Two days before Christmas 2014, 4-month-old Josephine was released from our partner International Medical Corps’ Ebola treatment unit in Bong County, Liberia — becoming the youngest Ebola survivor. Her head had been shaved to insert a life-saving IV drip, but her mother Korto — also an Ebola survivor — was all smiles as she took her baby home.
On a February night in Aleppo, Syria, Yousef Abo’s house was hit by a Scud missile. In a photo captured by one of our partners, you see Yousef standing by the rubble that was once his home, torn apart by the loss of his wife, two sons and two daughters.
These families’ stories reflect the suffering and hope that have defined and challenged the humanitarian system over the past year.
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is an international public health crisis the likes of which the world had never seen before. Like the epidemiological charts that illustrate the curve of the disease, this crisis, too, will have a definite beginning, middle and end. It’s been a year since USAID deployed a Disaster Assistance Response Team to West Africa to coordinate the U.S. Government’s response efforts. In that time, we succeeded in working closely with affected countries to stem the tide of the disease.
Liberia now has no Ebola cases, and new cases in Sierra Leone and Guinea are at their lowest numbers since the start of the outbreak. A successful end to Ebola in West Africa looks increasingly near.
Syria, on the other hand, represents the grim reality of what has become the humanitarian system’s new normal: protracted mega-crises with no end in sight. The United Nations has classified Syria, Iraq, South Sudan and Yemen as “Level 3” emergencies, requiring a rapid scale-up of response efforts.
Violence and insecurity in these countries is causing a record number of internal and cross-border displacements, and aid workers are saving lives at great risk to their own. USAID disaster experts are working with our dedicated humanitarian partners to overcome significant obstacles and navigate fluid frontlines to deliver much-needed food, clean water, medical care and critical relief supplies. But absent a political solution, our aid can only do so much, and humanitarian needs will continue to escalate.
This is in stark contrast to a decade ago, when mega-disasters included the Indian Ocean tsunami, the Somalia famine and the Pakistan floods. The patterns of these disasters were more clearly defined: Many lives were lost, and people suffered, but there was a clear pattern of needs peaking and tapering off as these crises played out.
Ebola aside, today’s mega-crises show no signs of subsiding and conditions continue to deteriorate. In just over a decade, the number of people in need of humanitarian aid has more than doubled. The mega-emergencies we now face are man-made crises that are a product of today’s turbulent times.
In Syria—the worst humanitarian emergency of our era—the crisis has entered its fifth year with no signs of ending. Fighting rages on in South Sudan and Yemen where millions are now at risk of famine.
This, in turn, has placed enormous strain upon the humanitarian system and cast its weaknesses into stark relief. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, recently called attention to the “patchwork humanitarian system” struggling to handle today’s burden of crises. She said we need to think hard about how to reform and invent new solutions.
Next year, the United Nations will be holding its first-ever World Humanitarian Summit. The hope is that this will serve as a forum for change, where countries can come together with solutions to improve the humanitarian system to meet the challenges of today and the future. The stakes are high, and the U.S. Government is working hard to use the summit to advance serious reforms and innovations.
While crisis can bring out the worst in humanity, it also brings out the best in us — something that we celebrate today on World Humanitarian Day. Every year on Aug. 19 we honor the fallen UN relief workers who died in the 1993 bombing in Baghdad and pay tribute to aid workers around the world. It’s also an opportunity to look ahead to the future.
Today’s unparalleled challenges require new and innovative solutions. USAID is prepared to roll up its sleeves to show that the spirit of humanitarianism is still very much alive.