JUST over a year ago I travelled to Jordan, where Oxfam was working to help hundreds of thousands of refugees displaced by the horrific conflict in Syria.
A couple of months later I was standing in Tacloban, the flattened urban epicentre of the Typhoon Haiyan disaster, which killed more than 6000 people and left unimaginable damage.
As a chief executive of an international aid organisation, confronting disaster is part of my daily job. Over the past couple of months, it feels like it has become part of everybody’s daily job.
This year has seen a major surge in humanitarian crises the world over. July was a particularly heart-stopping month to turn on the television, with reports of escalating and ever more brutal violence coming out of Iraq and Gaza. When the smoke trail of the ill-fated Flight MH17 entered the frame as a result of the conflict in Ukraine, the 24-hour news cycle went into overdrive. In homes and workplaces around Australia, a noticeable heaviness set in and with it, a palpable sense of powerlessness.
The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports humanitarian responses are now targeting more than 76 million people in 31 countries, compared with 52 million in December — and that’s just those in line for assistance. The estimated figure for those in need of this help is now 102 million, an increase of 41 million over the same period.
The stories of most of those people are largely invisible to all but those working in the humanitarian sector. Newspapers and broadcast news bulletins do not have the space to tell them all, nor does the public psyche have the stamina to hear them.
Australians will no doubt have read about the terrifying spread of Ebola in West Africa and may have a vague awareness that ongoing conflict in South Sudan has pushed parts of the country to the brink of a man-made famine. But few are aware of the 200,000 people currently impacted by flash flooding in Nepal, the 400,000 people affected by flood waters in Bangladesh and 3.6 million affected by flooding and landslides in India.
This is the exact moment that the average reader turns the page. The moment when it feels like the world, and humanity, is at war with itself and there is nothing they can do about it. When we are bombarded with this level of human suffering, our natural psychological defence mechanism is to shake our heads and block it out.
But when we do nothing, nothing changes. Yes, globally we are witnessing a rise in the scale, frequency and impact of humanitarian crises on vulnerable people that is pushing governments and the international humanitarian system to its limits.
Yes, it is hard to draw media attention to those crises and when they are focused on them, it can be overwhelming. But no matter the scale of the problem, we need to remember that we are not powerless.
Thanks to the internet and our growing addiction to social media, we now have more opportunities than ever to contribute to raising awareness of the plight of those in need, celebrate their triumphs over adversity and contribute financially in meaningful ways. More than 22,000 Australians recently signed our petition calling on the Australian Government to give more humanitarian funding to the people of Syria, sending a powerful message to Canberra that we won’t stand by while millions suffer.
Through giving regular donations to international aid agencies such as Oxfam, and encouraging others to do the same, we can contribute to humanitarian causes in ways that tackle protracted crises and ensure fast, targeted responses in rapid-onset emergencies. We can also call on our leaders to do more.
What keeps me going in my job, with my daily exposure to these confronting statistics and stories of suffering, is hearing where humanitarian work is making a difference: the families no longer forced to watch their children waste away, the disease outbreaks that are contained before they spread and the towns that are successfully evacuated before disasters strike.
RECENTLY the number of registered Syrian refugees forced to flee their homeland reached three million, equivalent to three-quarters of the population of Melbourne.
Parents, doctors, teachers, taxi drivers, stuck in limbo in the world’s worst refugee crisis, with little control over their destinies, or those of their children.
Since the beginning of the year, Oxfam has reached almost half a million refugees in Jordan and Lebanon with clean drinking water or cash and relief items, like blankets and stoves.
While we can’t always immediately change the numbers of those affected by disasters from our living room, the one thing we can change is how many people get help.
Helen Szoke is Oxfam Australia chief executive. Herald Sun readers can donate to Oxfam’s international crisis fund at www.oxfam.org.au/icf
Source: Herald Sun