World Humanitarian Day: Putting the Human Back in Humanitarian

18 August 2016
Judith F. Greenwood

by Judith F. Greenwood

Former Executive Director of the CHS Alliance

World Humanitarian Day is a chance for all of us to pause and remember why we do what we do. This year as we reflect on the commitments made at the World Humanitarian Summit, we must turn these commitments into actions to advocate for a more humane world.

World Humanitarian Day is a chance for all of us working in any humanitarian capacity to pause and remember why we do what we do. This year is particularly significant as we reflect on the commitments made at the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) and, more importantly, take the opportunity to turn these commitments into actions to support the UN Secretary General’s “agenda for humanity” and advocate for a more humane world.

19 August was designated as World Humanitarian Day to honour those who have died in humanitarian service following the 2003 terrorist attack on the UN Iraq compound that killed 22 people. Sadly, the danger faced by humanitarians has increased since then – in 2015 alone there were attacks on at least 54 national and 15 international aid workers. As well as remembering those who have died or been injured, World Humanitarian Day has grown into a global campaign celebrating and recognising the people who advocate for a more humanitarian world.

Thinking about my own experiences as a volunteer relief worker in Sudan in 1986, three years into the civil war, I never imagined the war would last so long. After a short period of hope and prospects for peace and development, the newly independent South Sudan has plunged into a civil war of its own. South Sudan reminds us that humanitarian crises today are more complex and protracted; we also only need to look to conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and the Central African Republic, as well as the refugee crisis engulfing Europe. Natural disasters are becoming more frequent and severe, as we have seen across Asia and the Pacific. In 2012, I lived through cyclone Evan in Fiji – the worst the country ever experienced until the devastating cyclone Winston hit in 2016. It seems with no end to human suffering, we need to find more effective ways to meet the world’s humanitarian needs and above all put people and communities affected by crisis at the centre of what we do.

As Executive Director of the CHS Alliance, you will not be surprised that I am promoting the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) as a way to improve the quality and effectiveness of humanitarian assistance. I was absolutely thrilled to read in the Chair’s summary report of the WHS: “Participants at the Summit recognised the need to ensure people affected by crises are not only informed and consulted, but put at the centre of the decision-making processes. People affected by crisis should be treated as partners, not beneficiaries. Numerous commitments were made towards addressing this shift by donors, UN agencies and NGOs including the adoption of the Core Humanitarian Standard.”

I want to share my passion for CHS with you, as I believe it is much more than a standard. The CHS can be used by organisations and individuals involved in humanitarian response to improve the quality and effectiveness of the assistance they provide. It does this by putting affected people at the centre of any humanitarian action that aims to assist them. In providing a common reference framework for affected communities, international and national organisations, donor and host governments, the CHS is an enabler for some of the positive developments in the humanitarian sector that deserve to be supported and promoted.

The CHS can help us fulfil our commitment to humanity in the following ways:

  • Localisation

The humanitarian contribution made by local actors is increasingly recognised and deservedly so. The phrase ‘humanitarian staff’ used to refer just to expatriates flown in from large international agencies. Now it’s accepted that humanitarians include national and local actors, as well as civil society organisations, faith-based groups, government and community workers. However, I think that any report card would read – a lot done, more to do. This is an important area of work for the CHS Alliance, and through our partnership with the Start Network, the CHS Alliance is involved in a number of projects that focus on building the capacity of national and regional response.

  • Providing a common framework

Every organisation, individual or consortium that commits to use the CHS applies the same Nine Commitments. This results in a shared language and a shared commitment to principled, accountable and high-quality humanitarian action. This common framework improves both the quality of individual organisational programmes and the quality of humanitarian action overall.

  • Enabling the grand bargain

The CHS can be used as a basis for the harmonisation and simplification of donor reporting formats as well as partner assessments, proposal and evaluation templates, with appropriate differences for each stage. Indeed, the OECD recently issued a tender for work monitoring the linkages between commitments made under the ‘grand bargain’ at the World Humanitarian Summit and their intended impact on the main performance indicators of the CHS.

  • Shifting the balance of power

The CHS can be used by both large INGOs and small community organisations alike. With people closest to a crisis often best placed to identify needs, the CHS gives them the tools to optimise the effectiveness of their response and provide evidence of their programme quality.

  • Supporting humanitarians

While CHS Commitment 8 specifically refers to the requirement that humanitarian workers be competent and well managed, the CHS encourages a whole-of-organisation approach to human resources (HR) and emphasises the strategic role played by HR in any humanitarian response. Humanitarian response cannot be effective or accountable to communities without the foundation of well-supported staff.

  • Technology

Technological advantages mean we have access to more information than ever before and the ability to broadcast to a global audience. This gives affected people more choice and more importantly, the opportunity to have their voice heard.

World Humanitarian Day is a reminder of the commitments made during the WHS to improve the delivery of aid to crisis-affected and vulnerable people. It is now our responsibility to fulfil these commitments and ensure they result in positive change for humankind. We are the ones who are in a position to make a difference to the lives and dignity of people and communities affected by crisis. In putting people at the centre, we are putting the human back into humanitarian.