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‘Not every day is perfect, but it’s a bit better’

Humanitarian assistance doesn’t always work right away. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying.


In an accompanying article, Menelaos Agaloglou, a former aid worker of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), rhetorically poses important questions: Is the aid industry needed? Why are taxpayers funding them? What results do they bring? 

At the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), we know that the work we do is valuable and necessary. Millions of people around the world suffer greatly because they live in conflict zones. They may no longer have access to medical care, food or clean water, or they may have become separated from their families.

Our work helps to alleviate these problems. 

We listen to and record the stories of people who endure traumatic violations during conflict. We work confidentially to address the behaviour that caused those injustices. And, our work is balanced: we assist all sides, sticking to our core values of impartiality and neutrality. 

We believe this approach is effective, but our work does have limits. We work in the most dangerous, complex and fragile corners of the world, many of which have suffered from conflict not just for years, but decades, and those environments bring unique challenges. The ICRC has spent an average of 37 years in the countries where we have our 10 largest operations. 

Longer wars result in needs beyond simple supplies of water, food, medical care and shelter. Wars often mean municipal water and electrical systems have failed, and populations looking for someone to step in and provide those services. Wars without end lead to vital political institutions losing their legitimacy. Aid organisations are not a substitute for states, but our work does save and change lives. 

In Myanmar, the ICRC opened a physical rehabilitation centre in 2016 in Myitkyina, Kachin State. Our first patient was a land mine victim who would have had to travel 20 hours by car to reach the next closest centre. A year later we opened the first rehabilitation centre in the neighbouring Shan State in Kyaing Tong. 

Land mines pose an insidious and constant danger to communities in Myanmar and countries the world over. In response to this, we educated some 51 000 people last year living in areas with land mines about the dangers they pose. We also provided cash assistance to single mothers, victims of conflict violations, as well as released detainees in Myanmar. 

Whether in Syria or Ukraine, we at the ICRC travel to dangerous and difficult-to-reach places. That is why we invest in land cruisers that will not break down and airplanes that can deliver food. 

Our airplanes in South Sudan — a country with in effect no paved roads — carry surgical teams to regions with no medical care and ferry food to desperate communities in extreme hunger. 

Does all of our work bring about immediate results? Of course not — few aid efforts do. Agaloglou maintains that the ICRC tried but failed to construct water pumps in the camps in Kachin.

That is true — and it is frustrating. But when we don’t immediately succeed, we don’t give up. We keep trying. 

Here is the big picture: our records from 2018 show that 142 000 people benefited from ICRC’s water, sanitation and shelter projects in Myanmar. We also delivered food to 133 000 people during this period. 

Agaloglou also voices frustration that two cases of forced recruitment of minors were not immediately discussed with officials. Why not? From our work, we have learned that confidential dialogue with the right authorities at the right time is the most effective route. 

Talking to officials prematurely can derail these efforts altogether. The work can be slow, but it is valuable. Governments around the world that fund ICRC’s often sensitive work understand these methods. 

We agree with Agaloglou that the communities we assist should not become dependent on us in the long-term. 

That is why we shape our assistance to help communities to return to self-sufficiency: we give out seeds and farming tools, for instance, or buy communities new boats for fishing. Sometimes we provide money for single mothers to open small businesses.

Donors demand action and evidence that money is well spent. 

Here it is: Over the past 40 years, our orthopaedic experts have provided more than one-million wheelchairs prosthetic legs, and other mobility devices to people living with disabilities in more than 40 countries. Our field workers last year alone reunited more than 1000 families who were separated by mostly war and violence, many of whom had not seen each other in years. Our surgical teams have helped to repair bullet wounds suffered by thousands and thousands of soldiers and civilians. That is the answer to the question: “What results do you bring?” Not every day is perfect, but our teams work hard to make every day a bit better for someone who has been suffering from conflict.

Ewan Watson is the head of public relations at the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Ewan Watson is the head of public relations at the International Committee of the Red Cross.