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World Humanitarian Day

19 August 2010 -- Thousands of humanitarian workers, either with local organizations or international bodies like WHO, strive during crises, to ensure survivors have access to the most basic human rights, including health, shelter and food.

Transcript of the podcast

Veronica Riemer: You’re listening to the WHO podcast and my name is Veronica Riemer. In this August 19th edition, we celebrate the annual World Humanitarian Day and ask WHO staff working on emergency response, "what does it mean to be a humanitarian worker?"

With Pakistan's flood crisis playing out before our eyes, and the shocking memories of Haiti's devastating earthquake fresh in our minds, the importance of humanitarian work is abundantly clear.

Thousands of humanitarian workers, either with local organizations or international bodies like WHO, strive during crises, to ensure survivors have access to the most basic human rights, including health, shelter and food.

In recognition of their commitment, the theme for this year's World Humanitarian Day is "I am a humanitarian worker". The date marks the bomb attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad in 2003, which killed 22 staff members including Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN Special Representative to Iraq.

One of WHO's many humanitarian workers is Dana van Alphen, who arrived in Haiti hours after the January 2010 earthquake that killed and wounded hundreds of thousands of people. She is based in Panama with the emergency action unit for the Caribbean of the Pan-American Health Organization. We asked her what it takes to be a humanitarian worker in the middle of major disaster.

Dana van Alphen: You have to be able to forget about yourself and that is not so easy in a Western society. You have to be able to be flexible enough and remind yourself why you are here, because you are here for those people.

Veronica Riemer: Roderico Ofrin is the humanitarian action focal point in WHO's South-East Asian Regional Office and a veteran of multiple emergencies, including the 2001 conflict in East Timor and the 2004 Asian tsunami. We asked what World Humanitarian Day means to him.

Roderico Ofrin: World Humanitarian Day it's about those nameless health workers who have served their population, their health facility in those difficult times.

I was in Timor in 2001. Many nurses then who still had to struggle with rebuilding their houses or grieving for relatives they lost or who were on the other side in West Timor. We know of a nurse in Aceh (after the 2004 Tsunami) in one of the health facilities who cried during her break because she lost a lot of relatives, but she was still doing her work in between. For her it was therapy.

Veronica Riemer: The role of humanitarian workers is not only vital after a natural disaster, but also during times of political tension and conflict. In July 2010, in Kyrgyzstan, violence displaced tens of thousands of people virtually overnight, sparking a humanitarian crisis that had serious health implications. WHO's representative to Kyrgyzstan, Okon Moldokulov tells us about some of the challenges faced.

Oskon Moldokulov: One of the major impacts is of course is food security because when people displaced from their homes they are affected from lack of food. They are losing their access to health facilities because when they are moving from one place to another one access to health is going at a low level. In terms of health, they are also facing problems with hygiene, sanitation, lack of drinking water supply.

Veronica Riemer: WHO country representative, Custodia Mandlhate, led the response of the organization and the health sector to Zimbabwe's unprecedented cholera outbreak of 2008 and 2009. This occurred during a time of political tension in the country, but Custodia says humanitarian action must be regarded with neutrality at all times.

Custodia Mandlhat: For me, being a humanitarian is to embrace the humanitarian principles. The well-know humanitarian principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence. And it is also saying that we should care and that we are the health custodians in our United Nations family.

So we talk about saving lives. You don't talk about political orientation, sex, religion and colour, and you care. And you are concentrating yourself on saving lives.

Veronica Riemer: The scale of some disasters is so large, and the obstacles to provide support so immense, that some may question the effectiveness of humanitarian relief. But Michelle Gayer, from WHO's Disease Control in Humanitarian Emergencies department, says how effective and appreciated humanitarian care can be.

Michelle Gayer: We can make a huge difference to the daily lives of people and it is about making sure you provide something that is value added, something that supports people's daily lives and alleviates their suffering. I think everyone can contribute to some extent, whether it is just donating money to actually getting out there and providing care in which ever way you can. It definitely can make a difference and I have seen it make a difference in very difficult conditions as well.

Veronica Riemer: You can read more about the World Humanitarian Day via the related links on the transcript page of this podcast. That's all for this episode. Thanks for listening. For the World Health Organization, this is Veronica Riemer in Geneva.

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