organizations who work as non-formal actors in the humanitarian sector. As experts argue, there is a need to better support and integrate the activities of non-United Nations-affiliated actors within this multibillion-dollar industry. The failure to integrate local and grassroots humanitarian actors into the humanitarian system serves to reinforce inequalities and systematic racism within the humanitarian system.
As an institution of higher learning, UFV has a role to play in the management of global humanitarian crises. In this COVID-19 era, the need to rethink how and why we conduct research, teach, and do humanitarian work has never been more urgent. UFV is already showing leadership in rethinking humanitarian work, such as student-initiated WUSC refugee programs, humanitarian related graduate programs, and faculty that pursue applied work and research in varied related contexts. What we teach in the classroom and the community must not only consider a critical analysis of unique circumstances as Canadians, but must reflect awareness and understanding of formal and non-formal humanitarian activities elsewhere on the globe. As educators and researchers, we have a responsibility to take seriously our role to influence future policy-makers to build a better humanitarian system and to call to question the ethics of existing humanitarian systems that our government supports. Is this a point in history where within Canada and at UFV we have an opportunity to change the trajectory in our national humanitarian response? We must do this in the interest of our common humanity, in our striving to change the trajectory to a more just, inclusive, and equitable post-COVID-19 world.
Dr. Edward Akuffo
Dr. Cherie Enns
School of Land Use and Environmental Change