Project HOPE is a global health and humanitarian organization, working side-by-side with local health workers and communities to save lives and improve the health and well-being of people around the world.
When things go wrong in the world — and we mean really wrong — the first people to step in and take action are often humanitarian aid workers.
Whether communities are confronting war or violent conflict, climate disasters, or global pandemics (heartbreakingly, sometimes all of these things at once), humanitarians respond swiftly and with expertise and care. They’re the ultimate helpers.
According to the United Nations’ Global Humanitarian Overview from 2022, an estimated 274 million people needed humanitarian assistance and protection in 2022. These numbers show us that the world needs humanitarian support now more than ever.
In order to support the safety and longevity of the aid workers who step up to help, we need to understand the work they do — and perhaps learn what role we play in humanitarian aid, as well.
What is a humanitarian aid worker?
A humanitarian aid worker is anyone who works to provide humanitarian aid, which is defined by the United Nations as, “material or logistical assistance provided for humanitarian purposes, typically in response to humanitarian crises.” The objective of this work, according to the UN, is to “save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain human dignity.”
But most humanitarian aid workers have their own unique perspective on what it means to provide aid.
Nezahat Yildirim is the senior program and external relations manager for health and humanitarian nonprofit Project HOPE, representing Turkey and Syria. She joined the team in the direct aftermath of the recent devastating earthquake in the area. Her humanitarian career started in Iraq between 2004 and 2006.
“I have my own definition for [humanitarian aid,] which is ‘to help others when they are in need, regardless of their color, religion, gender, age, or nationality, and serve them with others if you are capable to,’” Yildirim told Good Good Good.
“Being a humanitarian aid worker means you should be ready and willing to help others and be able to travel immediately around the world when it’s needed.”
She put it simply: There are disasters, conflicts, and wars ongoing in countries around the world. And everyone deserves help.
“If you were in one of those countries or regions, you would expect someone to hear your voice and help you,” she said. “Being a humanitarian aid worker means having this empathy and wanting to help people in need in an unfamiliar place without distinction.”
That detail — “without distinction” — is foundational to the four principles of humanitarian aid, which lay the groundwork for individual aid workers as well as organizations that deploy aid around the globe.
What are the four principles of humanitarian aid?
The four principles of humanitarian aid broadly embraced by aid organizations globally include humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence. These are central to the approach of humanitarianism, centering an unbiased, transparent, and humane delivery of assistance to anyone who needs it.
Yildirim breaks these principles down for us even further.
She said humanity refers to the belief that all people have equal value and should be treated with respect and dignity.
“It is the duty of humanitarian aid actors to protect and assist those who are suffering, without discrimination or bias,” Yildirim said.
Neutrality, similarly, insists that humanitarian aid workers or aid organizations remain impartial and not take sides in conflicts or disputes.
“This allows them to gain the trust of all parties involved and to help and protect those who need it most, regardless of their affiliation or background,” Yildirim continued.
Impartiality refers to the principle that aid is delivered based on need alone, and not on any other factors, like ethnicity or political affiliation. This supports the idea of humanity, that all people are deserving of help, no matter who they are or what they believe.
“This ensures that the most vulnerable and marginalized people receive the help they need,” Yildirim explained.
Lastly, independence keeps humanitarian aid workers and organizations free from political, economic, or military influence.
“This allows [aid workers] to operate independently to aid and protect, based solely on the needs of the people they are serving,” Yildirim said.
By operating under these principles, the core objectives of humanitarianism can be reached, ending suffering, and saving lives on a huge scale.
Yildirim added, “When these principles are followed, …. it also promotes peace, stability, and security by addressing the root causes of conflict and by promoting respect for human rights and human dignity.”
How do humanitarian aid workers help people in need?
They put their lives on the line for others.
In August of 2023, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs shared that so far this year, 62 humanitarian workers have been killed in crises around the world — a staggering 40% increase from the same period in 2022.
Additionally, 84 aid workers have been wounded, and 34 have been kidnapped.
Aid work is a life-threatening job.
“Humanitarian aid workers, especially during the emergency response period, can often be victims of the crisis, directly or indirectly,” Yildirim said.
“Whether you are part of an international humanitarian organization's emergency response team or a member of a crisis-stricken community, you must first help yourself and should keep yourself calm. Only in this way can you also help others.”
The life-saving method of caring for yourself before others remains paramount, even in the most dire of situations. No matter what you do, Yildirim said, aid workers must stay intimately connected to the reality that the work they do puts them in danger.
