World Humanitarian Day

August 21, 2009

I was driving down I-5 on Wednesday, listening to NPR.

They reported a story about bombings in Baghdad, Iraq that killed at least 95 people. And then there was a story about the United Nations’ inaugural World Humanitarian Day, which honors, in part, aid workers who have been killed while rendering assistance to those in need. It  specifically remembers and honors Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was killed in the Canal Hotel bombing in Baghdad in 2003.

I’ve also nearly finished “Dark Star Safari” by Paul Theroux. He writes about his return to Africa nearly 40 years after he lived in Malawi as a teacher with the Peace Corps. He travels overland from Cairo to Cape Town and recounts an Africa that is much changed…and not for the better. He notes the fancy Land Rovers and trademark white vehicles of aid organizations, symbols for him of the entrenched, institutionalized foreign donors and their programs that often do far more harm than good.

Between the broadcast, the book and our recent board meeting, I’ve been thinking a lot about giving aid and how to make a difference without causing damage. Actually, I’ve confronted this dilemma many times over the course of my life, particularly in my career as a journalist working overseas in areas of conflict. Sometimes humanitarians are not humane.

I remember well a day at a refugee camp in Liboi, Kenya. A photographer with the International Red Cross was shooting portraits of refugees for an ad campaign. He had a a Hasselblad camera in hand and several assistants culling a line of recent arrivals for the most photogenic subjects.

He asked a Somali mother to remove the cloth she had draped over her baby to protect him. He wanted to see the baby’s eyes while the mother wanted to shield her child from the sun and the flies. He posed the women against the shiny seamless white backdrop. She looked uncomfortable but she did what she was asked.

I was appalled. The eyes of the malnourished and starving are particularly sensitive to light. These refugees had risked their lives and crossed the desert to find safety from war and famine in Somalia. They needed sanctuary not publicity.

The photographer was clearly causing the woman and her child distress. And I said so.

The photographer retorted that he was shooting for an ad campaign that would raise millions of dollars for future aid and relief efforts.

So what, I thought. So what if you raise millions with this photo if you cause immediate harm to the very people you say you are trying to help?

As we offer scholarships and funds through Isis Initiative, Inc., I am aware of the profound responsibility to do no harm with our good intentions.


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