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What is the Real Significance of UN's World Humanitarian Day in Melbourne?

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by Lionel (subscribe)
Join me as I travel, play, eat, live and work in cities and places around the world.
Published August 22nd 2012

Another day in Lionel's Melbourne. Another day in paradise. Or is it?

Every day, conflicts and disasters befall millions of people everywhere but never more intense and painful than in the world's poorest and marginalised economies. According to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, in 2011 alone, 302 hazards resulted in disasters that claimed almost 30,000 lives, affected over 206 million people and inflicted damage worth an estimated USD366 billion.

In such times of suffering, humanitarian aid workers reach out to help rebuild and rehabilitate the victimised communities, helping millions of people around the world, regardless of who they are and where they are. Though the numbers may look small, more than 800 aid workers worldwide have been assassinated, blown up by mines or other explosive devices, abducted or killed accidentally with the people they were aiding over the last 10 years.

Beyonce performing 'I was Here' seen on the big screen in Federation Square
On 19 August 2003, 22 humanitarian staff tragically lost their lives in Iraq in a massive bomb attack on the UN Baghdad headquarters including widely respected UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello. In honour of those who have endured great losses in humanitarian service and those who continue to bring assistance and relief to millions, the UN General Assembly adopted the same 19 August to declare World Humanitarian Day in 2008. On the UN's Remember the Fallen website those who have died in the service of peace are not forgotten. This year, the UN's General Assembly chamber in New York was a concert hall for Beyonce's music video "I was Here". Its orchestrated release in the World Humanitarian Day campaign rallied 1 billion social media voices.

The Victoria Division of the United Nations Association of Australia did its part by hosting a public forum to discuss Australia's contribution to Humanitarian efforts worldwide on 22 August. The forum featured experts and supporting organisations including the Australian Red Cross, AusAid, RedR Australia, Oxfam Australia, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Humanitarian Crisis Hub.

Alan McLean, CEO of RedR Australia, which trains and provides emergency personnel to assist after major disaster shared with me that the international community of humanitarian response, Australia included, is fully stretched and struggling, needing new understanding and new support for its lifesaving mandate. Alan who has been personally involved in overseas disaster since 1979 was concerned that too many people are homeless and hungry - the equivalent of almost twice Australia's population is seeking refuge today and more than four times Australia's population needed international food aid in the past year. Alan reminded that World Humanitarian Day also pays tribute to the aid workers from Australia and all Australian aid agencies should review processes around selection, preparation and deployment of field staff to ensure their continued safety and welfare.

For Christoph Hensch, Executive Director of Mandala Foundation which provides psychosocial support to individual aid workers and volunteers, their managers and organisational systems, World Humanitarian Day is also a reminder to support those whose efforts to care can come at a high cost. Humanitarian aid workers are routinely exposed to human suffering on a mass scale. They work very long hours in high pressure situations and regularly bear witness to stories of trauma and injustice Therefore it is important to consider their psychosocial as well as the physical well-being.

The Australian Government is also doing its bit via AusAID to help 30 million vulnerable people around the world. Its AUD405 million in global humanitarian funding in 2012 will provide life-saving assistance in conflict and crisis situations.

As someone who has served on various UN-related committees, I support the UN's efforts and its Millennium Development Goals. But this Day is not about glorifying UN and its people who face danger and adversity in order to deliver aid. It's not about international dignitaries who gather in the grand chambers fueled by loft goals of saving the world. Although the event has now passed and likely forgotten, the real significance of World Humanitarian Day is about people. It's about everyone. It's about you. And how you can make a difference.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon / Image
As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon remarked, "This year's World Humanitarian Day presents an historic opportunity to bring together one billion people from around the world to advance a powerful and proactive idea: People Helping People…". It is simply about an act of kindness and helping others around you. Even if it's for one day and you needed the nudge.

Oxfam Australia, which works for a future free from poverty, acknowledged that doing good is easy. They believe at a more grass-roots level World Humanitarian Day is also a timely opportunity to reflect on our own lives, and what we as individuals can do to help others. The Australian Red Cross have always understood the power of humanity. Olivia Cozzolino, Australian Red Cross' General Manager for Merchandise and Retail and her team have been working with individuals who generously donate their winter woollies to the 164 retail stores around Australia in a kind gesture to warm up the less fortunate who are feeling the cold.

You don't even have to go very far in Melbourne to witness daily acts of kindness. Every day in the City of Yarra, people are helping people through learning centres like the Carlton Neighbourhood Learning Centre where migrant residents can get help with literacy and numeracy, and disadvantaged Vietnamese parents and children to meet and support each other through weekly meetings organised by the Australian Vietnamese Women's Association. Neighbours are helping neighbours by volunteering to provide affordable fruits and vegetables to lower income residents, home visits, meal deliveries and medical check-ups.

Sure, it helped to have Beyonce's celebrity pull factor and her calling on people to rise together and do one nice thing for another human being. Creative agency Droga5 also delivered a successful campaign that put World Humanitarian Day on people's radar and an interactive "I Was Here" website that allowed people to peg their small deeds of compassion to their location. But helping someone and doing good does not require you making a commitment to become a humanitarian aid worker, or volunteering to go and help in Algeria for 3 years, or trying to help solve the world's problems. You can be delivering a meal to a homeless person; holding the elevator door for someone; sharing your skills in a community project; helping an older person with their shopping bags; taking an disabled neighbour to the park; reading to a sick child in the hospital; sharing jokes with the elderly in a home; giving away something you don't use; or just sharing a smile.

So Melbourne, you don't have to wait for World Humanitarian Day. Just share your kindness around and do something good, somewhere, for someone else.
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