World Humanitarian Day: what does it take to be a humanitarian worker?

Mukhtar Hashi is a cash project officer at the FCA Somaliland office. He works with internally displaced persons in Somaliland by providing them with cash transfers to support their livelihood. He shared some thoughts with us on his long career in humanitarian work.

What inspired you to pursue a career in humanitarian work, and how did you first venture into this field?
I was inspired by a combination of personal experiences and a desire to make a positive impact on the lives of others. Growing up, I was fortunate to have a supportive family and access to education, but that made me more aware of the disparities that exist in the world.

My first venture into the field of humanitarian work came during my college years. I joined a student-led volunteer group that organised local community outreach initiatives, and this experience opened my eyes to the power of collective action and the potential for grassroots efforts to effect change. Seeing the difference, we could make in marginalised peoples’ lives inspired me to commit myself further to humanitarian work.

As I delved deeper into this field, I engaged in internships and workshops that exposed me to broader global issues such as poverty, lack of access to proper healthcare, refugee crises, and environmental challenges. These experiences not only solidified my passion for humanitarian work but also underscored the interconnections between these issues and the need for holistic solutions.

Over time, my journey led me to collaborate with established humanitarian organisations, where I worked on projects ranging from disaster relief to sustainable development initiatives. These experiences taught me the value of interdisciplinary collaboration, cultural sensitivity, and adaptive problem-solving in the face of complex challenges.

Are there any particularly memorable experiences you’ve had while working in the field and have they impacted you personally?
One incident that has profoundly impacted me was during a relief mission to a region affected by a tropical cyclone. While on the ground, our team witnessed the devastation Cyclone Sagar had wrought upon the community. Homes were destroyed, families were displaced, and the sense of loss was palpable.

Amidst this backdrop, we began setting up temporary shelters and distributing essential supplies. As we interacted with the affected individuals, I was struck by their resilience and how they came together to support one another in such trying times.

During our time there, I met a young girl named Sahra. She had lost her home and parents in the disaster, yet her spirit remained unbroken. Sahra’s determination to help her younger siblings and her unwavering optimism in the face of such tragedy left an indelible mark on me.

Witnessing Sahra’s story and the community’s collective strength reaffirmed my belief in the importance of humanitarian work. It served as a reminder that our efforts, no matter how challenging, have the potential to bring light to people’s lives and help them rebuild.

While there are indeed heart-wrenching moments in humanitarian work, experiences like these serve as beacons of hope and motivation. They remind us that even in the face of adversity, human compassion, resilience, and the power to make a positive impact can shine through. Such moments drive me to continue my work in this field.

A smiling man in a baseball cap, sunglasses and denim shirt and jeans stands in an arid landscape
Mukhtar believes humanitarian work is a calling

Balancing the emotional toll of working in crises with the need to remain focused and effective in your work must be incredibly challenging.  How do you deal with that?
The nature of the work often exposes us to heart-wrenching stories and difficult circumstances, which can take a toll on our emotional well-being. However, managing this stress and continuing to provide support requires a combination of strategies that I’ve found invaluable.

Firstly, self-care is paramount. Taking care of your mental and physical health is not just  important but a necessity. Engaging in regular exercise, maintaining a balanced diet, and practising relaxation techniques like meditation and deep breathing help me recharge and sustain resilience.

Secondly, fostering a solid support network is essential. Connecting with colleagues who understand the challenges and empathise with the emotions involved can provide a sense of camaraderie. Sharing experiences and thoughts with trusted friends and family outside of the field can also be incredibly comforting.

Maintaining clear boundaries between work and personal life is another crucial aspect. While it’s natural to be deeply invested in the lives of those we’re helping, setting limits helps prevent burnout. Allocating time for hobbies and interests and spending time with loved ones allows me to recharge and regain perspective.

Engaging in continuous development in your personal and professional life is very important as I believe it’s a way to cope with stress. Staying up to date with best practices, attending workshops, and seeking guidance from mentors enable me to enhance my skills and approach to humanitarian work.

Finally, focusing on the positive impact we make, even in the smallest of ways, helps maintain a sense of purpose. Celebrating achievements, no matter how incremental, reminds me that the effort is worthwhile and that I am making a difference, however modest it may seem.

What do you believe is the most critical quality for someone working in humanitarian aid, and how can someone cultivate that quality?
Working in humanitarian aid demands a diverse set of qualities, and while empathy, resilience, and adaptability are all vital, one of the most critical qualities is a genuine and unwavering commitment to the cause.

Cultivating this commitment begins with a deep understanding of the purpose behind humanitarian work. It’s not just a job; it’s a calling driven by a sincere desire to alleviate suffering, promote human dignity, and effect positive change. This commitment fuels the determination needed to navigate the challenges and complexities inherent in this field.

Empathy plays a significant role. Being able to put oneself in the shoes of those in need fosters a genuine connection and understanding of their struggles. This empathy forms the foundation upon which effective solutions are built, ensuring that assistance is tailored to the needs and cultural contexts of the individuals being helped.

Resilience is equally crucial. Humanitarian work often involves witnessing difficult situations and confronting obstacles that can be emotionally taxing. The ability to bounce back from setbacks and maintain a sense of purpose is essential. Building resilience involves developing coping strategies, seeking support when needed, and focusing on the positive impact achieved.

Adaptability is another indispensable quality. Humanitarian contexts can change rapidly due to unforeseen events or shifting circumstances. Being able to quickly adjust strategies, methods, and plans while keeping the end goal in sight is crucial for ensuring that aid remains relevant and effective.

Effective communication and collaboration are also paramount. Humanitarian work often involves coordinating with diverse teams, partnering with local communities, and liaising with various stakeholders. Strong interpersonal skills facilitate building relationships, fostering trust, and ensuring that efforts are coordinated for maximum impact.

Continuous learning is vital as well. The humanitarian landscape constantly evolves, and staying informed about new developments, innovative approaches, and best practices is crucial for providing practical assistance.

Aspiring humanitarian workers can start by seeking opportunities for exposure and engagement to cultivate these qualities. Volunteering with local organisations, participating in workshops, and networking with professionals in the field provide valuable insights and experiences. Developing emotional intelligence, honing problem-solving skills, and maintaining a solid ethical compass are also vital.

The most critical quality for someone in humanitarian aid is an unwavering commitment rooted in empathy, resilience, adaptability, effective communication, and a passion for continuous learning. By cultivating these qualities, individuals can make a meaningful impact in the lives of those they aim to help.

Interviewer: Fatima Abshir