Humanitarian Action: What Role for Youth?

Every year on 19 August, aid workers across the world gather to commemorate colleagues and friends they lost in humanitarian service. The World Humanitarian Day was designated by the UN General Assembly to pay tribute to aid workers who risk their lives in humanitarian service, and to mobilize people to advocate for a more humane world. It coincides with the anniversary of the 2003 bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq, when 22 people were killed, including UN Special Representative Sergio Vieira de Mello. It is a solemn occasion, yet it also represents an opportunity to celebrate the work that thousands of people across the world do in the service of others.

This year in Geneva, events focused in particular on Youth in Humanitarian Action. As the launch of the Global Compact for Young People in Humanitarian Action at the World Humanitarian Summit illustrates, there is a growing recognition of youth’s role in communities surviving and recovering from disasters and conflicts, in addition to their role in international humanitarian aid and as local first responders. This could not have been illustrated better by the five young humanitarians participating in the panel discussion, which kicked off the day. Zohoor (31, Saudi Arabia) had spent most of her time since graduating as a medical doctor volunteering with refugees in Europe; Kerstin (25, Germany) had been a Red Cross volunteer in Germany, the UK and Uganda for a decade; Jorge (32, Peru) had been saving lives since he was 17 as a firefighter and, later, as a member of an urban search and rescue team; Marie (23, Switzerland) had just returned from Erbil where she was assisting refugees. As they exchanged stories, experiences and ideas with Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees and Nan Buzard, Executive Director of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies, a set of clear themes emerged. Young people at home and abroad are shaping the future of humanitarian action, but they need more support in preparation and training and increased participation in decision-making processes.

A number of Creative Action for Humanity side events followed the panel discussion and the Solemn Commemoration Ceremony. Thousands of young people are, day after day, raising awareness about humanitarian crises at the global level. Often, they do it through art. MUSÉ, a German artist duo, had prepared two art exhibitions drawing attention to the current European refugee crisis. This initiative was presented along with four others – Play for Rights, Hip Hop 4 Hope, Art Work Projects for Human Rights and the work of the Lebanese street artist Jad el Khoury. A festival of several short films on humanitarian issues produced by young people closed the programme of the day.

The participation of young aid workers and artists in the events not only illustrated the capacity, energy and ideas young people bring to humanitarian action; it reminded many more seasoned humanitarians why they chose this career in the first place.

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