The new humanitarian worker
by Caroline Moorehead
Modern day international relief work includes contributions
from agronomists and other technical experts.
Many humanitarian agencies now view the shaping of future
an important part of their work.
When the Red Cross began its work,
assisting people in need was mostly an act of benevolence
undertaken by people with economic means and social standing.
Today, assisting the world's most vulnerable is a fully fledged
professional sector with a visible mixture of idealists, activists
and technicians. At a time when the crisis in central Asia
is creating new challenges for humanitarian action, Red Cross,
Red Crescent asked historian Caroline Moorehead to examine
what has changed in the profile of the humanitarian worker.
In 1999, when a cyclone hit Orissa on India's eastern coast,
235 international relief organizations arrived to help. That
was not counting the Indian army, the Indian relief bodies
or the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent
Societies. Within days, thousands of humanitarian workers
and experts descended on Orissa. The logistics were awesome,
and the fact that it was conducted relatively harmoniously
and efficiently says much for the professionalism of the modern
Humanitarian aid has come a long way from the spring day
of 1884 when the Ohio River in the United States burst its
banks, leaving Cincinnati under 71 feet of water. In 1884,
Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, rented
a steamer, raised the red cross flag and set off downstream
through mist and sleet. She wore long rubber boots and handed
out blankets and clothes to survivors waving frantically from
A few years earlier, Henry Dunant marshalled half a dozen
tourists who were sightseeing near the battlefield of Solferino.
Today, Henry Dunant would marvel at the Movement he created
with a simple gesture of compassion in June 1859. In the century
since Dunant's vision was rewarded with the first Nobel peace
prize, humanitarian work has become a high-tech, multi-national
sector. It channels billions of dollars in development and
disaster relief aid and expands despite stagnant resources
and international, socio-political complexities.
In the wake of recent humanitarian trends have come a new
breed of aid workers: hard-nosed administrators, backed up
by teams of engineers, architects, epidemiologists, information
analysts, statisticians, economists and sanitation experts,
just to name a few. "To be efficient," says Jean-Michel
Monod, deputy director of operations at the International
Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), "we have to have a
A spirit of enquiry
The humanitarian world remains fas-cinating partly because
it continues to attract idealists who care about people and
want to improve an imperfect world. It gives the work a certain
style that at its best produces a happy mixture of humility
and considerable efficiency.
With the end of the cold war came a sudden moment of optimism
in the human rights and humanitarian world. Although natural
disasters would continue to affect thousands, the new spirit
of international harmony required a more efficient and faster
delivery of relief services. It was also hoped that wars would
cease to rob citizens of their political rights. This optimism
was very brief.
Ancient enmities sparked unexpected and savage conflicts,
and economic rivalries magnified the devastation caused by
natural disasters, causing an increase in the numbers of the
disenfranchised and the destitute. The humanitarian world
had little choice but to grow. New organizations were founded
to fill specific niches such as the various landmine clearing
groups or those specializing in the rights of women. New recruits
flocked to join non-governmental and international agencies.
And at a time of increasing need and decreasing funds, with
donors anxious to see a return for their money, clarity of
purpose and accountability took on a new importance.
The world of the Red Cross and Red Crescent has not been
immune to these winds of change. The past decades have seen
periods of flux and change, discontent and review, mirroring
the impulses of governments and funders. But this was something
different, something sharper and more urgent. The Red Cross
and Red Crescent experienced a global shift towards understanding
that education and training counts for more than money and
natural resources. Certainly the need to deliver emergency
aid has continued, but there is a loud call for Western aid
organizations also to transfer expertise to affected communities.
As a result, global assistance strategies evolve continuously,
to bring forth knowledge which can withstand political and
Although modern weapons have changed today's warfare, they
generate the same results as 100 years ago: prisoners of war
and civilians in need of protection and basic assistance.
