Seeking Leaders for Global Change

Attending the Humanitarian Congress, 2013

Written by Priya Behrens-Shah

Trends in Access and Innovation: the Humanitarian Congress 2013

Between 25-27 October, I attended the Humanitarian Congress in Berlin organised by Médecins Sans Frontières, Médecins du Monde, the German Red Cross, the Berlin Chamber of Physicians and the Charité Universitätsmedizin. The event brought together about 500 researchers, practitioners and students to discuss the current trends, knowledge and innovations in the humanitarian sector, particularly from a health perspective.

This was the second time I attended the Humanitarian Congress. The theme this year was “No Access! Who Cares? How to reach people in need" and the event focused on obstacles and limitations to providing humanitarian assistance, calling on the need for more research, innovation and accountability. One of the interesting solutions offered was the new MEDBOX initiative, a hands-on library resource designed to quickly get humanitarian knowledge directly where it is needed.

The Keynote address was given by Mr. Yves Daccord from the International Committee of the Red Cross, who suggested that the humanitarian sector needs to become better at influencing the policy-makers, terrorists and other groups who control access, in order to negotiate access to health services for affected populations during critical times.

Mr. Daccord also provided motivation for young professionals thinking about careers in the humanitarian sector, suggesting the sector is in need of fresh perspectives, new ideas and that it will dramatically change in the next 10 years, particularly as a result of technological innovations.

He also warned that new technologies may also bring new risks, for example, there is a tendency for linking social media to democracy which is risky for humanitarian professionals who must gain the trust of communities in which they operate. He called on the need for a shift from the media portrayal of humanitarian professionals as those who simply testify and report what the ground realities are in a given emergency situation.

A provocative presentation from Dr. Nobhojit Roy from the Jamsetji TATA Centre of Disaster Management in India highlighted another access issue: the fact that Western approaches to medical relief do not necessarily reflect the reality of practices by people in rural areas of the developing world. He suggested that the side-effects of Western-developed medicines (e.g. diarrhoea) may be more harmful to individuals than actually providing them with relief, especially when such medicines are administered to those who already suffer from poor diet, limited hygiene and limited access to clean water.

He recounted his own experience of being educated in the West and returning to India as a practicing doctor armed with "new" knowledge, where the disconnect of his own knowledge from the local practices of the tribal population he was serving caused several deaths. Dr. Roy called on the need for a new research agenda in the developed world, that would be based on research of interventions and cases in the developing world.

While I had a wonderful time attending the Congress, I was disappointed that there was little diversity and representation from non-Germany based organisations and professionals and almost a complete absence of policy-makers. There is clearly still a great deal to learn from the practical and political realities of the individuals and communities that humanitarian aid aims to serve, and whilst I believe that humanitarian intervention is critical and must be impartial, more must be done to look at how to bridge the accountability gap and improve the sustainability of humanitarian interventions. I look forward to attending the conference next year.

Priya Behrens-Shah, Associate Consultant