The New Realities of Humanitarian Work

The New Realities of Humanitarian Work

Publication info

Philippe Guiton, Humanitarian and Operations Director

Looking back on 32 years as an aid worker

I started my humanitarian career as a volunteer logistician in Abéché, a town in north-eastern Chad, in January 1985. I was quite young, 27 years old. I arrived in Chad during the third year of the massive famine in the Sahel of the mid-80s. A lot of people were dying. Those who were still strong enough came to the towns, but many were too weak and it was often too late save them. Mostly the children perished in hunger. It was a very hard start for me. It was my first job as a humanitarian aid worker and I was thrown into utter devastation and misery.

Every three weeks, a small plane landed on the dusty airstrip with precious goods: a bag of letters from the headquarters of my organization. I had three weeks to reply to the requests, typing them all up on my rusty typewriter before the next flight would arrive. My team and I were completely on our own. I had to make most decisions without consulting our headquarters. When I first arrived, there were no telephones and no long range radios. Only the office of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) enjoyed such modern technology, which we aid workers could use in emergencies.

From Abéché to the capital N’Djamena I had to travel 750 kilometers of dirt road. When it did not rain, we could manage to cover the distance in about 16 hours by car. We had to be ready to sleep in the bush if we had a flat tire, if the road was blocked, or became a pool of mud in the rainy season.

Typewriters instead of smartphones

I was in for the long haul and signed a two-year contract with only one month of leave in Chad. There was no rest and recuperation, or R&R, as we nowadays call the regular breaks for aid workers based in challenging and remote areas. I did not see my friends and family for two years.

At the beginning, I was writing a letter to my family monthly, then, once I got accustomed to my new and unique home, I wrote less often. I lost contact with my friends at home. We had no email, no Skype, no Whatsapp, no means to stay in touch but letters delivered by mail. Today, when I deploy to our humanitarian missions, I am in constant contact with my family through the internet. I can coordinate with my team instantly, sharing real-time data and information.

On the bright side, the humanitarian community in Abéché was small and we were very close to each other. Some friends stayed with me throughout my life: I am still in contact with one person from that time who has now retired in my village in France. There were a lot of NGO parties in Abéché. I also learned the local Arabic dialect, which opened doors for me with staff and the local community.

Thirty years ago, one of our main challenges was getting the aid to people in need. There were no roads to the villages. It took the trucks a really long time to get to the places where people needed our assistance. When we organized distributions of relief supplies in remote locations, we always had to factor in many days, requiring us to sleep in the bush on a mat under the open night sky. 

Safety of aid workers a real challenge today

While I was there, Chad was at war with armed groups in the East and South, and with Libya in the north. I witnessed two bombings very close to where I was. Yet insecurity came mostly from banditry and rogue armed soldiers. There were very few aid workers in that region at the time, except for WFP, CARE, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and the International Federation of the Red Cross. Aid workers had no serious problems at military and police check-points. Flags on our vehicles were the best protection. NGOs did not have security staff.

This has changed around the world. Aid organizations such as CARE have robust security protocols and mechanisms in place to keep their staff safe. For good reason: In 2015, 287 aid workers were attacked, mainly in Afghanistan, South Sudan, Syria, Somalia and Yemen. Today aid workers are a target in some areas and the numbers of kidnappings of aid workers for financial gain or political reasons have increased over the years. In some countries we are forced to keep a low profile because international NGOs are perceived as representing a foreign agenda that is seen as a threat to some communities. Too often, the lines between peacekeeping operations, military actions and humanitarian assistance have been blurred. Governments and militaries are using development work to win hearts and minds, making it increasingly difficult for local communities to understand the difference between actors. 

“I was a driver, a mechanic, a constructor”

My first two years as a humanitarian worker in Chad determined the course of my life. I have worked for a humanitarian cause since then, and I never lost my passion to help people in need. Over the past 32 years, I have seen the humanitarian aid system change dramatically. For example today, humanitarian aid is a profession. In the 80s, aid workers used to be mostly northern volunteers, many had no specific training and were underpaid – if they received a salary at all. Basically whoever was ready to go to the field could get a job. You had to be flexible though as the tasks were broad: I was a driver, a constructor, a mechanic, I had to negotiate with authorities and with soldiers, and I had to organise aid distributions. Today, humanitarians have specialized skills. We employ logisticians, team leaders, accountability officers, finance and procurement managers, experts in water and sanitation or food security, communications specialists and so forth. There is high competition on the humanitarian job market and experienced humanitarians can now expect a decent salary and good living standards.

When I started in Chad, there was very little accountability to our donors and to the people we served. We did not have clear standards and guidance, also given to the fact that we had no real-time connection to our head office. It was only after the Biafra war and the big Sahelian famine of the 80s that humanitarian work started to become structured and humanitarian became a profession. Today, we have after-action reviews, analyses, assessments, complaints mechanism and other tools and procedures to ensure we are accountable to the most affected and we can openly inform our donors about our impact.

The other major change in the humanitarian system is that the big majority of the humanitarian workers are now from the global south. At CARE, 97 percent of our staff are from the countries where we work. We also support and train local organizations to deliver emergency aid.

Thirty-two years ago I arrived in Chad with a backpack, passion and a vision to help others. I had very little supervision and learned quickly to make decisions on my own. The people I met at that time opened my eyes to a different reality, and these early encounters with people in need changed me deeply. While the humanitarian work has transformed over the course of the past decades, our purpose remains the same: provide life-saving assistance to people affected by natural disasters and conflicts. 


The author on the ground in Chad. Since the recent food crisis, CARE has reached over 200,000 people, including almost 30,000 children at risk of death or permanent disability as a result of malnutrition. Photo Credit: Picasa