...the once universally recognized and respected emblems
are now widely a target in wars in which none of the old rules
It was perhaps not surprising that sooner or later those
delivering emergency aid would look upstream to how and why
the need for it arose, and downstream to what would happen
next. In 1998, the old Relief Unit at the ICRC was renamed
Economic Security (Ecosec). "In the 1980s," explains
Pierre-Michel Perret, an agronomist in the Ecosec, "we
distributed food. In the early 1990s, we saw that it was more
sensible to distribute seed and tools in order to get local
economies back on their feet. But gradually we all realized
that you had to do more." Today, agronomists, economists,
vets and water experts are among the specialists who get together,
even in the midst of a crisis, to make plans and prepare services
for the days when an operation is over or a conflict is, at
Until the crisis in Afghanistan, the ICRC was helping to
restore the water canals in that country, destroyed during
the Soviet occupation. The aim was to make the area liveable
for refugees returning from camps in Pakistan. In Kabul, they
had a bombed-out vaccine la-boratory working again. "I
don't think we can go much further than this," says Perret.
Harold Masterson, head of training and development at the
Federation, who started 20 years ago at the Danish Red Cross,
welcomes the move to assess the impact of humanitarian services.
He strongly advocates that intervention should have a development
component even though there is still much emphasis on instant,
Today, humanitarian agencies have buttressed their external
communications strategies. Communicating what they do and
what challenges they face is viewed not only as a means to
mobilize financial support for their activities, but is also
seen as a means to educate and increase public participation.
Even the ICRC, once famously secretive, is now engaged in
an exercise of self-exposure. It is producing countless publications,
has a large press department and a new web site which Yves
Daccord, head of ICRC communications, hopes will soon reach
a yearly figure of 4 million hits.
Since the end of the Second World War, the humanitarian world
has not had much time for future planning. But something in
the perpetual crises of the times, the size of the emergencies
that follow one upon another, appears to have injected a mood
of urgency, an air of bustle and a spirit of enquiry. Many
humanitarian workers now view the shaping of future policies
as an important part of their work. The successful campaign
to check the manufacture and sale of landmines is one impressive
example of activism within the humanitarian world. Other issues
of concern are related to the rights of the increasing number
of people on the move due to conflict and disasters. Robert
Thomson, senior refugee officer at the Federation, passionately
advocates for migrants, arguing that the West is not only
failing in its commitment to the International Covenant on
Social and Economic Rights, but is also acting with extreme
short-sightedness by welcoming across its borders only refugees
from political persecution. "Why is a man fleeing torture
recognized as a bona fide refugee, with certain rights,"
he asks, "when another fleeing the destruction of his
entire livelihood is labelled an economic migrant and declared
unacceptable?" As part of his job, he contributes to
the debate on human trafficking, an industry with an estimated
annual turnover of US$ 7 billion, and the future of internally
displaced people who are still without rights. He is committed
to place migration at the forefront of the Red Cross and Red
Crescent agenda. Similarly, at the Office of the United Nations
High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), officials are braced
to withstand attempts by governments to reduce rather than
increase the rights of all refugees.
Post-conflict programmes aim to improve the overall livelihood
of the population.
Women are playing an increasingly significant role in humanitarian
Over the last century disasters have changed in size and
scope, but basic human needs remain the same: food, water,
shelter, physical and psychological care.
Creating a better world
The sense of personal responsibility for creating a better
world, and not simply acting as a band aid for its casualties,
extends to the medical side of the humanitarian world. Within
the Federation, ambitious strategies are being formulated
to tackle HIV/
AIDS. At the ICRC, there is an evident shift of emphasis from
war wounds towards public health. "Polluted water, sanitation,
epidemics, new resistant strains of such things as malaria
and tuberculosis seemed hardly relevant to our work a few
decades ago. As the consequences of conflict expand and gravely
impact civilians, we now have to deal with medical questions
never faced by the Movement's early doctors," explains
Dr. Pierre Perrin of the ICRC.
To tackle health-related issues, both the Federation and the
ICRC work closely with universities to carry out medical research.
In addition, close collaboration exists among medical and
legal staff on the health consequences of new weapons such
as laser guns. Increasingly, humanitarian professionals are
aware of the vast mental wounds of modern wars, the psychological
trauma of rape, and of the anguish caused to children who
have witnessed unimaginable atrocities in recent wars, such
as in the Great Lakes region of Africa and in the Balkans.
