Is there one word that sums up what the world needs more of?
That’s the question posed by the UN for this year’s World Humanitarian Day, when it pledges to “turn those words into currency”. Change, peace, hope and teamwork (the latter as favoured by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon) spring instinctively to mind. Along with justice and equality, they are among the trending suggestions in the run up to 19 August. But just how realistic is it to think that words have the power to accelerate global change to the extent that is needed?
Given the incessant rush of words already populating the universal ether, adding yet more to the cacophony might seem a futile if not counterproductive effort. But the fact is that amidst the noise and the chatter, an increasing amount of meaningful dialogue is being prompted by people in the crisis zones that humanitarians seek to enter.
From Somalia to Afghanistan, to Malawi and the Philippines, there are numerous examples of grassroots-level activism enabled by the power of communication. “The planet has gone online”, and it’s creating an unprecedented opportunity for citizens rather than states and NGOs alone to shape the future.
In its 2012 report, ‘Humanitarianism in the Network Age’, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) concedes that a radical shift is needed in the way the world responds to crises; more and more people are affected by natural and manmade disasters everyday. Interventions by humanitarian workers, agencies and organisations are commendable enough but they cannot keep up with the pace. The reports states:
“The network age, with its increased reach of communications networks and the growing groups of people willing and able to help those in need, is here today. The ways in which people interact will change, with or without the sanction of international humanitarian organizations. Either those organizations adapt to the network age, or they grow increasingly out of touch with the people they were established to serve. If they choose to adapt, an old dream— enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—has a chance of coming true: that all people gain the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of any frontiers. That is a goal worth pursuing.”
By the end of 2011, more than 2.3 billion people were using the Internet. An even more staggering fact is that in 105 countries across the world there are more mobiles than people. According to the OCHA, 24% of people living in developing countries use the Internet. That figure is expected to rise to 50% by 2015.
The structures of humanitarianism and the interactions between traditional hierarchies and people in need are quite rightly changing. Social media has broken down geographical boundaries and created pathways that enable citizens to mobilise their own networks of advocacy and build capacity from within.
As the OCHA highlights, humanitarians must take up the challenge of adapting to work in new ways with new systems and with different partners – we have moved beyond the standard model of participatory working:
“Whereas aid agencies once made assumptions about people’s needs in a crisis people now have the tools to say what they need and want.”
Through Twitter (@UN_WHD), the UN is reaching out to around 1,000 followers, while on Facebook, this year’s campaign has attracted almost 1,000 fans – and the numbers continue to swell.
Proportionately the numbers may seem small but the impact of this year’s campaign comes from the point that World Humanitarian Day makes – a collective call to action through communication, conversation and genuine reciprocal dialogue has an immense power to propel change by generating people-based activity across multiple global platforms.
In reality, the fundamental challenge that drives humanitarianism – to protect life and ensure respect for all human beings – may well be inconceivable in view of the drop in official development assistance, aid cuts, donor apathy, and the ongoing battles to galvanise political will within and across continents. But the possibility exists at a deeper, more meaningful level so long as the people actually affected can be heard. So for what it's worth, my word is #listen.