Humanitarian Aviation

By Petersen, Angelie | Journal of International Peace Operations, July/August 2009 | Go to article overview
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Humanitarian Aviation


Petersen, Angelie, Journal of International Peace Operations


A Key Component of Humanitarian Assistance

GAINING access to the world's most difficult places to relieve the suffering of millions is never an easy feat. Natural disasters, extreme weather, war. Antagonistic and thoroughly corrupted governments in countries without rule of law and with little or no infrastructure. Youths with Kalashnikov assault rifles. These are but a few of the challenges aid workers face in doing their daily lifesaving work. One of the critical elements of increasing access to these, the most inhospitable and hostile areas of the world, is what is usually referred to as humanitarian aviation.

Historically, aviation support in the aid industry is the resource of last resort. Logisticians are left to frantically search and procure aircraft with the clock ticking and people dying. Aviation support has thus far not featured in the strategic approach to relief and development as it is largely considered an expensive luxury and a 'necessary evil.' The lack of coordination between donors, host governments, aid agencies and contractors engaged in similar activities only compounds the difficulties related to procuring and managing cost effective and efficient aviation resources.

Enter what is widely known as humanitarian aviation. This seemingly simple and uncomplicated phrase conjures a host of interés ting, and s ometimes conflicting, definitions and interpretations, from an 'Out of Africa" style romance, to images of starving children, from superhero pilots to unscrupulous villains. The concept of humanitarian aviation is an increasingly overused and largely misunderstood phenomenon that is interpreted as widely as the situation might require. Most recently, an upsurge in commercial air operators, some more questionable than others, are increasingly claiming to provide "humanitarian air service." Operators whose total experience within the arena of providing humanitarian aid probably reaches no further then what they might have seen on the poignant World Vision appeal on public television are the very same operators that happily transport anything from gold to guns to golf clubs. The line between providing humanitarian air support and participating in illicit trade becomes irrevocably blurred with the aid agencies and humanitarian workers who use these services often drawing the short end of the stick.

There was a 92 percent increase in the number of violent attacks against aid workers from 1997 to 2005 and with the ever-increasing dilemma faced by nongovernmental agencies (NGOs) and aid workers to maintain neutrality, these lines can ill afford to be blurred.

Any organization claiming to be engaged in international relief and development, whether it be humanitarian air service or any other aid related activity, should perhaps go back to the definition of these two distinguishable but intrinsically related concepts before professing its humanitarian nature. Humanitarian aid is loosely defined as material or logistical assistance provided for humanitarian purposes, typically in response to humanitarian crises. The primary objective of humanitarian aid is to save lives, alleviate suffering, and maintain human dignity. International development, however, seeks to implement longterm solutions to problems by helping developing countries create the necessary capacity to provide sustainable solutions to their problems. A truly sustainable development project is one which will be able to carry on indefinitely with no further international involvement or support, whether it be financial or otherwise.

When researching humanitarian aviation providers, whether it be via the internet or any other source, the question that should be asked of these providers is the following: aside from playing a part in increasing access to the vulnerable through transporting the occasional load of aid workers or supplies, where and how do they directly alleviate human suffering or maintain human dignity, especially if gun running and mineral smuggling is the very s ource o f this human suffering?

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