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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 policies as
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 world.

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 the shore.

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 sophisticated approach."

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 economic turmoil.

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 apply.


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 least, contained.

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, visible results.

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 affairs.

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 now?"

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 rehabilitation efforts.

New realities

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, pp. 22-23).

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
Caroline Moorehead is a writer/biographer based in London.

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