Aware of an earthquake that had struck moments earlier, Robin Needham rushed to the beach imploring others to get away from the shoreline on the island of Phuket, Thailand. He was still there when a massive wave inundated the coastline. Robin, Country Director of CARE Nepal, perished in the tsunami that devastated the shores of Indonesia, Thailand and other adjacent countries. It was December 26th, 2004.
On that day, a model humanitarian was lost to us. Robin had been on a much deserved annual holiday. He had devoted much of his life to helping others. Both in Africa and in Asia, Robin worked tirelessly on behalf of the less fortunate in society through the oversight of relief work and rights based approaches to development.
August 19th holds the designation of World Humanitarian Day. The United Nations encourages us to note this date as a time to recognize those who face danger and adversity in order to help others. An online dictionary defines a humanitarian as one who is devoted to the promotion of human welfare and the advancement of social reforms.
Those engaged in humanitarian work are not saints; they are not persons who should be placed in a separate category of elite people. They are men and women who have chosen to commit a part of their life to helping others. Each and every person has the capacity to promote human welfare and advance social reforms. Each person can be a humanitarian.
In the Republic of Georgia, especially in rural areas, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children live in seriously impoverished conditions. They can be invisible to society, tucked away in remote mountain villages or at the end of long, dusty roads. Many are displaced by conflict.
During August of 2008, CARE staff members were among the first on the scene in Gori, a town adjacent to South Ossetia. Driving past Russian military apparatus for the purpose of assessing the impact of war on families in the area, they witnessed first hand the damaging effects of armed conflict. They responded with relief supplies and have remained engaged in economic development for displaced families even today.
Some humanitarian actions require specialized expertise, but not all. The internationally renowned recording artist, Beyoncé, is filming a music video featuring her song “I Was Here” at the UN General Assembly Hall in New York to mark World Humanitarian Day. It will be released globally on August 19th. If you are a business person; a representative of government; a member of the media; an academic; a civil society representative; a staff-person in an NGO; an active citizen – there are many things you can do within your means to take action; to practice humanitarianism. Share your intent to act with others by pledging to complete at least one humanitarian action at www.whd-iwashere.org – a website linked to the Beyoncé music video release.
In his last posting in Nepal, Robin Needham committed himself to ensure that the “untouchables” or lowest caste in Nepali society were well-represented in CARE’s workforce. During the Maoist insurgency, Robin guided his organization to continue to engage in development work in spite of the risks that caused others to withdraw. For several years after his passing, I kept my last voicemail message from Robin to me on my phone. He had been confirming some meetings we were jointly planning. I deeply admired Robin for his convictions and the actions in which he took that backed up his principles. Left on the desk in his office in Katmandu, and found after his death, was a quote handwritten on a scrap of paper stating, “Go forth and make the world less miserable.”
We can all heed this call to action.
Thomas Reynolds is the Mission Director of CARE International in the Caucasus. He writes on current topics that impact youth, women, those affected by conflict and those located in remote villages.