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Humanitarians, not bureaucrats

World Humanitarian Day: it’s that day when in HQ there’s a moment of silence, maybe a service, events in remembrance of “those who face danger and adversity in order to help others”. It falls on the anniversary of the 2003 bombing at the UN headquarters in Baghdad that killed twenty-two aid workers.

In the field, as far as my memory goes, WHD is business as usual, with endless meetings, the positive outcome of some work, frustration over a partnership that seemed promising, your boss who really needs to go on R&R because they are stressing everyone out, etc. I don’t even recall anyone remembering that it was WHD and certainly there were no calls or emails from HQ to keep staff morale up. It was up to each one of us to keep sane.

Has this changed? You tell me.

A battle against indifference

Jean Sélim Kanaan, was one of the UN staff who lost his life in Baghdad in 2003. It was around the time of my first assignment in Palestine that I read his book, Ma guerre à l’indifférence. His words on why staff care matters have guided me since.

For Jean Sélim there is no good humanitarianism without aid workers who are reasonably fit psychologically, without awareness of the pitfalls of “helping”, without the capacity to learn, grow, change. And there is certainly no good humanitarianism as long as we are stuck with organisations that do not “practice” with their own staff those values of humanity, empowerment, accountability and participation that they purport to export all over the world.

Jean Sélim was shocked by the the way his agencies treated him when he asked for support after a violent ambush (declared “unfit for service”, he was sent home).

He was baffled by the “macho culture” that permeated aid agencies, and by lack of preparation and support for humanitarians.

He compared some “aid workers to whales washed up on a shore”, stuck in old ways, damaged and bruised by life and by their own agency. Human wrecks incapable of helping themselves and serving others.

The most important lesson I learned from Jean Sélim’s book is that crossing over from “humanitarian” to “bureaucrat” is one of the risks of aid work. It’s up to us to keep the sense of purpose alive in organisations that sometimes look frighteningly bureaucratic, more concerned with numbers than with people.

Call me naive, but I still believe that what matters and maybe heals in small ways both the aid worker and those in need of humanitarian assistance, is human connection, little things that go beyond prescribed policies and best practices. No aid worker I know ever dreamt of becoming a bureaucrat, yet many have, and that is not just soul-wrecking, it hampers our work and dehumanises it. Aid workers shouldn’t have to choose between being professional or being humane.

Were he still with us today, I like to think that Jean Sélim Kanaan would be at the forefront of the campaign to reshape aid “starting from ourselves”, shaping organisations with more humanity and less grit.

No heroes please

Days like WHD are meant to give us some space for reflection, appreciation, remembrance. I’m ambivalent about such “secular holy days” that celebrate people who are then ignored for the following 364 days.

I don’t like the “heroic rhetoric” that comes with similar occurrences. But today I’ll leave my skepticism aside and share a reflection by medical doctor Rachel Naomi Remen, a reminder that what gives meaning to our work are human encounters, face-to-face moments where sometimes all we can do is be present for another person.

Maybe reshaping aid and supporting aid workers also means remembering that we are “human beings” and not “human doings”.


“As a physician, I was trained to deal with uncertainty as aggressively as I dealt with disease itself. The unknown was the enemy. Within this worldview, having a question feels like an emergency; it means that something is out of control and needs to be made known as rapidly, efficiently, and cost-effectively as possible. But death has taken me to the edge of certainty, to the place of questions.

After years of trading mystery for mastery, it was hard and even frightening to stop offering myself reasonable explanations for some of the things that I observed and that others told me, and simply take them as they are. “I don’t know” had long been a statement of shame, of personal and professional failing. In all of my training I do not recall hearing it said aloud even once.

But as I listened to more and more people with life-threatening illnesses tell their stories, not knowing simply became a matter of integrity. Things happened. And the explanations I offered myself became increasingly hollow, like a child whistling in the dark. The truth was that very often I didn’t know and couldn’t explain, and finally, weighed down by the many, many instances of the mysterious which are such an integral part of illness and healing, I surrendered. It was a moment of awakening.

For the first time, I became curious about the things I had been unwilling to see before, more sensitive to inconsistencies I had glibly explained or successfully ignored, more willing to ask people questions and draw them out about stories I would have otherwise dismissed. What I have found in the end was that the life I had defended as a doctor as precious was also Holy.

I no longer feel that life is ordinary. Everyday life is filled with mystery. The things we know are only a small part of the things we cannot know but can only glimpse. Yet even the smallest of glimpses can sustain us.

Mystery seems to have the power to comfort, to offer hope, and to lend meaning in times of loss and pain. In surprising ways it is the mysterious that strengthens us at such times. I used to try to offer people certainty in times that were not at all certain and could not be made certain. I now just offer my companionship and share my sense of mystery, of the possible, of wonder. After twenty years of working with people with cancer, I find it possible to neither doubt nor accept the unprovable but simply to remain open and wait.

I accept that I may never know where truth lies in such matters. The most important questions don’t seem to have ready answers. But the questions themselves have a healing power when they are shared. An answer is an invitation to stop thinking about something, to stop wondering. Life has no such stopping places, life is a process whose every event is connected to the moment that just went by. An unanswered question is a fine traveling companion. It sharpens your eye for the road.”

–  From Rachel Naomi Remen’s Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal


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