In 2009, the United Nations designated August 19 as World Humanitarian Day in an effort to raise public awareness of humanitarian assistance. The day honors those who have lost their lives in humanitarian service and those who continue to bring assistance and relief to millions around the globe. It also seeks to draw attention to humanitarian needs worldwide and to explain what humanitarian aid work entails.
Steve Zimmerman, Room to Read Chief of Operations, has devoted his life to humanitarian efforts and has held senior positions with several international development organizations prior to joining Room to Read. Steve provides his reflections on his career below in honor of World Humanitarian Day.
It was not my plan to enter the world of humanitarian assistance. I came from a long line of auto industry people, and I thought that this would be my future as well. But a brush with development work many years ago, while on a junior-year-abroad program in North Africa, lit the fire. This awakening, combined with a family upbringing that stressed the need for one to give back more than one takes from this world, made the eventual shift to relief and development work almost natural. When I completed my formal schooling in the mid-1970s, I joined the first of several NGOs with whom I have worked over the past 30 years. I have never looked back.
As with many of my colleagues in international development, I like to believe that I can leave the world a better place, even if in only one tiny corner of the world at a single point in time. I have been in the midst of civil wars and in the aftermath of major disasters. I share the frustration of many in experiencing how societies can turn against themselves or how destructive the forces of nature can be.
One of the most difficult challenges of any humanitarian worker is facing an enormous crisis with limited resources and time. In these environments, we all struggle against becoming overwhelmed and paralyzed -- a “deer in the headlights.” We also try to avoid becoming so numbed by these crises that we eventually become immune to the suffering of others. And we must remain aware of where we are and the dangers faced not only by the people with whom we are working, but also ourselves -– we are not “invincible.”
I have lost many friends and colleagues over these years -- some to being in the wrong place at the wrong time and becoming victims of violence or disaster. But many more to health conditions, easily treatable at home, but often fatal in the environments in which we work, and to road accidents, which remain one of the greatest threats to humanitarian workers throughout the world. When we meet one another by plan or by chance, we often reminisce about past adventures and the people we knew, honoring them in our memories.
Humanitarian work has matured in the past quarter century and is now a multi-billion dollar industry. We are professionals with strong skills. We follow universal standards. And we are increasingly accountable to the people who trust us with their money. As the crises become larger and more complex, we are both evolving and increasing our capacity to respond. The world is now much more aware of the role of humanitarian organizations in responding to global crises.
Because the nature of Room to Read’s work requires a certain degree of political stability, we do not operate as a “first responder” when disasters strike. However, we still play a major force in rebuilding a community, as we did in war-torn Sri Lanka, providing education infrastructure and a sense of normalcy for the children whose world has been violently shaken. And, in many of these countries, Room to Read or our education-focused NGO colleagues will surely be there after the first responders depart, because education is not only a basic human right, but also acts as a critical vehicle for countries as they recover and rebuild.
Steve Zimmerman has lived abroad and traveled extensively during his many years in international development. His traveling experience was the subject of a recent profile in the New York Times.