HUMANITARIANS in Action & in Danger

A student reading discusses the dangers faced by organizations providing humanitarian aid in Lebanon, Congo, Darfur, Sri Lanka, and Gaza. Discussion questions, suggestions for further inquiry and citizenship activities follow.

To the Teacher:

As soon as a conflict erupts, humanitarian organizations spring into action. And after a conflict stops, humanitarian aid continues. But helping suffering people is difficult and often dangerous. The student reading below discusses such dangers in Lebanon, Congo, Darfur, Sri Lanka, and Gaza. Discussion questions and suggestions for further inquiry and for citizenship activities follow.
Teachers will find additional background on several of the conflicts in the following lessons, which are available on this website: "Middle East Conflict: A Civilian Catastrophe," "Israelis vs. Palestinians: New Leaders & Old Problems," "Genocide in Darfur."

Student Reading 1:

Humanitarians under fire

Warfare of various kinds—civil wars, insurgencies, terrorist bombings and assassinations—are active in many places where people need help from humanitarian organizations. In addition to the conflicts described below, there are also conflicts underway now in Iraq, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Nepal, Somalia, Chechnya, Colombia, and Gaza.
War means danger, suffering, and death for ordinary human beings who happen to be where fighting and bombing occur. Workers in humanitarian organizations who bring help to them are often also in danger and may themselves be injured or killed.
The war between Israel and the Lebanese group Hezbollah forced hundreds of thousands of Lebanese civilians to leave their homes. They needed food, water, shelter, and medical assistance. An Israeli bomb took out the one bridge into Lebanon's south. "Now all the population living in the south is completely isolated," said Sergio Cecchini, a spokesman for Doctors Without Borders (, an organization that was awarded the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize for its humanitarian work. Doctors Without Borders formed a human chain in the Litani River to ferry medical supplies. Days later, shellings and air strikes narrowly missed two of its convoys.
Conditions were so bad that workers for the International Committee of the Red Cross ( could not reach a patient in a village in southern Lebanon for four days. She had to have her leg amputated. Jan Egeland, the chief United Nations humanitarian affairs official, called it "a disgrace" that Israel and Hezbollah would not stop fighting long enough to allow help to reach civilians in southern Lebanon.
A Mercy Corps ( convoy drove the 35-mile route between Beirut, Lebanon, and Majayoun, a southern Lebanese town. Normally this is a 45-minute trip. But now the roads were so cratered by bombs that the convoy had to drive through groves of olive trees instead. It took the relief group five hours to reach the town.
(Source: New York Times, 8/8/06)
Between 1997 and 2004, nearly 4 million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo died in a civil war, and many women were raped. Many Congolese live in areas where there are no paved roads, so it was difficult for aid workers to reach the war's victims. In addition, Congolese authorities and military often harassed and intimidated aid workers.
Brian Larson, the former director for CARE ( in Congo, traveled to a remote area where he met with eight women who had been raped. "I learned that not only did the women suffer from the violence of the rape, they also had to suffer in silence, as there was no medical care for them, and they were viewed by society as damaged goods. Many of them were thrown out of their homes by their husbands and family—as if the rape was their fault."
(Source: New York Times, 8/8/06)
In another African country, Sudan, a genocidal civil war in the Darfur region has killed hundreds of thousands and made refugees of 3 million. Save the Children ( can reach only one-half of the refugee camps because of "lawlessness" and "unpredictable incidents of terror and violence." Its programs include supplying food and water and creating health clinics for children and adults. Because many young children are being forced to become soldiers in Darfur, the organization also has a program to correct misinformation people have about military service for children.
Despite flight restrictions and a bad security situation, AmeriCares ( airlifted into Darfur hospital equipment, water purification solutions, and medications for respiratory ailments, intestinal disorders, and malaria. The International Rescue Committee ( , a partner of AmeriCares in Darfur, distributed these materials.
"July was the worst month of the three-year-old conflict in terms of attacks on aid workers and operations," the IRC reported. Aid workers were intimidated and harassed and their vehicles stolen. Much worse, eight humanitarian workers were violently killed.
Sources: Save the Children, AmeriCares, and The International Rescue Committee.
Sri Lanka
Not long after a tsunami brought devastation, death—and humanitarian aid—to Sri Lanka, that country's long-term civil war between government and separatist forces resumed . Aid workers have been unable to reach the hardest hit areas. They have also been subject to repeated attacks. In the worst of these, 17 employees of Action Against Hunger ( were massacred in August.
Source: New York Times, 8/18/06
For discussion
1. What questions do students have about Part One? How might they be answered?
2. What do students think they know about the Israel-Hezbollah war? The Congo civil war? the Darfur genocide? What are their sources of information? What would they like to know? How might they find out?
3. What possible reasons are there for attacks on humanitarian workers?

