World Humanitarian Day 2014: Courage, Resilience, and the Need for “Force Protection”

Every 19 August, the UN celebrates World Humanitarian Day. The theme this year, #theworldneedsmore #humanitarianheroes, asks us to recognize the sacrifices made by humanitarians and to ensure that they receive adequate protection.

In the run-up to #WHD2014, even seasoned humanitarian actors are struck by the succession of events of exceptional brutality that have marked the first months of 2014.

Formidable hazards have placed humanitarian workers in harm’s way – in the midst of armed conflict hotspots, droughts and famines, virulent epidemics, and compound natural disasters. A quick glimpse at ReliefWeb reminds us that simultaneously, cadres of courageous workers are engaged in response to armed insurgencies in Nigeria, Syria, Gaza, Iraq, and Ukraine; floods in Sudan and the Central African Republic; and the worst-ever Ebola virus disease (EVD) outbreak in the West African nations of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone.

Humanitarian workers are notoriously resilient but they are not impervious. During the past year, some have been badly injured while conducting their response duties. Some have battled life-threating infectious diseases. Some have been kidnapped. Some have lost their lives. All such experiences and exposures carry powerful risks for psychological distress for individuals and entire teams.

Take just one example among many. The West Africa Ebola epidemic is currently exacting a toll on health workers. The virus has transformed itself in a manner that enhances its own survivability, but creates much greater human risk – for the civilian victims and the medical personnel who treat them. Health workers have been infected and some have not survived.

These varied episodes, occurring in concentrated fashion since the previous observance of World Humanitarian Day, have created extraordinary challenges for the humanitarian community. The common element is the presence of committed persons willing to venture into overtly hazardous situations. All situations mentioned – and there are many more require that this commitment be heavily laced with courage.

Humanitarian workers are a resilient breed based on the self-selection and the refining process of real-world response experience. However, given the rigors of the response missions this year, World Humanitarian Day 2014 must balance appreciation for response effectiveness with prioritization of “force protection”.

Humanitarian aid has rarely been more harsh and dangerous than during this past year. The Mental Health Innovation Network can play a vital role in championing the need for the physical and psychological protection of humanitarian actors.

James M. Shultz is Director for the Center for Disaster & Extreme Event Preparedness (DEEP Center) at University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

Clara Gesteira Santos is a PhD student with the Departamento de Personalidad, Evaluación y Tratamientos Psicológicos (Psicología Clínica), at Universidad Complutense de Madrid in Spain.

You can learn more about World Humanitarian Day at, or on Twitter @UN_WHD.

Humanitarian and conflict health
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