Who runs the world?

Thursday, August 16, 2012 - 16:22
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Joanna Kerr, CEO of ActionAid International, speaks about the meaning of World Humanitarian Day.

Earlier this year I went to Haiti to meet ActionAid staff, our partners, political leaders and community members to get a sense of our programming two years on after the devastating earthquake. Sitting in one of the “temporary camps” in the heart of Port au Prince I listened to women’s stories about living in a permanent state of limbo.

In all the years that I have had these kinds of small interactive gatherings with women – and there have been many – I don’t know when I have felt as sad and as angry. These vocal women were trapped in a life they didn’t choose: one without water, safety, a proper roof, or any certainty. And while the money exists to rebuild new homes on new land, “power” is not responding. A tangle of politicians, the church, and elites – long part of Haiti’s history - are making land reform and land access an intractable challenge.

The impact of disasters like the Haiti earthquake is always felt most keenly by those living in poverty and exclusion. But this is not just happening in Haiti - we are seeing this in so many places around the world. In West Africa and the Sahel right now, where an estimated 18 million people are going hungry, it is the women and children who are suffering most. Struggling to feed their families, women are forced to take on extra jobs to supplement their income. New mothers, reduced to eating only one meal a day, have no milk left to feed their babies. Across the affected countries, women are consistently being denied opportunities to feed into the discussions and decisions which would enable them to take ownership over their own food security, and that of their families. It’s a pattern we seem time and again in emergencies.

But at the same time, these women – in Haiti, West Africa and indeed, around the world - have tremendous resourcefulness. They are the ones that are first to respond when disaster strikes – helping elderly relatives and children get to safety. And they are the ones who have the potential to rebuild their broken communities, shaping them into more equal and peaceful societies.

Their resilience in the face of adversity is, quite simply, astonishing. ActionAid sees the huge potential that women have to be part of the disaster response, recovery and rehabilitation process - a capacity that is currently underutilised.

World Humanitarian Day, marked annually on 19th August, is an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of humanitarians across the world. And whilst the image that might spring immediately to mind is one of Western ex-pats flying to the rescue, it is actually local people – the communities affected by the disaster – who are first to help themselves. Our duty as an international non-governmental organisation is to support and facilitate that process – enabling those affected by disasters, particularly women, to take the lead.

We’re already doing this in so many contexts, and the results are clear to see. By leveraging the space that disasters open up, we can support women to recognise their own potential and their very real value in society. Over time, this approach has huge potential to shift power dynamics in favour of women.

If women have a greater say in the whole cycle of preparedness, response, recovery and rehabilitation , they can start to lift themselves out of vulnerability, and so out of poverty. This will help them to become less vulnerable to future disasters in the process. Superstar Beyoncé, who's fronting this year's World Humanitarian Day campaign, recently released a song asking: “Who runs the world? Girls, girls!” She must be an ActionAider!