Student Reading 2:

Humanitarian Crises in Gaza and Darfur

One year after Israel evacuated all of its settlers and soldiers from what was to be Palestinian-controlled Gaza, Israeli troops and tanks returned in the summer of 2006. Israeli planes repeatedly bombed suspected locations of Palestinian militants who had resumed firing rockets across the border into Israel. Inevitably, civilians were wounded or killed in bombing raids.
CARE reports that it, like several other humanitarian organizations, has been "overwhelmed by calls for assistance as families struggle to cope without incomes, and without the means to ensure their families are safe and protected from the violence." For example, on the night of July 21, 2006, 11-year-old Fuad Ijbarah woke, terrified, to the sounds of weapons firing and tanks moving toward the tin shack his family lived in. Fuad said, "We had to leave the house immediately. I don't know how long it took us to walk to Rafah." He and his family are now living there indefinitely in a tent.
One significant source of jobs in Gaza was work in greenhouses. In Beit Lahia 27 greenhouses rehabilitated by CARE were destroyed and another 23 damaged by Israeli attacks. More than 100 yards of the Beit Hanoun Municipality playground, rehabilitated by Save the Children, was badly damaged. Other organizations reported damage to project sites and offices and equipment. They also reported that donor funds they had used for certain activities had been frozen.
After the militant Palestinian organization Hamas won parliamentary elections that gave them power in the Palestinian Authority, the U.S. and the European Union suspended financial aid to Palestine, and the US Treasury banned almost all financial dealings with the Authority. For Palestinians this meant sharp cutbacks in health, water, sanitation and waste disposal services. The many Palestinians who had received a salary from the Authority were cut off.
More than two dozen humanitarian organizations, including Action Against Hunger, American Friends Service Committee, Oxfam International, Campaign for Children of Palestine and World Vision Jerusalem, called upon the international community to work with all parties to stop the fighting, to seek a peaceful resolution, to ensure access to humanitarian assistance for Palestinian civilians living in Gaza, and to protect, in particular, the lives of children in Gaza.
It doesn't seem possible, but the situation in Darfur continues to worsen. Dr. Denis Lemasson, the program director for Doctors Without Borders, reported after his return in August 2006 from Darfur, that while he was in Mornay a medical team arrived. "They had been attacked and beaten on the road and their car struck by gunfire."
He said that the number of armed groups fighting had increased, as had criminal activity. Travel on certain roads became too dangerous for Doctors Without Borders workers. The group had to suspend the work of mobile clinics that serve nomadic people and in some locations had to evacuate teams who faced the risk of being killed.
Lemasson reported that the displaced people, now in refugee camps, "are completely dependent on international aid for access to food, water, health care, and shelter. When they go outside the camp, they run the daily risk of beatings, rape, and death.  [They] have no chance—and no prospect—of returning to their home villages."
What makes the situation of the Darfur people even worse is that "international aid is declining," Dr. Lemasson wrote. Food distributions are being cut back, water distribution is inadequate and health care needs are great. "On top of that, if security problems result in the closure of programs basic survival needs will not be met." He pleaded with armed groups "not to interfere with the work of humanitarian aid organizations."
For discussion
1. What questions do students have about Reading 2? How might they be answered?
2. What do students think they know about the Israel-Gaza conflict? What are their sources of information? What would they like to know? How might they find out?

Student Reading 3:

Frequently asked questions

Where do humanitarian organizations get their money from?
All depend upon voluntary contributions, though some are funded in part by corporations, foundations, national societies, and governmental agencies.
How much of this money goes to those in need?
In general, about 90% of the money goes directly for humanitarian assistance. About 10% goes for administrative salaries and fundraising.
How do the organizations decide on where to spend money?
Each has a special mission, which it defines on its website. Executive groups, boards of trustees, and special commissions determine specific decisions about the use of money.
What opportunities do humanitarian organizations offer to young people who want to participate in their work?
Volunteers and interns are needed at most organizations, and usually must be of college age.
How can I find out more about an organization?
Examine the organization's website as well as two other sources of information, the American Council for Voluntary International Action (, an alliance of more than 160 U.S.-based humanitarian organizations, and Charity Navigator (, which provides information on over 5,000 charities and evaluates the financial situation and health of each.

For inquiry

Any of the conflicts and humanitarian organizations discussed in the readings could be subjects for further inquiry. What interests students most? What questions do they have? How can they answer them? The suggestion here is that whatever subject an individual or small group chooses, their first step is to frame a well-defined question and to have it approved by the teacher. See "Thinking Is Questioning" and "Teaching Critical Thinking," both of which are available on this website for detailed suggestions about procedures.

For citizenship

One may easily despair at the number of armed conflicts around the world and the suffering they inevitably cause for men, women, and children who have nothing to do with the fighting. Most humanitarian organizations responding to human-made disasters do not take sides and resist despair. Their purpose is to help those in need, despite many difficulties and dangers. Some, like Doctors Without Borders and Oxfam International, also address what they regard as the causes of the suffering, the obstacles to helping civilians and violations of international law.
The American Council for Voluntary International Action ( stresses that the best form of help is money. It enables an organization to buy exactly what is needed.
Find out if students are interested in a project to help non-combatants suffering as a result of an armed conflict. If they are:
1. Which conflict do they wish to respond to? What might they need to find out about each conflict before making a decision? What procedures might make the most sense to answer their questions?
2. Have students brainstorm ideas for raising money. Write all ideas on the chalkboard without stopping for any discussion. When students have no further ideas, invite discussion to select the one or two that seem most doable. How will the group organize to carry out any decisions?
3. Which organization(s) do they want to contribute to? What might they need to find out about an organization before making a decision? Who will make each investigation and how?
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: