Why we can't stay silent on the causes of vulnerability

Tuesday, August 16, 2011 - 14:10

Once again, a part of the world teeters on the brink of a catastrophe that sees the poorest and most vulnerable – mainly women and children – hardest hit.

The food crisis and drought in East Africa is a stark reminder of the devastation that disasters can bring.  On World Humanitarian Day 2011, ActionAid joins the international community in celebrating the work of our humanitarian colleagues all around the world, and in commemorating lives lost in humanitarian service.  The crisis in East Africa, along with countless other disasters unfolding across the globe, is a reminder of the continuing importance of this work in a world where urbanisation, climate change, the global economic crisis and other factors mean the number of people affected by disasters and conflicts is increasing each year.

But they’re also a reminder that the root causes of disasters go much deeper than images of cracked earth and crumpled buildings might first suggest.  Disasters invariably hit marginalised groups and people living in poverty the hardest, precisely because they lack the power to negotiate access to/control over information, infrastructure, basic services and financial resources to be able to mitigate the impacts of the hazards they face.   

At ActionAid, we believe that this lack of power leads to increased poverty, enhanced vulnerability and, finally, disasters.  If we are to hope to address the complex relationship between poverty, powerlessness and disasters, then we must look first at the underlying factors at play.  And to do so, we must be political, not in the sense of engaging in party politics, but in a way which enables us to analyse and address the root causes of poverty and injustice, and so vulnerability.

The debate on the humanitarian principle of neutrality has long done the rounds in NGO circles, often with much blurring between the terms “impartiality” and “neutrality”.  If neutrality is understood to be synonymous with staying silent on issues of injustice and the causes of injustice, of dropping relief packages on bemused disaster-hit communities and getting out before it gets too hot, then ActionAid cannot (and does not aspire to be) a “neutral” organisation.  In line with our rights-based approach, we commit to helping those affected by disasters address the fundamental reasons for their vulnerability – and these, all too often, are political in nature.  For this, we make no apology.   At the same time, ActionAid commits itself to an impartial approach to humanitarian assistance, providing relief on the basis of need alone.

We do not side with governments or warring factions, or favour the cause of one political group over another.  But we do take sides with the poorest and most vulnerable – who usually are the worst affected by disasters.  We work closely with communities and local partners to demand that duty bearers fulfil their responsibilities to protect and fulfil the rights of their citizens.  And we support people to speak out and demand action from those in power. 

On this World Humanitarian Day 2011 we renew our commitment to fighting poverty and injustice - and so disasters - in all its forms, and in supporting those affected by disasters to rebuild their lives.  And we celebrate the dedication of all those who make such work possible in often extremely challenging circumstances.