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Aid Workers

"There are so many emergencies to respond to, there aren’t enough people"

World Humanitarian Day takes place on 19 August.

Central African Republic Unrest AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

BEING AN AID worker means doing a job that can be difficult both emotionally and physically, leaving friends and family for months, travelling to different countries, and working in dangerous places.

But it also means helping the vulnerable, bringing food, shelter or medical help to those who need it, and knowing that your work makes a difference.

19 August is World Humanitarian Day, a day for recognising the work aid workers do. Leading the proceedings in Ireland is Dóchas, the Irish Association of Development NGOs.

Concern Worldwide

Anne-Marie McCarthy is Head of Emergency Support Systems at Concern Worldwide. There are 2900 staff working for Concern across the world, and about 4500 staff between all of the Dóchas member agencies.

McCarthy has mostly worked in development programmes overseas. She’s been based in Ireland since 2002, and helps recruit the staff for Concern’s emergency response team.

“There are so many emergencies to respond to, there aren’t enough people”

Haiti Drought AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

There are eight people on this team, and its members are sent out in emergencies or to fill gaps where workers are needed.

“There are so many emergencies to respond to, there aren’t enough people,” said McCarthy.

With the Ebola outbreak, famine in South Sudan, and emergencies in the Central African Republic and Philippines to name a few, aid workers are badly needed around the world.

Danger for aid workers

Mideast Syria Members of the Syrian Red Crescent help people leave the Palestinian Yarmouk refugee camp AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

Things have changed for aid workers, not least in the dangers that face them.

“In the past, aid workers, regardless of where they came from, were respected and treated as being independent and not being involved in conflict,” said McCarthy.

“They are increasingly being targeted in conflict.”


[image alt="Guinea West Africa Ebola" src="" width="630" height="489" title="" class="alignnone" /end]

The Ebola virus is another challenge for aid workers. It has already killed over 1000 people in West Africa.

People are “potentially putting their lives on the line to help people”, said McCarthy.

While Concern doesn’t have any workers on the frontline dealing with Ebola, it is providing protective equipment and involved in communications such as radio ads.

A lot of agencies have withdrawn staff over the Ebola outbreak, but in Concern, the position is if people feel uncomfortable and want to leave, they can leave.

Mideast Lebanon Syria Malnourished Children AP / Press Association Images AP / Press Association Images / Press Association Images

How the job has changed

In the 1970s, the initial response of NGOs was a question of getting people on the ground, said McCarthy. “Now the environment is complex,” she said. There is an increasing level of professionalism.

Today, NGOs also need people with security awareness, awareness of logistics, and the skills for increasing transparency and accountability and avoiding fraud.

It’s really not safe to put people with limited experience in situations which are highly insecure and dangerous, because we are putting them and ourselves at risk by having people who aren’t properly trained.

Increasingly, Concern is seeing more people from the countries themselves working or taking up positions in aid agencies.

What does it take to be an aid worker?

Aid workers tend to travel for about eight to nine months a year, away from families and friends. They can be based all over the world.

McCarthy describes aid workers as “people who are committed to trying to make a difference in the world”. They are also people “who understand the nature of the roles and have families who support their decision to be away a lot”.

They tend to have a curiosity about different countries.

You’re constantly presented with challenges – some people would like the idea of being challenged.

“Sometimes people can be burned out and not know it”

Chad Concern Team Jennifer Nolan Jennifer Nolan

Concern can provide its workers with access to counselling if they need it, as can many other agencies.

There is also a helpline based for humanitarian workers who need to talk.

McCarthy keeps in touch with her team so she always knows if there is anything traumatic that they are going through.

The burnout rate within the sector can be quite high. Sometimes people can be burned out and not know it and that can be worse. We ensure they have annual medicals so if anything happens we are aware of it.

Irish Aid has developed guidelines for the safety and security of aid workers or people in the NGO sector.

What is also important is informed consent, so that before aid workers are sent into a situation, they are informed of and understand exactly what they are going into and what dangers they might face.

“In the past you may have got a cursory briefing and you found a lot of the things out when you got there,” said McCarthy.

I need to make sure that people are aware of and accept the challenges.

Concern has a security procedure and protocols in place for its workers – and it’s a disciplinary matter if workers don’t follow guidelines.

Why is World Humanitarian Day important?

Suzanne Louchard Kieran McConville / Concern Worldwide Kieran McConville / Concern Worldwide / Concern Worldwide

“It is really important because if you think where the idea for the day came from, it was when UN workers were killed in Iraq in 2003,” said McCarthy.

It’s marking the idea that people put themselves on the line for the job that they do. It is a time to pause and reflect, and acknowledge the work they do.

“In the height of an emergency it’s an intense experience,” said McCarthy, and it can be hard for aid workers to tell their families exactly what they’re experiencing.

But they’re usually living and working with the same people, so can build strong bonds with them.

“I think that can be difficult, but sometimes you can have fun too,” she said. “You find ways of diverting yourself, thinking about doing something different.”

This year, the UN’s theme for the day is “the world needs more…” which people can discuss using the hashtag #theworldneedsmore on Twitter.

How can you help aid workers?

image001 (1) Concern Concern

Hans Zomer of Dóchas advises: “We can all be aid workers in many different ways.”

  • We can support aid agencies, either financially or by supporting their calls to action.
  • We can use the day to read up on humanitarian aid, and look up to learn more.
  • We can call on our government and political leaders to take real action to address not just the human suffering but also the root causes of the many conflicts around the world.
  • We can assist poor and vulnerable people in our own communities. There are many people who need a helping hand. Not just now and again, but time and again.
  • We can use World Humanitarian Day to resolve to become more active in our own communities, and to volunteer our time to help address human suffering at home, too.

Read: Irish aid workers in Philippines report roads ‘blocked due to dead bodies’>

Column: There has never been a more dangerous time to be an aid worker>

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