Every time a humanitarian crisis hits, the humanitarian sector is encouraged to reboot itself.
This can often be linked to the failure to actively learn from the experiences of both local civil society partners working on the ground in crisis-affected areas, and the work being done by diaspora humanitarian actors who have had long-term engagement with the communities in their countries of origin and heritage. Relationships formed between local civil society partners and diaspora humanitarians are not short-term, emerging solely during times of crisis. In many countries, these are long-term relationships of cooperation that have been established in the pre-crisis period, strengthened during humanitarian emergency phases, and further developed in the post-crisis and reconstruction stages. This, combined with their in-depth knowledge of the local context, often makes diaspora humanitarian workers among the first responders on the ground in the event of a crisis.
This trend has been most recently exemplified in the emergency response to the earthquake in Türkiye and Syria in early February 2023, and in Sudan’s outbreak of violence in April of this year.
So, what would happen if there was a platform allowing diaspora humanitarian actors from different crisis-affected countries to exchange ideas and share concerns, good practices, and recommendations for an improved humanitarian response?
Shabaka, with the support of the British Red Cross Diaspora Humanitarian Partnership Programme (DHPP), has launched a pilot project attempting to address this gap, the Diaspora Humanitarian Exchange Group (DHEG). So far, this group has held two in-person and four online meetings, bringing together representatives from diaspora humanitarian organisations, diaspora researchers, and experts from Somali, Sudanese, Syrian, Venezuelan, Lebanese, Turkish, Kurdish and Afghan backgrounds, among others.
As part of a series of articles discussing diaspora humanitarianism, this blog introduces key challenges that diaspora face in their humanitarian activities identified in DHEG discussions, and how they try to address these.
Keeping international attention on crises
One common challenge in many crises, both short-term and protracted ones, is keeping the attention of the international community on humanitarian needs. Short media cycles, combined with declining donor interest once a crisis is out of the public eye, highlight the importance of crisis advocacy and media engagement for local, diaspora, and international humanitarian partners alike while a crisis is still ongoing.
For example, while much international media coverage over the last year has focused on Russia’s war in Ukraine, The New Humanitarian estimated in January 2023 that 339 million people from 69 countries would need humanitarian assistance in the same year, with 10 emergencies that require extra attention. This contributes to the invisibility of protracted crises and the people who continue to be affected by them.
Despite this, the diaspora has repeatedly proven their active response and continuous engagement, even after international attention moves away from these crises. For instance, over 6 months after the earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria that killed tens of thousands, as well as damaged housing of approximately 855’000 Syrians (World Vision, 2023), diaspora organisations and individuals are still working on raising awareness and funds to support the reconstruction process. Even with minimal funding and attention from the international community, they keep working reliably for and with local civil society partners and affected communities in their countries of origin and heritage. Moreover, they play an important role in keeping crises in the public eye through advocacy and media engagement.
Overcoming the mental fatigue of long-term commitment
Another commonly discussed factor in working in crisis contexts is the toll this takes on the mental health and morale of humanitarian workers in the short and long term. As a response, many international organisations have set up psychosocial support schemes to reduce stress and trauma among their local and international staff. Diaspora humanitarians also have a need for this type of psychosocial support, especially as many have personal connections to the affected communities and rely on their social networks to provide support to their countries of origin.
Participants in DHEG meetings to date have discussed how to work sustainably in both short-term (emergency) and long-term (protracted) crises contexts. Strategies used by diaspora actors to sustain their work and team morale in such high-stress situations include – but are not restricted to – creating platforms for mental health awareness and peer support mechanisms. As an example, the British Sudanese Association for Paediatrics and Mental Health (BSAPCH) has organised monthly ‘Wellbeing Webinars’, providing a space for support and mutual compassion.
Unequal access to resources – and to crisis-affected areas
Finally, DHEG participants also discussed the relative lack of resources shared by large international organisations to local humanitarian organisations and their diaspora partners.
Even though diaspora-led organisations have been visible first-responders in many crises due to their intimate knowledge of their countries of origin and the pre-established networks of trust with local communities and civil society partners, their impact is also often limited by an unequal access to resources, including funding. Progress in implementing the localisation agenda, as agreed by humanitarian partners in the Grand Bargain and Grand Bargain 2.0, remains far too slow. This also indirectly risks contributing to the duplication of humanitarian activities, from data collection and research to the implementation of emergency and relief initiatives.
The international humanitarian response to the earthquake that struck Northwestern Syria in February 2023 provided a striking example of the ability of diaspora humanitarians to take action, despite their limited resources and access to the area. While the United Nations was only able to deliver crucial search and rescue equipment six days after the earthquake, leaving local actors and affected people waiting for international aid, which led to an even greater number of deaths,. Syrian diaspora organisations became one of the only active suppliers of emergency aid and funds in the region. However, they did so at greater risk, without benefiting from the international protection and, above all, limited by their own resources to be able to implement it on a larger scale to save more lives.
This failure of cross-border aid highlights the need for the humanitarian system to reconsider the way it operates and to consider the role and comparative added value of civil society actors, particularly diasporas. Allowing equal and equitable access to resources and areas affected by crises is an essential first step.
Towards a more inclusive humanitarian response
Discussions between DHEG participants highlighted the importance of platforms that enable diaspora humanitarians to freely discuss topics of common interest and share their experiences. They can also provide a useful space for diaspora-led organisations to develop a common voice in debates on the humanitarian sector and define their own priorities.
Platforms like the Diaspora Humanitarian Exchange Group contribute to identifying common challenges, potential solutions, and means of action for diaspora humanitarians and their allies. In addition to strengthening the impact of diaspora humanitarians themselves, they also enable sharing of first-hand knowledge and experience of diaspora humanitarian practice and how to enhance it. Supporting diaspora-led organisations’ existence is thus an essential and meaningful step towards more inclusive and effective humanitarian response strategies.