In wars and disaster zones, a simple explanation is that humanity is a force that advances the idea of life, with dignity. To strengthen the idea of humanity for people caught in conflicts, epidemics and disasters, we could borrow some ideas from the Olympic motto: Citius (faster), Altius (higher) and Fortius (stronger).
What is the humanitarian spirit? It is about the thousands of unsung heroes in our midst.
Last week, millions gathered around screens worldwide to watch the closing ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympics. Driven by the spirit of human ambition and in pursuit of excellence, over the last couple of weeks 11,000 athletes from more than 200 countries advanced the true spirit of Olympics, breaking several records and crowning new champions. Fiji bagged their first-ever gold medal in Olympics history, creating new hope for the Pacific.
The Olympic spirit is eloquently summed up by its motto: Citius (faster), Altius (higher) and Fortius (stronger). This year, the presence of the Refugee Olympic Team elevated the true spirit of the Olympics, breaking the artificial barriers invented by geographers and politicians. Championed by the International Olympic Committee and carrying the Olympic flag, the Refugee Olympics Team reminded the world of a simple truth – the true spirit of humanity cannot be bound by nationalities.
130 million people in need…and counting
According to the UN Refugee Agency, there are now more than 65 million people who’ve been forcefully displaced from their homes – more than any other time in human history – with more than 130 million people needing urgent humanitarian support in order to survive. Many of them are traumatised children fleeing the conflict in Syria or people braving the yellow fever outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo – an outbreak that could cross the borders of Africa if it isn’t quickly contained.
Today, most of these 130 million people will go without food, clean water and medical care. Storms, wars and hatred have destroyed their lives and reconfigured their landscapes forever. And without the protection of a well-functioning society, children and women will fall prey to abuse and trafficking, leaving scars that are very difficult to heal.
When faced with such overwhelming conditions like war and disasters, human solidarity and compassion combine into a collective force and can often make the difference between life and death. Here, the real heroes and heroines are home-grown, frontline humanitarian and health workers – most of them ordinary people.
These home-grown heroes include the local volunteers in Nepal who pulled survivors out of the earthquake debris with their bare hands. In Liberia, they are the village volunteers who took care of Ebola victims and risked their own lives. And in Syria, they are the brave volunteers from the White Helmets who have the most dangerous job in the world – rescuing innocent children and adults on the battlefields.
They are the people of Lesbos, Greece, who receive Syrian refugees into their homes with open arms and the taxi drivers in Mumbai who do pro-bono transportation of the sick and poor who are caught up in flood waters, getting them to hospitals.
It’s thanks to these humanitarian heroes that the world is a far better, more humane and safer place. No titles are sufficient to honour them. In fact, they honour the titles.
Compassion, hope and self-sacrifice
When floods fury, storms surge, and hatred and violence confront them, their work reminds us of a simple truth: Everything that’s done in such challenging conditions combines a potent mix of compassion, hope and self-sacrifice.
Reports show that in 2015, more than 280 aid workers were victims of major attacks and more than 100 were killed. It is in the memory of such people that World Humanitarian Day is held every year on the 19th August. It’s an important day to pay tribute to aid workers who risk their lives in humanitarian service, and to mobilise people to advocate for a more humane world.
This year, the theme for World Humanitarian Day is ‘One Humanity’. But what does that mean? No words or spreadsheets can capture the true meaning of humanity. In wars and disaster zones, a simple explanation is that humanity is a force that advances the idea of life, with dignity.
To strengthen the idea of humanity for people caught in conflicts, epidemics and disasters, we could borrow some ideas from the Olympic motto: Citius (faster), Altius (higher) and Fortius (stronger).
More often than not, we need to act quickly. Dehydration from cholera can kill children in six hours and a response to a cholera outbreak needs to be fast. To make this happen, empowering local health workers and communities is key – they are always the first and quickest responders, and sometimes they are the only line of defence. The recent World Humanitarian Summit recommended humanitarian action be as local as possible, and as international as necessary.
The humanitarian values and principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence give us a high bar to meet. The Humanitarian Charter advocates that people affected by disasters should be given dignity and I believe we must recognise that humanitarian assistance is not just an act of charity, but a right.
In practice, this means relief work must adhere to the scientific and evidence-based Sphere Standards and Core Humanitarian Standard. Science says human beings need 2100 kilocalories of food every day. However, it is important to consider not just the kilocalories they consume but also the dignity and the safety of the environment in which they’re eating. To make the world a dignified place for refugees and disaster survivors, the humanitarian sector needs to raise the bar and aim for higher standards of quality and accountability. Continuous improvement should be a mantra.
We must work together. We must harness the strength of humanity to bind us in disasters and wars. When the world around us seems to disintegrate rapidly, resources are limited and delivering timely and appropriate assistance – in a dignified way – is challenging. The collective capacity of individual people, civil society and governments can make all the difference.
There is a role for everyone. In crisis settings, when things move one step forward, there are always set-backs. As the young volunteers and aid workers on the battleground in Syria or the Ebola-affected areas remind us, one needs a lot of courage, commitment and grit to work in such difficult circumstances.
They also remind us you don’t need to be perfect to be brilliant. Like in Olympics, the true spirt lies in your participation – to make the world a safer, better and healthier place.
Dr Unni Krishnan (@unnikru) is Director Emergency Health Unit, Save the Children Australia. The Emergency Health Unit is a network of humanitarian health teams across the world providing the right people, in the right place, who are ready to act.
An edited version of this blog also appeared on Huffington Post: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/unni-krishnan/humanitarianism-olympics-rio_b_11657384.html