"We are not well prepared for this," says Dr. Perrin,
"but we are committed to understanding and addressing
this through our actions and our support for local strengths
and initiatives." Writing in an earlier issue of Red
Cross, Red Crescent of the threat of genetic weapons with
the power to strike certain chosen populations, Dr. Robin
Coupland asked: "Given the speed with which this branch
of science is opening, why don't we open the moral debate
Within the humanitarian world as a whole, professionalism
has become a fashionable word. Management and training courses
have become the order of the day. If the qualifications demanded
of relief workers have changed little in the last decade (between
25-35 years of age, single, with a first degree, fluent in
English and French and with a clean driver's licence), additional
skills are now essential. In the case of the ICRC, the nepotism
which for many years was simply accepted as being a fact of
international relief life has all but gone. The ICRC has opened
its doors to non-Swiss. Today men and women who not only think
differently but also look different work both in the field
and at its headquarters in Geneva. Specialists in many branches
of medicine and across the spectrum of business are all in
demand, as are graduates from the new degree programmes in
humanitarian and leadership studies. Management courses are
now offered systematically by all international organizations
as well as smaller NGOs.
Architects, water and sanitation engineers
and community planners are indispensable to post-disaster
Who are these new humanitarians? At the ICRC alone, 6,000
people applied for work in 2000, of whom 480 were interviewed
and under 300 applicants were hired. They are equally divided
between men and women, and specialists and generalists. Of
these, some 40 per cent are non-Swiss, the ICRC rule about
the need to be Swiss having at last been shelved.
Together with the new emphasis on training, has come a new
concern about working conditions. An ex-patriate's pay and
conditions are above average and candidates are eager to learn
about pensions and career structure, a notion that would have
been profoundly alien to the people who patrolled the world's
prisoner-of-war camps 60 years ago. This concern for conditions
is shared among most new humanitarians. "The people we
get seem to be more attached to comfort than they used to
be," says Martine Desarzens, recruitment officer for
the Swiss Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). "When
they go on a mission they want to know about the food, accommodation,
and access to the Internet. They seem to be less independent
than they used to be, less willing to rough it, less adventurous."
For the older humanitarian workers, a job with an international
aid organization meant a ticket to a far away conflict or
disaster and a few words of advice about what to do when they
got there. To them, this new attention to professionalism
and career structure is not without its drawbacks.
Pierre Gassmann, head of operations for Eastern Europe at
the ICRC, joined the organization as a young lawyer in 1968.
He spoke no English, did not know how to drive, and planned
to fill in a few months before settling down to a career in
Swiss diplomacy. He was sent to Biafra, and has stayed with
the ICRC ever since. Gassmann believes that the old idea of
creativity and initiative seems to be vanishing. He speculates
that the constant contact with headquarters in Geneva via
e-mail, satellite telephone, and endless written reports mean
that fieldworkers are becoming distanced from the people with
whom they work. Like his colleagues, he worries about the
safety of modern Red Cross and Red Crescent workers, but he
also worries that the stringent rules about security have
an effect on what fieldworkers can achieve. "Part of
the job is developing a network of good contacts, being around,
listening to what is being said, getting a feel for a place
and a situation. In many places, this just isn't happening
any more." Gassmann believes that it is partly because
of strict security regulations that so many people leave the
ICRC after a single mission, frustrated by the gap between
their expectations and the reality of what they could actually
achieve in the field. "Sometimes what you do is nothing
but glorified administrative work," says Geoffrey Loane,
from the ICRC's health and relief division. "There is
no excitement. You don't feel you're saving the world."
Security haunts all players in the humanitarian world and
nowhere more than in the Red Cross and Red Crescent, where
the once universally recognized and respected emblems are
now widely a target in wars in which none of the old rules
apply. The red cross, as an emblem, was once the best-known
brand in the world. It has now dropped to third place, behind
Coca Cola and Nike. According to Michel Cagneux, one of three
full-time, global security officers at the ICRC, 40 per cent
of the incidents reported in 2000 from the field were the
result of a direct targeting of the red cross and red crescent.
