World Humanitarian Day: Time to recall aid workers who lost their lives

A school twinning led Feargal O’Connell to realise he wanted to be an aid worker

The day is written into my mind in indelible ink. The biggest, whitest, fluffiest clouds raced across the bluest sky I had ever seen. I was in Zimbabwe. I was 15 years old and I was about to become an aid worker.

I was there to visit a school which was run by the Order of Carmelites (as was my school in Dublin – Terenure College). The visit was the start of a twinning project between the two schools. Fr Louis, our guide, was bringing us to visit an elderly couple he had been supporting with a monthly bag of millet. We travelled along a bone-breaking bumpy dirt road. The soil was red and fields were yellow – all the primary colours were on display.

We pulled in to the couple's homestead and sat outside their wattle and mud hut. We chatted. Fr Louis translated and told us their story. They were refugees from the civil war in Mozambique. They had lost their whole family and they were destitute.

In spite of that, there was laughter and joy and such a warm welcome for these strangers from Ireland. It was like being in your gran's. We were sent away with an armful of corn. When it was offered we looked over at Fr Louis and he gestured for us to accept it. The most important thing I learned that day was that you can lose everything through poverty, but still hold on to your dignity and your pride.

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Questions

As we drove away my mind was racing with questions about how this couple could survive in the long term. What it was life like for those who stayed behind in Mozambique? I was struck by the shared humanity of it – the way that people from such different parts of the world could share such warmth, jokes and laughter.

There but for the grace of God go I, my gran, my granddad, my parents, my community and my country. I left with what one of the founders of Concern Worldwide, Aengus Finucane, called "fire in the belly".

Ten years later I joined Concern. I joined a global family of others with fire in their belly who are spurred by the humanitarian imperative to respond to unacceptable levels of poverty and suffering.

Today, August 19th, we mark World Humanitarian Day. Twelve years ago today 22 aid workers were killed in a bombing at the UN headquarters in Baghdad. It marked a watershed for aid workers and the global humanitarian community.

Prior to that, the majority of aid workers’ deaths were caused by road traffic accidents. Since the start of the new millennium, aid workers are more likely to be killed in violent circumstances.

In 2003, 143 aid workers were the victims of serious attacks. This figure has risen steadily, peaking in 2013 with 474 attacks. 155 aid workers lost their lives in 2013 because of the work they do – saving lives and alleviating suffering brought about by humanitarian disasters.

It is no coincidence that the majority of refugees arriving in Greece are from two countries ranked as the most dangerous for aid workers: Afghanistan and Syria.

Organisations such as Concern are required to work in increasingly dangerous environments as the intersection grows between violent conflicts and humanitarian needs. The “war on terror” and prevalence of asymmetric conflicts has also made humanitarian work more dangerous.

In 2014 the five most dangerous countries for aid workers were Afghanistan, Syria, South Sudan, Central African Republic and Pakistan. Aid workers can be seen as a soft target by those who want to strike at what they see as Western influences.

Priorities

I am now Country Director for Concern in South Sudan. While that 15 year old with fire in his belly is still part of me, my priorities are more focused now. First, we must do everything we can to keep our 240 staff as safe as possible in one of the most dangerous countries for aid workers. Secondly, trying to balance the budget as the needs grow every day is a constant challenge.

With the civil war here we are facing a situation where 1.5 million people have been driven from their homes and over four million people do not have enough food to eat. It is a disaster on a massive scale. Simultaneously, money is tighter than ever.

We just about have the resources to build the shelters and provide emergency nutrition and water services to tens of thousands of displaced people. But we struggle to find the funding for the things that help us deliver those services in a safer way.

While I spend every day thinking about the safety of my colleagues in South Sudan, today is a day that we can all stop and think about the wider humanitarian community. On World Humanitarian Day we should remember all those with fire in their belly who have tragically and senselessly lost their lives in the line of duty.

At the same time we must acknowledge the continued sacrifices that aid workers all around the world are making on a daily basis. Most importantly we must all do whatever we can to make their work as safe possible.

Feargal O’Connell is country director, Concern Worldwide, South Sudan