When I arrive at a new duty station, I don’t sleep well. I’ve lain awake in Iraq, tossed and turned in South Sudan, had sleepless nights in Kenya and most recently, stared at the ceiling in Afghanistan. What keeps me awake isn’t the hum of the generator or the creepy crawlies scuttling across the floor. It’s whether I will be able to succeed as a humanitarian aid worker in yet another challenging environment.
I believe that being a humanitarian means giving myself to serve those in need. I want to make life easier for the voiceless and the powerless, the victims of war or disasters, in countries where political tensions and conflict make a “normal” life impossible. But providing that help, in complex, messy humanitarian crises, can be really, really hard.
Even if you have electricity, good roads, plenty of money and all the staff you want, it isn’t easy to organise an emergency aid operation. And of course you never have all those things. You’re improvising, trying to get bags of food to thousands of people in remote, isolated communities, often against a backdrop of insecurity and natural disasters.
You have to try to keep yourself healthy too. At least here in Afghanistan I live in a house and can eat fresh fruit and vegetables. After months of living in tents and eating only rice and beans in Kenya, that is a luxury.
You face the usual hurdles that every manager in any job in the world faces. Is HQ hearing what you’re telling them? Is senior management supporting you? And there’s the additional layer of being a female manager, being the only woman around a negotiating table and asserting yourself in an office of nearly a hundred men, with everyone ready to question you. Many women will relate to this no matter what sector they work in.
But those issues pale compared to the big one: if you make a wrong decision, people may die. We can’t afford to mess up. Not in this line of work. When I worked in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya and we saw thousands of refugees streaming in from Somalia last year, fleeing drought, conflict and famine, it was clear that these people, especially the women and children, needed help immediately.
Under local law asylum seekers had to be registered before they could be given humanitarian aid. Yet, I knew that this process would take weeks and we didn’t have that time. We had to make a quick decision - going against WFP’s usual policy - to distribute food to unregistered refugees temporarily. I’m convinced that by doing so we saved thousands of lives.
Despite all these challenges, I love my work. I have learned so much, it has made me stronger and more confident. When I see a malnourished mother and her child recovering thanks to our food, and being able to smile again, or when a young woman sees me as a role model and aspires to become a leader in her community, it gives me the strength to continue.
But the biggest support of all is my family, my friends and relatives back home in the Philippines. The loved ones of aid workers are the unsung heroes of the humanitarian world. They say prayers when they see Afghanistan on the news, spend hours on Skype to Iraq and send care packages to South Sudan. Without their unconditional support, it would be impossible to fight the odds in the service of those in need.
Lourdes Ibarra works for the United Nations World Food Programme in Afghanistan.