A Tribute to Humanitarian Workers

by alvaro | August 19, 2015
Background media: Earthquake in Nepal

Privthyva was born April 25th – an hour after the earthquake.

In rural Dolakha, even in good times, women do not give birth in a hospital. A few, lucky women may make it to a local health post. But generally, mothers give birth at home, supported by family and neighbours and if fortunate, a trained birth attendant.  On the afternoon of April 25th, as Privthyva’s mother cried out for assistance from her damaged home, there was silence.  Her husband was away working in the city, and everyone in the village had apparently scattered into the surrounding hills, scrambling for safer ground as the earth shook and their simple mud and brick homes crumbled.  Someone must have noticed her absence though, and people slowly if hesitantly returned to the village. Neighbours heard her cries and the local women helped her move to what seemed the most secure corner of her damaged home. And there, amongst the debris, Privthyva was welcomed into the world.

It was early August when Pryvthyva’s mom told me – an outsider – her dramatic story.  We had stopped by the local village health post as part of an inter-agency tour of earthquake affected communities to see how people are coping almost 4 months later. A local NGO had re-established pre and neo-natal trainings at the health post, and in the midst of all the movement and chatter I thought it was just my knees wobbling as I took notes and photographs. But no – “Aftershock!”, the local NGO field worker inserted into her running translation and commentary. “By the way”, she added on our walk back to our vehicles, “Pryvthyva means Earth in Nepali”.

I have always found the role of ‘humanitarian tourist’ an uncomfortable one. Even where I have a job to do (in this case, taking stock of the earthquake response work of four Canadian NGOs), my presence often seems an unhelpful distraction from the daily challenges faced by both the professional staff responding to the crisis and the local people struggling to rebuild their lives in the face of terrible odds and obstacles.  But in Nepal, as elsewhere, our hosts were generous with their time and gracious in their interactions with our small group of strangers from afar. “In adversity, we find strength” is a proverb that never seemed more true.

In our travels through central Nepal, we met men clearing land slides and hauling rubble and debris to rebuild country roads and ensure access to their mountain villages.  We met a group of Dalit (low-caste) women who had reinforced the slopes around the local school so that their children would be safe at school should another quake occur. (There have been almost 400 significant after-shocks since the ‘big one’ in April.)  We attended a well-organized distribution of metal sheets to families for reconstructing roofs and homes in the midst of the monsoon rains. And we sat in on meetings of local government and NGO officials, as they tried to navigate the ever sensitive negotiations of “who gets what” when the circumstances are so grim and the resources so limited.

As we stand on the eve of International Humanitarian Day, I am compelled to acknowledge with HUGE respect those individuals who make humanitarian response their life’s work. They are the fire fighters of the global community, – the women and men who head towards an inferno while the rest of us flee in the opposite direction, often turning our eyes away in fear or despair. Once the exclusive domain of white boys in shorts, these professionals now come from the four corners of the world: they are more likely to be Ugandan or Pakistani survivors of their own national calamities than earnest young Canadians.

A number of the agency staff I met in Nepal (through the canvas walls of adjoining tents or across tables in mess halls) are now approaching the end of their Nepali assignment. After four months, the earthquake response effort is shifting from emergency work to longer-term recovery and reconstruction. Many of these remarkable individuals had arrived straight from fighting the ebola crisis in West Africa … no doubt many will now head to the scene of the latest crisis… civil conflict in Burundi …. floods in Myanmar …. drought in Ethiopia… there are always too many choices.

It’s a terrible and daunting calling, – but as a  community of nations, we are surely in their debt.

Anthony Scoggins is Director of International Programs for Oxfam Canada. He was in Nepal this month as part of the Humanitarian Coalition’s review of agency responses to the Nepal Earthquake.

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