In October, I travelled with Katya Baker, our GHSM Student Experience Officer, to attend the 20th Humanitarian Congress in Berlin. Although this was my third time attending the conference, I found it to be as informative, intense and inspiring as the first. Run jointly by Medecins Sans Frontieres, Medecins Du Monde and the German Red Cross, the Humanitarian Congress is a conference which always asks the most pressing and current humanitarian questions which face us in the field of global health and social medicine. The 2018 conference, which this year had the theme of “No more excuses – Advocating for human dignity in times of crisis”, was no different. By looking outward at global political discussions which have been dominated us over the last 12 months – including the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement, anti-migration and isolationist sentiments and diversity and representation of minority groups in workplaces – the conference forced us to also look inside the sector for the areas in which we have failed to uphold some of the values which we preach.
The deliberate swerve from the discourse of western humanitarians as “saviours” who can do no wrong was refreshing. Speakers spoke of sexual assault in the aid sector, occurring both in cases of humanitarian abuse towards beneficiaries and also within organizations themselves. The theme of sexual harassment or violence was consistent throughout the entire weekend, with multiple female speakers and audience members from all types of organisations recounting statistics, anecdotes and personal stories of how the humanitarian sector has to work harder to better protect those – often women – who are more vulnerable to violence.
We also heard from Degan Ali, who is the Executive Director of Adeso. She spoke strongly about how she continues to deal with the “double standards of aid” in terms of what is expected from local humanitarian workers compared with the so-called “expats” who parachute into a crisis and can leave when necessary – a luxury which is not afforded to local NGO workers. Shaista Aziz, a campaigner from Oxford, highlighted how the lack of diversity and inclusion of minorities in board rooms trickles down into all parts of organisations which affects how people interact and work with each other and with communities.
Throughout the two-day conference, larger sessions moved into smaller and more specialised groups. A highlight here was a small breakout session led by leaders from MSF and MDM about how new tactics in warfare, especially by ISIS, have led to an increased danger for humanitarian workers when working in conflict zones. In 1996 when Red Cross workers were killed in Chechnya there was a global outrage; yet Aleppo, Syria, saw 22 airstrikes on hospitals across the city in just the first half of 2016. David Trevino from MSF ran the session, explaining that the emergence of ISIS has changed and blurred existing negotiation lines, leading to more hospitals, schools and supply vehicles being deliberately targeted. Much of the session also focused on an over overlooked part of humanitarian discussions, which is the “burnout” and mental health impacts this has on staff, both local and international.
A further highlight of attending the conference was to represent GHSM among similar departments from universities all over the world. Katya and I ran a King’s College London stall between sessions to advertise GHSM and the programs and work we do. It was great to receive so much interest from like-minded students and professionals, who were interested in the department’s post-graduate and research opportunities. We also connected with other universities from Copenhagen, Heidelberg and Berlin, which have some fascinating programs and summer schools which are similar and complementary to those at GHSM. Also, it was really encouraging (as someone who is fast approaching graduation!) to have some really productive and interesting conversations with professionals from organisations who were genuinely interested in and excited about what we study and focus on back in GHSM.
Although the conference welcomed discussions on current and trending events which have been prevalent in mainstream news stories, the overall theme remained as it always has – focused on upholding human dignity. Almost every session offered a timely reminder to remain reflective and self-aware whilst navigating global health delivery; that it is crucial that we, as actors who enter situations with good intentions, do not end up doing more harm to those we seek to help. Hugo Slim, from the International Committee of the Red Cross, gave final remarks by reminding us of the remaining work still to be done in “decolonising humanitarian action and work with people – not on them or “for” them”.