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How did humanitarianism start?

Humanitarian action saves lives. It is a selfless act of compassion towards those who need it most. Every human being is valuable, and humanitarians understand that. They dedicate their lives to saving them. But has humanitarianism always been around? In a way, human compassion has, but formally organized humanitarianism started in the late 1800s. Let’s take a look at how did humanitarianism start?

A brief history of humanitarian aid

There are many ways in which humanitarianism started. Humanity is always prone to helping those most in need, but organized humanitarianism got its start in 1859.

Henri Dunant, today a famous figure, was merely a Swiss businessman. But in 1859 he witnessed the battle of Solferino in northern Italy while on work travel. Seeing the wounded, he was baffled and moved by the level of human suffering. He realized that the rational thing to do was to help both sides, without distinction of for whom the soldier was fighting.

henry dunant red cross

Upon his return in Geneva, he wrote the Memory of Solferino. Through his memoir, he proposed what was then a radical new approach to humanitarian action. This was the beginning of the first humanitarian society which formed officially in 1863.

At the same time, the countries signed the first Geneva Conventions. They have since been revised and amended on several occasions.  The documents lay the foundations for the legal framework of warfare. This includes the protection of sick and wounded medical personnel and humanitarian workers. Additionally, the Geneva Conventions talk about the treatment of war prisoners and prohibited types of warfare.

Henri Dunant was not always recognized as a hero throughout his life. But in 1901, he received the first-ever Nobel Peace Prize in 1901. The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has also received 3 Nobel Peace Prizes – in 1917, 1944, and 1963.

Humanitarian principles

Humanitarian aid is a complex process, particularly in conflict settings. To carry out humanitarian work to the highest standard, the humanitarian field has adopted four main principles. Different organizations adhere to them in different ways and may have additional ones. However, these are the core ones:

1. Humanity

The essential principle of humanitarianism is humanity. It speaks to the humane nature of the action and the driving force of compassion behind humanitarian

2. Impartiality

Humanitarian assistance is based on need and needs Humanitarians must not discriminate based on age, gender, race, religion, political views, or any other factor.

3. Neutrality

To signal the free will of humanitarians, independence means that they have no ties or preferences. For example, in a political conflict, humanitarians must not take a side. This allows access to provide much-needed help.

4. Independence

Humanitarians act without attachment to any government or political power. This ensures the impartiality of their actions.

Emergency response

Today, humanitarian aid is often focused on emergency response. Organizations deploy teams of professionals and volunteers to respond to emergencies. This includes earthquakes, floods, volcano eruptions, hurricanes, droughts, as well as conflict situations. The end goal is to save as many lives as possible.

However, in addition to the response itself, the aid sector also addresses resilience and preparedness. Many regions see disasters regularly. Diminishing the risks associated with these can save many lives. This can include earthquake resilient buildings, rezoning flooding areas, and rebuilding better. It also involves education for communities who can take action and prepare themselves before disaster strikes.

The largest emergency response agencies today include the International Federation of Red Cross Red and Red Crescent Societies, the International Committee of Red Cross and Red Crescent, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Doctors Without Borders, OXFAM, Plan International, among others.

Digital humanitarianism

Sometimes, deployment is not possible. But technology has changed the way we can help others. Digital humanitarian teams are a valuable asset to the humanitarian sector. They can start a response immediately after disaster strikes. Additionally, they can collect and process information rapidly and in real-time.

For example, they can provide maps and satellite information for humanitarians in the field. This can help locate people in need and identify critical areas of intervention. At the same time, data and information can help to prevent future casualties and assess and mitigate risks.

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