World Humanitarian Day: Voices of Aid Workers (Part 1)

On World Humanitarian Day, we celebrate and honor aid workers around the world, who continue to provide lifesaving services in the midst of COVID-19. Below, Action Against Hunger staff from Kenya to Peru share what it’s like to work as humanitarians in a pandemic, how their past experiences have prepared them for today, and what keeps them motivated.

Read more from our Voices of Humanitarians series: hear from Community Health Workers on the frontlines of the pandemic, check out a first-hand account from an aid worker in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, and read from humanitarian workers as they share their hardest and most rewarding moments fighting COVID-19.

Q: How has this pandemic changed the day-to-day work of a humanitarian?

América Arias, Director of Programs, Peru

While many people around us have taken advantage of the pandemic to make bread or learn to cook and many have faced hours and hours of loneliness, we humanitarians have slept less and less, made more and more calls, and worried about more and more people calling our organization's lines for help.

The pandemic has made safe spaces disappear: where can we go after work? Where can we disconnect our minds from all the things we see, hear and live every time we come to work with the vulnerable? It has meant keeping our distance from colleagues, who are our supporters at every turn. We can’t share looks of encouragement with each other, because how can we look each other in the eye with these glasses, masks and suits?

It has meant fear when returning home, for our own sake. It has meant keeping your distance from those you love the most, because you have just gone out to distribute food to those who are worst off. But it has also meant a whole process of reassertion of our courage, our usefulness, and the fact that, sadly, we are needed more than ever.

In Somalia, Amina, one of Action Against Hunger's frontline health workers, walks through the Abdiaziz Maternal and Child Health Center in Mogadishu.

Photo: Fardosa Hussein
for Action Against Hunger,

Ndery Gueye, Project Manager, Mauritania

Our main objective is to help those who need it most. Between honoring our aid commitment and facing the pandemic, we have had to turn our weaknesses into strengths. Everybody was certainly afraid at the beginning, but to help the less fortunate, the courage was always there.

Luis Fernando Ramirez, Eastern Region Coordinator, Colombia

Without a doubt, the word "reinventing" has been the key word during this pandemic, and this includes humanitarians. We have found ourselves needing to change our day-to-day work and adapt to a new reality, to organize our time in order to serve people who need us more today than ever before.

There are more vulnerable people since a large part of the population survives on daily income that has been cancelled due to movement and quarantine restrictions. We have to spend more work time to help more people, and social distancing has forced us to do our work going from home to home and instead of hosting one session with 40 people, we now host four sessions with 10 people.

Dr. Mustaf Yusuf, Medical Doctor, Somalia

We had to adjust our routine work at the health center immediately. When the pandemic started in Somalia, we had to restructure how we serve mothers and children who come here.

As we distribute nutrition treatment supplies, we allow for 10 to 20 beneficiaries max per hour to ensure social distancing practices are adhered to. We also ensure that mothers received the treatment rations on a bi-weekly basis [instead of weekly] to minimize their trips to the center.

Action Against Hunger's team in Lima, Peru, prepares for a distribution of supplies.

Photo: Dennis Zevallos
for Action Against Hunger,

Q: What has your previous humanitarian experience contributed to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Luis Fernando Ramirez, Eastern Region Coordinator, Colombia

Without a doubt, working in previous emergencies in Ecuador and Peru taught me to work against the clock. Delaying the delivery of humanitarian assistance by just one day means a day that a child may not be able to eat and could exacerbate malnutrition.

Lydia Mshengezi, Nutrition Specialist, Tanzania

My experience in the humanitarian field taught me to be ready to face changes any time and to handle every situation differently. Amidst the pandemic, I still realized our beneficiaries needed us the most. They needed correct information at the right time to enable them to stay away from contracting the disease.

Ndery Gueye, Project Manager, Mauritania

My experience with the floods in Sélibabi, where I was the WASH focal point and helped to distribute supplies to disaster victims, helped me understand the expression that "it is the slowness of interventions that rots them.”

Between accessing people in need and reaching our goals, any change in context is a new reason to adapt. The arrival of COVID-19 was no exception - we had to change and continue on our way.

America Arias, Director of Programs, Peru

Patience, a lot of patience. And, the ability to take a step back from what you cannot step back from - however incongruous that may seem. Experience has also given me the tools to stay calm, take deep breaths and move forward.

Dancliff Mbura, Nutrition Program Manager, Kenya

Experience working with conflict-affected areas across poor terrain means that I have had to implement programs with few physical contacts. This has enabled me to understand that, during emergencies, we can reach communities even while keeping our distance.

Joana Chacon, Nutrition Project Manager for Action Against Hunger in Guatemala, measures a child for malnutrition.

Photo: Action Against Hunger

Q: What keeps you motivated to continue serving communities, even during a pandemic?

Dr. Mustaf Yusuf, Medical Doctor, Somalia

We work with vulnerable communities in need of our services and, as a health worker, my priority is to save lives. Being able to serve those who are most in need gives me joy, knowing that the work I do is crucial and much needed. 

Lorjock Riak Lorjock, WASH Program Manager, South Sudan

Working in my role and my commitment to serve our beneficiaries is my self-satisfaction - knowing that I am contributing in the fight against this pandemic, despite all challenges.

Asa Lelei, Health Systems Project Manager, Kenya

What keeps me motivated is the realization that we could be losing more mothers and children due to preventable reasons – that makes me go an extra mile. Action Against Hunger’s role in strengthening community health systems is people-cantered and is having a lasting impact. Action Against Hunger has high levels of acceptance by the communities we serve, which also motivates me. I am also inspired by our frontline staff who sacrifice a lot to ensure better quality and coverage of services.

Lorjock Riak Lorjock is a WASH Program Manager for Action Against Hunger in Paguir, South Sudan.

Photo: Action Against Hunger

Keep Reading

Hear more from Action Against Hunger humanitarian workers! In the next story in our "Voices of Aid Workers" series, learn about their hardest and most rewarding moments of the last six months.