World Humanitarian Day: Celebrating Our Shared Humanity, Our Shared Complexity

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By Carolyn Oei, 19 August 2018

Cover photo: Antonio Facciolong/Médecins Sans Frontières

The United Nations describes World Humanitarian Day, which is held every year on 19 August, as a designated time to pay tribute to aid workers who risk their lives in humanitarian service, and to rally support for people affected by crises around the world.

World Humanitarian Day honours those who are in the field helping others; helping others stay alive, to rebuild their lives and to feel human, even in horribly dire situations.

This feature was conceptualised certainly to honour aid workers the world over – where would humanity be without them? But, we didn’t want to leave it there. The word “humanitarian” means generally the same thing to most people, that is, “involved in or connected with improving people’s lives and reducing suffering”.

Yet, the word also presents slightly different manners of expression and understanding. 

We know this because we asked a few people – people who do quite different things - what the word “humanitarian” meant to them and we were nicely surprised and moved by their responses that were clearly so individual to them.

At the risk of going on a bit of a tangent, I couldn’t help but draw similarities between this simple exercise and a BBC podcast series called, “Where Are You Going?”. The series is part of the BBC’s The Documentary and it features a journalist walking the streets of a random city speaking with random strangers, asking the question, “Where are you going?” Respondents are people sitting at a ferry terminal, people walking to church, people walking from church. Their answers are far from simple or commonplace and they demonstrate that we are so complex and layered and nuanced.

And in spite of these complexities that, more often than not, divide us, there are people who are willing to overlook them and lend a helping hand.

Here’s to everyone out there who’s taking the time to help someone else today.

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Konstantinos Antonopoulos: Médecins Sans Frontières, ASEAN Representative

I have been a humanitarian worker for more than 15 years and what I’ve witnessed is a disheartening realisation that despite a decade of system-wide reforms, the humanitarian sector is still falling short in the world’s most enduring crises. I am confident that I don’t stand alone in believing that given the over-expanding challenges the humanitarian system has been facing in the past decade, it goes without saying that it needs a reconsideration, a modern sophistication, and an upgrading. Personally, to be humanitarian implies the transcendence of human existence from its elementary nature to its most merited condition. From sympathy to companionship, and proximate to all-embracing. In this line, it is my strong belief that to identify oneself as humanitarian it requires first and foremost the prioritisation of the value of life and well-being, coupled with practical and active engagement. Finally, to be humanitarian means to have infused in oneself the political sophistication behind human value and translating this principle from a way of thinking to a way of living. (Photo: Médecins Sans Frontières)

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Jolovan Wham: Former Executive Director of HOME (Humanitarian Organization For Migration Economics) and social worker. 

When we think of humanitarianism, we often think about rescue and relief missions, and people doing acts of charity to those who are suffering. We donate clothes, food and money to the poor, or go on mission trips abroad. But, humanitarianism has to go beyond acts of charity. We should also look at how our culture, politics, laws and policies contribute to suffering and be prepared to take action on these fronts so we have long-lasting and meaningful change. Sometimes, this means initiating difficult conversations or even being a difficult person. But when we do this with a clear sense of purpose and values which respect the dignity of each person, it expands our humanitarianism to one which also addresses structural problems and inequalities. A world that is free of exploitation and discrimination is one which we should aspire to and one that's truly humanitarian. (Photo courtesy of Jolovan Wham)

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Rani Singam: Jazz singer

If I could sum up the core of all initiatives and movements associated with humanitarianism in one word, it would be “kindness”. For the world to be a better place, as close to utopia as possible, I believe every thought and action we have should come from a place of kindness and compassion. That does not mean that evil or the bad should be condoned or allowed to exist, but when faced with wrongdoing of any kind, the approach should not be hate and anger, but empathy, deep understanding and constructive action. Music is a great way to connect with humanity, when we are truly connected within ourselves and with others, we can be kind to one another. (Photo: Yew Jia Jun/ SSO)


Simon Vincent: Journalist

I can make no claim of being part of any great humanitarian cause. I am a journalist who often covers politics and civil society. That is all. I worked for a while for some civil society groups, but was a novice figuring out what advocacy means (part of it is organising forums and writing position statements, I found). Because I am in Singapore, my CV is an anomaly. I am in a minority who pays attention to “human rights” and “freedoms”, terms often accompanying humanitarian endeavours. It is sometimes tempting to despair of others who are alienated from this language of social causes.

Recently, I’ve started to catch myself whenever I fall prey to such self-indulgence—“I’ve not even donated much to humanitarian groups.” Perhaps such reminders are a small consolation for my, honestly, meagre social commitment. Knowing this, though, I think it wise not to abstract my fellow countrymen completely from myself—that would be unhumanitarian. (Photo: Chun Pang)

Photo: Edward Berthelot

Norman Tan: Editor-in-Chief, Esquire Singapore

In a world of digital narcissists (guilty!) a 'humanitarian' today is someone who has the presence of mind to look beyond their own needs to consider the perspectives, and plight, of others. So what does this look like? It can be as grand as volunteering with a NGO in Africa, but it can also be as simple as putting down your phone and actually talking to your friend across the table.

We've forgotten the importance of developing healthy offline communities. Especially men. Online communities are great but, so often, lack the tangible connection of real face-to-face conversation. Sure, it might be easier to share your heart with people you've never met online, but there's greater healing when you have the guts to share your vulnerabilities to someone in person.

A humanitarian is simply caring for your brother and sister. We are all broken; some are just better at hiding it than others. We don't have to cross oceans to help. We can, and need to, start with our immediate circles. Get off the couch, stop watching Netflix, and arrange a catch up. That withdrawn colleague; that friend hitting the bars way too hard; that excessive shopper. And start a conversation: "How are you going?" It's that easy.