World Humanitarian Day: Escaping the Horns of a Dilemma


August 19, 2013

Jerry Seinfeld has a joke about pain medicine. When he goes to the pharmacy, he’s faced with a dilemma. One brand of medicine boasts that it’s “quick acting,” while another brand assures him that it’s “long-lasting.” Able to purchase only one, he is forced to decide when he wants to feel better, now or later.

The stakes are incalculably higher, but the world of international development contains a similar distinction, that between immediate humanitarian assistance and long-term sustainable development. Africare began its life responding to drought and famine, but although we still provide assistance when needs are urgent, Africare has always strived for “long-lasting” development, reducing the risk of disasters, building community resilience to withstand emergencies and empowering populations to build more prosperous futures independent of aid. However, when crises occur the necessity of “quick acting” interventions is self-evident, and unlike the hapless pharmacy customer, humanity does not have to choose one kind or the other, nor should we.

We must respond urgently to disasters, and when doing so we must always remember to look beyond the short-term.

There are numerous organizations operating around the world whose mission is to be first responders: saving and preserving lives. Whether communities are suffering from natural disasters, political strife, economic collapse or societal mistreatment, there are heroes devoted to reaching and supporting those in extremis. This month we have been highlighting the tremendous work of some of our peers in this field. I encourage you to familiarize yourself with more of the many different actors in humanitarian relief. A good place to start is this month’s rundown and collection of stories on our #Props2Partners page.

I would like to expressly state Africare’s admiration for their efforts. Africare prioritizes the necessary development toward self-reliant communities, but communities cannot achieve self-sufficiency if they are first destroyed by a crisis. Emergency relief and sustainable development are essential complements. Communities in jeopardy must, and can, have a better quality of life now and later.

What is heartening is that this is not a controversial statement.

Increasingly agencies, especially those we touted this month, align humanitarian relief with long-term goals, either by combining with partner organizations or by designing integrated programs in-house. This ensures that no one’s work undermines anyone else’s, and most importantly, doesn’t undermine the self-initiated efforts of intended beneficiaries to better their own circumstances. This evolution also reveals that crises should not be viewed as discrete, time-bound events. Crises create acute needs, but they also expose or even generate longer-term vulnerabilities.

Ultimately we all share the same goal, a world in which everyone can lead a safe, prosperous, self-sufficient life. Collectively, our work has benefited countless people, but there are still hundreds of millions in need. So, to all of our partners and supporters, thank you. This is a pat on the back. But it’s also a push forward. There is more to be done, together.