Serge Duss is retired from the international relief and development field, last serving as public policy and advocacy director for International Medical Corps in Washington, DC. He previously held several leadership positions at World Vision over 18 years. Duss serves on the boards of Kairos USA, SIL Lead, and Central Union Mission in Washington, DC.
These are trying times for humanitarian aid workers, their organizations, and international humanitarianism writ large.
The number of people displaced by war, persecution, and conflict both inside and outside their country’s borders swelled to a record 70 million, according to the UN refugee agency. Meanwhile, the world’s major powers talk a good game of finding political solutions to end the causes of displacement and returning refugees home, but it remains talk. At the same time, western donor governments steadily decrease their funding for humanitarian aid and limit the number of refugees they accept for resettlement.
As an American who has devoted 35 years to the humanitarian cause, both in overseas operations and efforts to influence public policy through advocacy in Washington, DC, I find the status quo shameful.
Tragically, the United States is a major offender. Once a generous nation that absorbed hundreds of thousands of refugees from eastern Europe after World War II, including me and my Ukrainian family, the United States has become stingy under the Trump administration. Since 1980, when the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program was created by law, some three million refugees were resettled between then and 2018. Only 18,000 refugees were resettled in 2019, and resettlement numbers are expected to be even lower in 2020.
I remain hopeful this scenario will change soon. I am encouraged by the vast number of colleagues in the humanitarian world, known and unknown to me, who remain steadfast in their resolve that we can not give up on aiding suffering humanity, regardless of what governments choose to do, or not. I am doubly encouraged by the numbers of young adults who choose to become involved in the humanitarian enterprise, whether motivated by a religious calling, as I was, or altruism, or both. I have seen thoughtful preparation with education and acquiring necessary skills, living on meager incomes, and a willingness to sacrifice human comforts in order to identify with the people they serve. Their faith and fortitude are being tested as never before.
My choice to become a humanitarian aid worker after a 10-year career as a newspaper reporter and editor was born out of my Christian faith and my family’s experience as displaced people (as refugees were known then) in West Germany after World War II. I directly credit Ron Sider’s book Rich Christians in the Age of Hunger, which my wife and I read in a young couples Bible study group at my church, with motivating us to spend a year as volunteers at the Philippine Refugee Processing Center in Bataan, Philippines, in the mid-1980s. The camp was created by the U.S. and Philippine governments after the Vietnam War and housed about 20,000 Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Lao refugees at any one time. They cycled through for a six-month stay before being resettled in western countries. The majority came to the United States, where they were resettled by a network of religious and secular NGOs that partnered with churches and civic organizations. More than 1.2 million Indochinese refugees were resettled in the United States.
I was born in a displaced-persons camp in Wurzburg, Germany. My Ukrainian parents and maternal grandparents were among the hundreds of thousands that fled the Soviet Union during the war. We immigrated to Brooklyn, New York, thanks to the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, which made our move legally possible, and the large network of churches and refugee organizations that sponsored our resettlement and thousands of others like us throughout the United States. Many of the great American refugee resettlement and humanitarian aid organizations that exist today were created to respond to the refugee crisis in post-war Europe. Among them are Catholic Relief Services, Lutheran World Relief, World Relief (a former employer of mine), and Church World Service, to name a few.
However, humanitarian aid workers and their organizations, whether NGOs or UN agencies, by themselves are not nearly sufficient enough to adequately address the scale of human suffering that exists today. Innocent civilians are caught in the violence caused by governments and further exacerbated by non-state actors. No amount of donations from citizens to humanitarian organizations can match the wealth of donor government budgets to provide adequate life-saving aid in the face of human catastrophe around the world. Since joining the humanitarian policy community in Washington, DC, in the mid-1990s, there has not been a year when humanitarian organizations did not have to fiercely advocate among policymakers, both in Congress and the administration, for adequate funding for humanitarian, refugee, and development programs.
While adequate funding is critical for humanitarian action, government policy decisions and political will are the determining factors to mitigating or ending conflicts that require billions of dollars in aid every year. Decades-old conflicts in South Sudan, Central African Republic, Somalia, and more recently in Yemen and Syria, where major powers are fighting or supporting proxy wars at the expense of innocent lives, contribute to demoralization in the humanitarian ranks. Extensive on-the-ground research by humanitarians for causes and possible political solutions to conflicts that cause humanitarian crises are considered but often shelved by western policymakers. National interests, particularly related to national security, are always prioritized in a post-9/11 world. As for U.S. foreign policy, the Department of Defense and all its equippers have become increasing dominant the past two decades, at the expense of diplomacy. In such a context, humanitarians continue to struggle to maintain long-held principles of impartiality in aid delivery, neutrality between warring parties, and independence from government political objectives.