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World

Offering aid despite grave threats

Natural disasters and war generate the need for quick and uncomplicated aid, but people's willingness to donate depends heavily on media coverage. That can leave aid workers with some unpopular issues to deal with.

A performance sure to make headlines: Pop diva Beyoncé Knowles sings in the plenary hall of the United Nations, urging fans not to forget people living in crisis regions. The video for her song "I Was Here" came out this weekend in conjunction with World Humanitarian Day on Sunday (19.08.2012).

The campaign, which is running on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, aims to raise public awareness about the difficulties faced by aid workers in crisis regions. Workers in armed conflict areas often come up against deadly situations. UN records show that 129 aid organization members died in crisis regions during 2010 alone.

Trouble zones

Ulrike von Pilar of Doctors Without Borders

Ulrike von Pilar of Doctors Without Borders

Abductions are among aid workers' biggest safety concerns. Last October, two members of Doctors Without Borders were taken to Somalia from a refugee camp in Kenya.

"A significant part of our projects is carried out by local workers," said Ulrike von Pilar of Doctors Without Borders. Foreigners are stationed in neighboring Kenya and come to Somalia only during the day. "We're not at all content with this situation, but there's no way around it," she added.

With 32,000 members active in around 60 countries, Doctors Without Borders offers medical treatment to many who would not have it otherwise. The group tries to avoid getting involved in politics.

"For us, humanitarian aid means helping those with the greatest needs - without a political agenda," von Pilar said, adding that she sees that approach as the only way to win trust in conflict zones. "However, when we witness massacres or torture, or when certain groups are cut off from getting help, then we make that known publically."

Despite the organization's commitment to political neutrality and transparency, it does not always secure nations' trust. The Syrian government, for example, continues to block Doctors Without Borders from entering the country.

Non-partisan approach

A convoy of Lebanese Red Cross ambulances escorted by Lebanese police vehicles (Photo:Hussein Malla/AP/dapd)

The Red Cross takes on dangerous assignments in Syria

Neutrality, non-partisanship and independence form the basis for humanitarian aid. International law, including the Geneva Convention of 1949, plays an important role, as well.

"The main task is reducing human distress. When it comes to how armed conflicts should be ended, traditional humanitarian organizations don't get involved," said Dennis Dijkzeul, a professor at the Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict in Bochum, Germany.

"But that does not mean that these principles are accepted by all conflict parties, and that is when it gets difficult to get access to afflicted parties," Dijkzeul said, adding that this was the case in the Bosnian War and during the genocide in Rwanda.

Donations make up an important part of aid organizations' budgets. Along with individual countries' aid groups and those associated with the UN, there are many private organizations active in crisis regions. Experts say the biggest problem for such groups is that donations are bound up heavily with the amount of media attention an issue receives.

"With the tsunami in 2004, German donations added up to 670 million euros, and in 2010, it was 200 million euros after the earthquake in Haiti," said Sid Johann Peruvemba of VENRO, Germany's umbrella organization for development NGOs.

'Forgotten catastrophes'

A couple wades through a flooded street as they evacuate from their home in Marikina city REUTERS/Tim Chong

Flood victims in the Philippines are in need of help

Workers say it has been very difficult to collect donations following floods in the Philippines in recent weeks. "Generosity depends heavily on the placement of such events in news reports and whether the media turns them into public catastrophes," Peruvemba argued.

In order to have enough funds available regardless of media coverage, Doctors Without Borders has made it their policy for several years to ask for donations independently of specific aid campaigns.

"We've found a lot of understanding from our supporters in doing so," said Ulrike von Pilar, adding that her organization can now use about 70 percent of its donated funds freely in the areas where they are needed most - for the victims of the world's countless "forgotten catastrophes."

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