Humanitarian workers: The embodiment of commitment and resilience

Cooperation and solidarity

World Humanitarian Day

The COVID-19 emergency has put a halt to many of the daily activities of hundreds of workers from different sectors and, at the same time, it has exposed the needs of thousands of people around the world. Humanitarian aid does not escape this reality, and workers in this field have been forced to slow down the pace of their usual efforts to face mobility restrictions and social distancing.

Currently, humanitarian action faces a dilemma: with every minute that passes, the amount of aid required in the region increases. At the same time, it is a very complex time to work in any field, due to the biosecurity measures necessary to avoid the spread of the coronavirus.

In December 2008, the United Nations General Assembly declared August 19, World Humanitarian Day, in memory of the terrorist attack occurred on August 19, 2003, at the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, an unfortunate event that claimed life of 22 people.

On this day, we honor the heroic work of those men and women around the world, whom on many occasions, risk their own safety to bring relief and help to people with diverse needs. This year, it is more relevant than ever to call this day to remembrance, as a key time to strengthen the global humanitarian response and ensure the protection of workers who are adapting, day by day, to new environments, with resilience and commitment.

The City of Knowledge is a community that provides the necessary conditions to bring together various institutions, regional agencies, as well as non-governmental and non-profit humanitarian aid organizations, whose common objective is to improve the quality of life of thousands of people in Panama, and the region.

This year, within the framework of World Humanitarian Day, we had the opportunity to speak with members of three of these organizations, who shared with us how they see humanitarian aid today, how they have adapted to our new reality and what they are currently doing to continue responding to the needs of the population, despite the pandemic.

We spoke with:

  • Mauro Frau, Director of Community Work at Fundación TECHO
  • Oliver Bush Espinosa, Regional Migration Advisor at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
  • Andrea Riera León, Movement Cooperation Officer at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
  • Carlos Cruz, Program Officer for Emergency Preparedness and Response Team at World Food Program (WFP)

New challenges, new ways to help

The pandemic has exacerbated the challenges for humanitarian workers and created new ones, bringing about the need to reinvent the work they do and seek new forms of collaboration. This is precisely what happened at the TECHO Foundation.

Physical distancing and mobility restrictions have turned  around TECHO’s core ways to respond and adapt to the needs and priorities of the communities where they work. In this sense, Mauro Frau, Director of Community Work, explains that, they first carried out an information survey to obtain accurate data that would allow them to organize community intervention. Also, they’ve temporarily migrated their activities to humanitarian assistance, in terms of delivering food, as well as maternity and childhood kits.

In the midst of this redesign, Mauro recognizes that “even in these changing conditions, there are always opportunities that allow us to continue with long term work,” such as the identification of community leaders, more volunteers and allied companies who, with their participation and openness, allow us to articulate and sustain our projects.

Today’s humanitarian worker

For Oliver Bush, Regional Migration Adviser of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the humanitarian sector’s way of work has completed changed. Its main challenge relates to the adequacy in the use of new technologies in order to fulfill responsibilities from a distance. However, Bush recognizes that field workers face much greater challenges, since their job consists of being in direct contact with the most vulnerable people; in addition to obtaining permits from the authorities to be able to move, changing the way they interact with their interlocutors and especially, monitoring people’s needs, specifically in terms of protection.

Bush Espinosa points out that despite this new scenario, the people in the team continue to give their best and that their motivation remains intact.

His partner in the organization, Andrea Riera León, Movement Cooperation Officer, notes that “humanitarian work is noble, although it also implies a lot of sacrifice.” In many cases, the nature of the work may generate a feeling of helplessness, since a need is usually greater than the support that can be provided. However, they, too, remain focused on adapting and continuing to provide support.

“Even if I see a single person smile thanks to the help we have provided, I feel that person’s relief is mine too.” Andrea Riera León, Movement Cooperation Officer at the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Panama, regional humanitarian aid hub

In recent years, Panama has coordinated aid for the entire region through a humanitarian hub made up of different organizations and government entities. This logistics platform has facilitated the administration, operation and strategic coordination of human resources, equipment and supply management aimed at supporting humanitarian aid, more efficiently, in catastrophic situations. This assistance has been mostly visible in the past months due to the emergence of the COVID-19 emergency.

Carlos Cruz, Program Officer in the Emergency Preparedness and Response Team of the World Food Program, explains that, in addition to Panama’s privileged geographic location, the creation of a humanitarian hub in the country is the result of an effort from all humanitarian workers, as well as Panama’s government. This effort is consolidated through articulated teams and regional response warehouses for the Americas and the Caribbean, here in Panama.

Cruz assures that what humanitarian workers do is vital so that Panama can continue coordinating relief and support for the entire region. He emphasizes that the humanitarian worker’s main task is to identify the gaps and needs that may exist at the local level: “to find out which are the issues or areas that are not covered and those in which your organization could provide help.”

However, Cruz adds that every citizen can help with the work carried out by humanitarian workers in Panama, simply by putting into practice the instructions provided by the local authorities.

“To the extent that we manage to contain the virus -so that it does not continue to spread and the contagion curve falls- this would allow us to operate with greater safety and mobility for all workers, especially for those who are in contact with people.” Carlos Cruz, Program Officer in the Emergency Preparedness and Response Team at the World Food Program.

A real community

The interviewees agreed in that, in order to provide a quick and timely response in the midst of the changes that are currently taking place, it is essential for humanitarian workers and their organizations to operate in physical and virtual space such as the community formed at the City of Knowledge.

In the words of Oliver Bush Espinoza, the proximity and the interaction provided here has ensured successful coordination in response to the needs of the people in the Americas.

For Carlos Cruz and his team, it is one of the best models conceived for the humanitarian sector, since it is not limited to the physical, but extends to the virtual realm. An example of this is the communication carried out through the REDLAC platform, which provides teams the tools they need to do their jobs more efficiently.

REDLAC is a group made up of all the agencies, NGOs, and donors that work on risks, emergencies, and humanitarian issues in the Latin American and Caribbean region. Its objective is to be a point of information exchange, analysis, dialogue and coordination with a common vision for efficient emergency work.

With all these efforts, Panama and its humanitarian workers have positioned themselves in the international community as an example to follow in shaping a coordinated humanitarian response from and for the American region.

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