Why home-based humanitarianism can only take us so far

By Sofia Sprechmann, Program Director, CARE International 

As the world stays indoors and individuals around the globe come together in a historical moment of solidarity to stop the spread of COVID-19, for many of the world’s most vulnerable people lock downs, border restrictions and limitations on movement pose life-threatening challenges.

Asking people to stay at home comes with an assumption that everyone has a home with livable conditions, running water and food to last at least few days. Yet around the world, millions are living in poverty, there are 70.8 million displaced people globally and in 2018, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) reported that over 37,000 people were forced to flee conflict and violence each day.   

These statistics have not “gone away” with COVID-19. In fact, at the beginning of 2020, it was estimated that 167 million people would need humanitarian assistance and protection worldwide.  This number risks getting much, much worse as a result of the pandemic. For humanitarians, reaching people in dire need of lifesaving assistance is challenging at the best of times, but it is harder still with the various restrictions in place to contain the spread of COVID-19. 

In DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) for example, a central African country that has hardly known peace since independence, and where rape and sexual violence are commonly used as weapons of war, there are over 5 million internally displaced people and 15.6 million people in need of humanitarian assistance and protection. Hampering humanitarian access is devastating in such a context, but closed international borders are today severely limiting the amount of life-saving medical supplies and personal protective equipment that are so sorely needed, particularly as the country now, tragically, has seen new cases of Ebola in recent weeks.  

In Iraq, more than 1.4 million people remain displaced, most of them as a result of the conflict with armed groups, and the military operations that ended in 2017. Blockades and road closures leave a large number of day labourers living in displacement camps without jobs and income because they cannot commute to their places of work.  

These examples mirror many more the world over. Humanitarian organizations are struggling to secure movement permits for their staff who deliver lifesaving assistance, or for the essential supplies they need to do their work. This urgently needs to change.

Our ability to control COVID-19 in the world is reliant on our ability to support our weakest nations. For that, we need our humanitarians, and humanitarian supplies, on the ground. And fast. 

Sofia Sprechmann

Program Director, CARE International

Despite this,  our staff and partners on the ground are rising  to the unique challenges faced by COVID-19 with hope, courage and creativity; working around the clock and using innovative adjustments to our programs to ensure that the most vulnerable individuals can access life-saving support while doing all they can to respect and promote social distancing measures in sometimes very overcrowded and difficult places.

In Haiti, for example, spreading awareness about COVID-19 is done using radio and mobile campaigns; using boom box sound systems to spread messages from cars or bicycles. In Turkey and Jordan, hotlines, help desks and social media help us to collect feedback, disseminate health advice, and prioritize which areas need more supplies or support. 

The gendered dimension of the pandemic is also front of mind for humanitarian organizations such as CARE, and the increase in domestic violence as a result of lock downs and restrictions is a horrendous but increasingly pervasive dimension of this pandemic. Our partners and staff are adopting digital platforms to find ways to support women at risk, for example in Ecuador by using emoji codes to help women in quarantine safely report and ask for help. 

And while we know that this pandemic creates a perfect storm of risk factors for women globally, we also know from our experience handling previous epidemics such as Ebola and Zika, that women—given their front-line interaction as health care and social workers, and their participation in much of the care work—are incredibly well placed to influence and help design prevention activities and community engagement. 

CARE Philippines COVID-19 Response.

That’s why in the Philippines, for example, CARE is supporting local women leaders to keep markets functioning by safely delivering fresh vegetables from farms to families in crisis. In Niger, we are working with our partners to find digital solutions to enable women in our savings groups to access more business capital. 

As COVID-19 continues to challenge the humanitarian community to pivot and innovate at speed, the humanitarian imperative of this pandemic needs more priority—particularly in terms of ensuring that front line staff, such as those who work on food distributions, in refugee camps and other vulnerable communities, are still able to move around and carry out their life-saving activities. 

The world is waking up to the critical roles that essential workers are playing to keep this pandemic at bay, and it's no different in the humanitarian workforce. Indeed 95% of CARE’s workforce come from the countries where we work, and frequently do the work of ‘essential workers’ as now defined in North American and Europe, but in these vulnerable contexts. 

Our ability to control COVID-19 in the world is reliant on our ability to support our weakest nations. For that, we need our humanitarians, and humanitarian supplies, on the ground. And fast.

CARE is moving quickly to help prepare the most vulnerable people around the world—focusing on women, girls and refugee populations—for the coming outbreak.