As the world faces more frequent and severe disasters, humanitarian workers find themselves busier everyday – facilitating and implementing humanitarian responses in disaster affected communities across the globe. As a humanitarian professional, I too have had the opportunity to travel across India and Nepal over the last nine years – contributing to communities and experiencing local cultures, although quite differently from other responsible travellers. Yet, I feel that my travel for work aligns well with the concept of “responsible tourism” that Alpaviram promotes. Here are a few ways, I think, how we aid workers qualify as responsible travellers:
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Respecting cultures and customs of the local communities and taking the time to learn them – an important aspect of responsible tourism principles – is an integral part of the humanitarian responses’ Code of Conduct, which we aid workers strictly follow. Humanitarian organizations across the world take the time to brief their officials about the disaster-affected geography, its people, the current situation etc. before they are deputed. One is also expected to build an understanding about the local cultures and other relevant details of the place. Humanitarian work involves working with disaster affected populace; and winning the trust of the locals is the key to ensuring a successful mission. Staying at the same place for weeks or months while responding to natural or man-made disasters, allows them to live as a local –be part of the culture and learn from it in the process. Learning and conversing in the language of the place they are deputed, wearing local clothes and enjoying local food is a common trait among aid workers.
Our work and genuine intent to contribute in rebuilding the communities and economy helps us win the trust of locals and get access into the heart of the community, allowing a more intimate experience of the culture and people than any other traveller can dream of. People open up to us; and share their stories of fear, angst and tremendous losses they would have faced in the disaster(s). Almost all these stories are heart-wrenching; yet we are always cautious about how we deal with these touching stories; and the priority always is to treat disaster affected people as dignified human beings. In fact, this is an important learning for all travellers from the humanitarian world – one should never put up anything on a public platform that highlights the helplessness of people.
Especially in the age of social media, please keep in mind the dignity of the people and the community while posting something on social media about such experiences. Access into the lives of people bestow on a tremendous responsibility to not belittle the pride of people who have let us in.
Disaster affected economies are frail; and markets almost always are short of basic products, services and amenities that are generally available; and we humanitarian workers are cautious about how we impact them. Increasing the demand for already scarce materials, especially basic amenities like food and water, might push up the prices and add to the woes of the locals. In such situations, humanitarian teams are conscious about procuring necessities from alternate sources.
On the other hand, we are also conscious about our obligation to strengthen the local economy. Goods and services that are freely available should surely be purchased locally to infuse money into the economy; allowing for local vendors to sustain.
Aid agencies deal with markets fairly as a policy; and almost always study the local markets to make a conscious decision about what to source locally and what to procure from elsewhere, depending on the market situation. This aspect is critical to be able to ensure that we do not end up adversely affecting the situation despite our good intentions.
All travelers like to carry mementos of their travels back home; and humanitarian workers are no exceptions. Buying local arts and crafts almost always is a good idea as they support the local artisans keep the economy churning. One just needs to be careful about buying only from ethically produced goods; and directly from local artisans as much as possible.
Travelling for humanitarian response is for the purpose of lending a helping hand in rebuilding communities and economies – and is a fine example of how travelers can measurably impact local communities in a positive way. Nothing can be more responsible than that.
– Text by Sheikh Khairul Rahaman. Images sourced from the internet