Aid workers at Plan International Australia have shared their defining moments from the field to mark World Humanitarian Day (August 19).
The day pays tribute to aid workers, who do gruelling and life-saving work in tough and often very dangerous circumstances. It also celebrates the spirit of their vital contribution to the world.
Plan International Australia’s CEO Ian Wishart has been an aid worker for close to 30 years. He was on the ground during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.
“World Humanitarian Day is a day to honour the countless aid workers who selflessly and bravely help people in need, often at great personal cost and often in the most difficult and dangerous circumstances,” Mr Wishart says.
“The risks of being a humanitarian worker have never been greater. Things that were once unthinkable are now commonplace and violence is increasingly indiscriminate. Aid workers often end up becoming targets. Humanitarian workers are selfless, motivated, amazing people driven by deep inner personal conviction – not a desire for money or recognition.
“Every one of us has stories about the moments that defined us, that inspired us, that helped us carry on through adversity. We are pleased to share just some of those stories from our dedicated staff to mark World Humanitarian Day for 2016.”
“I was living in Kathmandu and learning the ropes of my first development job. It was monsoon season so reports of high rainfall were common. I remember coming to work in the morning having heard that the Koshi river had flooded. Everyone was talking about it on the ride into work and in my head I was seeing images of cows standing in a flooded paddock and wondering how the poor farmers will cope. This was the first day I learnt what humanitarian really meant. The reality that confronted me was entire villages being washed away and the numbers of affected people into the hundreds of thousands. The project I was working on at the time was in one of those washed away villages. That was the day I started doing humanitarian work, and I haven’t stopped since. Hearing the stories and seeing families and communities working together and responding to that level of devastation has taught me a lot and certainly shaped my view of the world and what matters most.”
“My first real humanitarian placement was in a small village in southern Kenya. The only source of water was a deep borehole designed to supply cattle. The tank was dry, except for a few small silty pools at the bottom. There were half a dozen small children – perhaps 8 or 10 years old – inside the tank scooping these last drops of dirty water into plastic jerry cans that they put on their heads and carried back to their homes to be used for drinking, cooking and washing. I found it disturbing, confronting and simply wrong that anyone would have to go to such lengths, and be forced to drink such poor water, just because it was the only supply available. This continues to act as something of a touchstone memory for me – a reminder that these sorts of situations still exist in too many places around the world and that much work remains to be done.”
“The most significant moment for me was before I even started working as a humanitarian, but it gave me the biggest individual push to getting into this field. On a holiday, I landed in Sri Lanka completely unaware that just a few hours earlier, the Boxing Day Tsunami had hit. Thousands of tourists started arriving in the city with cuts, bruises and broken bones, desperately trying to get help, contact loved ones and return home. I spent the next week in Kandy volunteering, buying and packing supplies to send to affected communities. Virtually everyone we met had stories of family or friends that had just escaped or been lost in the Tsunami.”
“In 1997, I was visiting a chief in a village in Laos and I noticed a young girl of about only 13 years old with a baby, struggling to breastfeed her child. She kept shaking the child and I soon realised it was because the child was falling unconscious. The cloth covering the child moved to reveal stick thin arms. It was clear the child was dying. We drove the girl and baby to the nearest medical clinic 50 kilometres away but it was too late, the baby died several days later. That really affected me. I felt so frustrated and angry about how this was allowed to happen. Why was this young girl a mother at just 13? Why didn’t she have access to maternal health services? Why wasn’t she in school? More children die quietly, silently, in unknown villages like this every year than in any single massive disaster, but they’re invisible. It occurred to me then that if we are to stop these silent deaths, we need to fight to change the world for girls, which is at the centre of the work I do with Plan International Australia today.”