CAIRO: United Nations officials and members of the Egyptian civil society gathered at the United Nations Information Center in Egypt last Thursday to celebrate World Humanitarian Day and recognize the important role of humanitarian workers in their field.
The World Humanitarian Day was instituted by the UN General Assembly in December 2008 to raise public awareness about humanitarian work and the principles that motivate it as well as the importance of international cooperation. It is also held to commemorate those humanitarian workers who have lost their lives in the course of duty.
Attendees discussed a number of issues related to humanitarian work. Assistant regional director of the World Health Organization Eastern Mediterranean region, Naeema Al Gasseer, spoke of the neutrality and independence of humanitarian organizations and their workers. “United Nations humanitarian workers who endanger their lives are a target everywhere [for terrorists and those involved in conflict],” she said.
For example, last year a bombing in Islamabad left five UN workers dead.
“We have to spread the culture of giving without expecting anything in return,” Al Gasseer suggested.
Al Gasseer passed on the message of WHO regional director, Hussein Al Gezairy, for this day. “We seize this opportunity to express our deep thanks and appreciation for the unerring giving and vital roles of those who devote themselves to the service of humanity stricken by calamities and chaos,” he wrote.
“Indeed, as we witness their acts, with admiration and fascination, it is incumbent on us to shed a bright light on their roles in the humanitarian field, the obstacles they face and how they overcome them,” Al Gezairy added.
In the Arab world, a prevalent misconception is that UN humanitarian agencies are “western aid” while in reality 90 percent of the employees are nationals of the respective country and the international team makes up only 10 percent.
“There is a misconception that the United Nations is a western agency with a hidden agenda [however] the humanitarian agencies do not have a political agenda,” said Abeer Etefa, spokesperson of the World Food Program Regional Office.
On the other hand, Etefa noted the increasing role of Arab and Islamic countries in funding of UN humanitarian programs. “Saudi Arabia is a major funder; in 2007 it gave the WFP half a billion dollars,” she said.
From the local Egyptian humanitarian field, Director General of the Egyptian Red Crescent Society, Magda El Sherbiny, discussed humanitarian work and workers in the country.
“After the floods last year we were able to build a village comprising 48 houses in North Sinai, this is proof of how we can work together and properly allocate resources through support and cooperation between different humanitarian agencies,” she said.
El Sherbiny pointed out that it is crucial that humanitarian work does not only bloom in time of crisis, which is why they are also carrying out development projects for the long run.
One of the projects involved transforming the Zeinhom slums into the Zeinhom Gardens.
Aid workers are also subjected to violence and harassment on the job, sometimes from security forces. “Humanitarian work has to be cherished […] they are subjected to death, injuries and kidnapping,” said UNHCR Regional Representative in Egypt, Mohamed Dayri, who pointed out that 11 UN employees lost their lives in Algeria in 2007.
“However, we are now seeing a transition [in how people perceive UN humanitarian workers in the Arab World],” he said, citing Saudi Arabia’s generous donation to the WFP, adding that other countries such as Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates are also contributing.
UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, released a message to commemorate the 2010 World Humanitarian Day.
“On World Humanitarian Day, we renew our commitment to life-saving relief efforts — and remember those who died while serving this noble cause,” he said
He lauded humanitarian workers and aid workers for helping people get back on their feet and restart their lives after they had lived through terrible events.
“They represent what is best in human nature. But their work is dangerous. Often, they venture to some of the most perilous places on earth. And often, they pay a heavy price. Harassment and intimidation. Kidnapping and even murder,” he said.
Ki-moon referred to the humanitarian catastrophe of January’s earthquake in Haiti in which the UN lost some of its staff. .
“On World Humanitarian Day, let us remember those in need…Those who have fallen while trying to help them…And those who continue to give aid, undeterred by the dangers they face — for the sake of building a safer, better world,” he said.