Ten years ago, the figure was 3 per cent.
In April, six ICRC employees were ambushed in the Congo.
Before, this would have been an unfortunate accident, a mistake.
In this case, it was clear to everyone that it had been carefully
planned. "It is a shock to realize that you are no longer
wanted by everyone," says Dr. Perrin. The long- running
debate about whether it is sensible to deliver assistance
if aid workers need armed guards rumbles on. "We have
to be creative," says Geoffrey Loane. "There may
be logic in the chaos of modern conflict, but it is not a
logic we know. It exposes us to enormous danger."
Paradoxically, the new realities of merciless wars as well
as the magnitude of humanitarian needs throughout Africa,
Asia, much of the Americas and even Europe, are forging stronger
bonds between competitors. Born out of a sense of protest
at the neutrality adhered to by the Red Cross, MSF who publicly
condemns violations wherever it finds them, is now engaged
in a subtle partnership with the Red Cross and Red Crescent,
often acting in the same conflict, each taking the lead where
their own ethos is more appropriate. This spirit of exchange
is most marked in the field between MSF and ICRC workers,
where they come up with solutions and share medical strategies
and training programmes. These partnerships give humanitarian
workers across the board a common standard and perception
of the job.
During the Second World War, people like Max Huber, president
of the ICRC, wrote an introduction to Dr. Marcel Junod's memoirs,
Warrior Without Weapons. In it, he identified the ideal delegate
as a man interested in the suffering of defenceless human
beings, brave, morally and physically tough, decisive, tactful,
firm, and ever faithful to the Red Cross principles of neutrality
and impartiality. Such people existed and accepted even if
the price to pay for them was accommodating their sense of
glory and their contempt for authority. Early delegates, like
Junod, were often brilliant but also pig-headed.
It was all part of the myth, the challenge. Today, the ability
to work in a team, to lead and to be led, to discuss and report
back, is regarded as essential to all good work in the field.
The remedy for the anguish caused by daily contact with extreme
suffering and horror is dealt with through endless dialogue.
If a certain freedom of spirit has been lost, an indisputable
range of expertise has been gained. NGOs and international
organizations were once tolerated and ignored. Today, due
to their collective expertise and ground access to communities,
the humanitarian organizations are regarded as major players,
with considerable political and economic power.
The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement devotes
much time to thinking about its future, considering a unified
direction, and the skills necessary to get there. There is
now a common awareness that unless the Movement conducts an
intelligent appraisal of the manner and the context in which
assistance is delivered, its actions may be little better
than useless. Throughout the humanitarian world, there is
an unease at the essentially white-dominated Western ethos
and way of working. At the Federation, Ewa Eriksson spent
two years discussing with National Societies the way they
recruit delegates (see article Shifting our cultural profile,
Traditionally, donors have preferred to contribute financial
assistance along with their own staff and experts, even if
their effectiveness at dealing in a strange culture was often
poor. As a result of carefully designed questionnaires, bringing
to the fore issues about sensitivity, communication skills
and adaptability, Eriksson now sees a shift towards the freer
movement of humanitarian workers, with greater emphasis on
expertise and less on country of origin. These new recruitment
strategies and methods are gaining ground globally and are
adopted by an increasing number of National Societies.
When Henry Dunant returned to Geneva from Solferino in the
summer of 1859, appalled by the carnage he had witnessed,
his vision was to introduce a spirit of humanity into warfare.
His initiatives led to the creation of the Red Cross, charged
with providing care for those affected by conflict, and the
drafting and monitoring of rules to govern the conduct of
those engaged in it. A hundred years later, in a world where
little is clear about warfare, and where victims are no longer
soldiers but children who are mutilated by landmines or women
who are raped, the necessity for humanitarian work becomes
even more crucial.
It seems that anarchical violence, the conflicts that continue
year after year, the natural disasters magnified by climate
change and the grave incidents of terrorism are combining
to bring the humanitarian world to the very edge of what it
can cope with. What happens next alarms those who have the
time to stop and think.
Caroline Moorehead is a writer/biographer based in London.
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