Are humanitarians real life heroes?

Screenshot of #RealLifeHeroes social media campaign instructions. Source: World Humanitarian Day 2020

The devastating explosion in Beirut earlier this month vividly demonstrated the primary role that volunteers and local aid groups play in responding to disaster — especially when confronting the failings of a dysfunctional state. After the 4 August blast, social media posts and journalists on the ground offered plenty of examples of neighbours, friends, and family pitching in to rescue the wounded; provide food, shelter, and support; and start clean-up operations.

World Humanitarian Day. These are exactly the people who were celebrated last week, on the United Nation’s annual World Humanitarian Day. But Covid-19 restrictions limited public gatherings — even though Geneva’s 750 or so NGOs are home to plenty of humanitarians. A multimedia campaign put together by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) commemorated the day online, referring to aid workers as “real life heroes” and thanking frontline aid workers and volunteers. It also called for their protection from violence. The UN hoped the message would appeal to social media influencers and gain traction outside the usual aid and diplomatic channels.

Why it matters. A resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly declared 19 August World Humanitarian Day, five years after the 2003 bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, which killed 22 aid workers. Sergio Viera de Mello, the UN chief killed in the bombing, has been lionised in death, becoming perhaps the most celebrated aid worker-diplomat and the central figure in a recent biopic one reviewer called “slushy” and which may have glossed over his flaws.

Aid work can be dangerous, as that bombing and subsequent attacks make clear. Figures collated by an independent advisory group, Humanitarian Outcomes, have shown a significant increase in  the number of violent incidents affecting aid workers, including attacks and kidnappings since 2009.

In 2019, 483 aid workers were affected by kidnappings, assaults, bombings, armed attacks, and other violent incidents. Of those, 125 were killed, 94 percent of whom were working in their own countries. So far this year, 74 aid workers have been killed. Just this month, seven aid workers were killed in a single incident in Niger, matching the seven fatalities in May in Somalia. Those were the two highest death tolls in single events recorded this year.

Aid workers as targets. The total number of aid workers over the past decade or so has increased, so how much things are worsening and how the risks have changed are a matter of debate. Are aid agencies simply avoiding dangerous places, or “bunkerising” to shed risk – and does that mean less aid is reaching those who need it most? Are aid workers being targeted more as armed groups and governments lose respect for their role and see them as legitimate targets?

Abby Stoddard of Humanitarian Outcomes addresses these questions and more in her book “Necessary Risks”. She writes that international legal instruments designed to cover civilian humanitarian action in war are “maladapted” to the conflicts aid workers more commonly find themselves in these days. She proposes that attacks on civilian aid workers can be taken as a symptom of state fragility and failure.

Or martyrs. Other analysts argue that framing aid workers as heroes is inappropriate and distasteful. The “manufacture of humanitarian martyrdom”, writes analyst Michaël Neuman, is a form of “self-intoxication” in the humanitarian sector which pushes the suffering of others into the background, builds up a narrative of the exceptional aid worker, and sidesteps discussion of both the value of the aid work and the reasons for attacks.

The bottom line. “Aid workers must never be a target,” according to a statement from the NGOs that marked the murder of their staff in Niger. And an NGO official, posting on Twitter last week,summarized the situation so many humanitarians face:

“It’s easy to be cynical but too many good people die doing this work and it is incredibly sad.”