“Despite all precautions and personal preparations, the most important issue that should not be forgotten is that you are doing a life-threatening job,” she said. “If you're doing this job by taking that risk, there's only one explanation for it; you love being a humanitarian worker.”
They provide necessary supplies for people in crisis.
When the UN was formed following World War II, like many humanitarian organizations, it focused on creating coalitions to solve problems that lead to humanitarian crises.
This led to arms of the UN, like the World Food Programme and the United Nations Population Fund, that distribute necessities to people in need. Other networks of humanitarian organizations are also vital to coordinating relief efforts.
This often includes the disbursement of life-saving supplies, such as food, medicines and medical equipment, blankets and tents, water, and more.
In fact, humanitarian organization Sphere has determined a commonly used and widely known set of minimum standards for humanitarian aid, focusing on four main areas of response in any crisis: Water supply, sanitation and hygiene promotion; food security and nutrition; shelter and settlement; and health.
“Without humanitarian aid, it would not be difficult to predict that people affected by these disasters and crises would face more dramatic conditions and deaths and diseases would spread inexorably,” Yildirim said.
They use their unique skills to respond to crises.
While many humanitarian workers’ on-the-ground work consists of distributing materials or helping connect people with other resources, many have unique skills that make them even more well-equipped to help.
For instance, doctors and medical professionals provide immediate first aid. Translators offer timely information in appropriate languages to help people find what they need. Search and rescue teams help people who are trapped. Contractors build temporary shelters to house people who have lost everything.
“It is important to have features such as crisis solving, analytical thinking, and leadership, and improving your external relations through the right channels,” Yildirim explained. “These are the strengths that you as a humanitarian worker should have while working.”
They share on-the-ground updates to help us understand what is going on in the world.
When aid workers enter a region impacted by a crisis, they also have a responsibility to share new, reliable information with the world.
While journalists are always digging out stories and helping us make sense of matters like conflict or climate catastrophes, aid workers often provide updates on communities directly impacted by crisis, or specific areas such as health and sanitation.
If working with a larger humanitarian organization, this data collection can contribute to major trend reports to locate areas with the biggest need — and to celebrate the impact of the aid already provided.
“Seeing how important and how invaluable your work as a humanitarian aid worker is the biggest source of morale and motivation that keeps you alive,” Yildirim said.
They work with partners all around the globe to best support the needs of local communities.
The ability to work within new, diverse communities is also a key part of humanitarian work.
“Knowing the dynamics in the locality, at least having an idea, and having knowledge of the local culture and beliefs will always make it easier for you to work as a humanitarian aid worker,” Yildirim said.
Many times, global humanitarian organizations have ongoing partnerships with grassroots teams in regions around the world, tapping into those relationships to best disperse aid and achieve success when entering a new place.
For instance, Project HOPE was just able to secure a huge aid delivery in Sudan, thanks to its connections to private airline companies, as well as the Sudanese American Physicians Association, which continues to work on the ground to support its own communities.
They solve problems quickly and creatively to help as many people as possible.
Along with being flexible in a new environment, aid work requires a lot of on-your-feet thinking and mobility. Decisions need to be made immediately and wisely to avoid further harm — or even loss of life.
“There is also an external dimension to the work,” Yildirim said. “Whether you're working in a natural forgiveness zone or working in a crisis zone, you need to be prepared for any situation.”
She recalled her time entering the earthquake zone in Turkey and Syria with Project HOPE, when she came into the situation prepared for further damage from aftershocks.
“In such situations, it’s important to prepare yourself for the worst, but it’s not enough,” she said. “You need good guidance — from the shelter where you will stay to the roads you will use. It is possible to say that this is often life-saving.”
They teach all of us to be humanitarians ourselves.
While the world needs dedicated humanitarians to join these efforts, Yildirim knows that the life-threatening work of on-the-ground aid is not for everyone.
But she, like many of her colleagues, knows that many of us are eager to help solve the problems of the world.
“Anyone can be a humanitarian. You don’t have to make it your career,” she said. “Everyone can work to advance equity in their everyday lives. Even if you don’t take an active role in humanitarian aid, you can support it in many different ways.”
Of course, many folks are familiar with making monetary donations to aid organizations or nonprofits working to make the world a better place. But Yildirim urges people to also consider the day-to-day human interactions that can make a difference.
“For example, if you are a decision-maker or policymaker, you can make your policies more refugee- or immigrant-friendly. Or you can be hospitable to people who are victims of disasters and wars who come to your country, your city, your neighborhood, or the apartment next door,” she said.
“These are approaches that indirectly contribute significantly to humanitarian aid.”
Header image by James Buck/Project HOPE