What motivates humanitarian workers?

World Humanitarian Day (August 19) was established in 2009 by the United Nations to “pay tribute to all those affected by humanitarian crises and those who lost their lives in humanitarian service” and “celebrates the spirit that inspires humanitarian work around the world.” August 19 was chosen because it commemorates the day in 2003 when 22 aid workers were killed in a bombing at the UN headquarters in Baghdad.

World Humanitarian Day is also a call for further action and donations to help those in conflict and disaster, which affect more than 200 million people a year.


Humanitarian workers include those who risk grave danger to rescue people, and who have dedicated their lives to alleviate the suffering of others. While helping others may produce feelings of purpose and meaning to the giver, or provide connection a feeling of moral good to the worker, we don’t always hear from those who put themselves in extraordinary situations to help others in dire circumstances.


“My sincere belief is that emergency food is the only hope for most refugees and displaced people,” says Lucy Wasuk, who works for the World Food Programme in South Sudan, and whose work often puts her in danger. “The greatest risk is entering ‘no man’s land’— where there are unknown militias, and child soldiers, where boundaries are uncertain and UN access is restricted. In 18 years of field work, my most frightening experience was being detained by a child soldier. We had missed a small village in Jonglei State in our 2003 plan, so (local authorities) forced us to stop there. They asked for the team leader, and I was taken and locked in a small hut with an armed boy some 12 years old. His gun was pointing at me — so close, it almost touched my face. He was tired, hungry and almost dozing off with his hand on the trigger. Anything could have happened. I was at his mercy for six long hours until our security officer came from Khartoum and negotiated my release.”

Humanitarian worker Lucy Wasuk. Photo: WFP/George Fominyen

Wasuk discusses the rewards of helping secure food and education for children and communities in her young country. Once, a community named a tree for her. Another time, she helped a child working as a cattle raider go to school. The child became a businessman who now supports others working for Plan International, a WFP partner.


It is reflecting on her work as a response to her experiences as child where Wasuk sees her truest motivation. “Most of my life was spent in the camps, from Bombo refugee camp in Uganda to the displaced people’s camps of Khartoum. My career was not a surprise choice.” [Full story Sharing Humanity: Lucy’s Story – Medium.com]


World Humanitarian Day offers the opportunity for us to hear from humanitarian aid workers about why they do this work, and learn their insights, specific motivations, and stories behind their deep commitment.

More stories:

“Ammar Aosalmo . . . in Aleppo . . . explained his motivation for risking his life for others by saying the group was viewed by many as their last hope.” Al Jazeera News – Syria’s White Helmets nominated for Nobel Peace Prize.

“Why did you become a humanitarian worker?” asked Guardian Witness today, collecting photographs and stories in response. Guardian Witness 

NPR reporters follow medical staff who work with refugees in NPR.org – Embedded for 5 Days with Doctors Without Borders.

These are some of the 500 people who work at the MSF hospital: medical staff, construction workers, administrative personnel who keep the place running. Some are foreigners; others are South Sudanese refugees who live in the camp.
David Gilkey/NPR

Valerie Wallace is Assistant Director, Communications, for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.