08/19/2011 08:44 am ET | Updated Oct 19, 2011

World Humanitarian Day: Celebrating International And Local Groups Working Together

This year's World Humanitarian Day is a celebration of people helping people. In Nairobi, where my colleague Kirk Prichard and I have been deployed on short notice to support Concern Worldwide's emergency response in the Horn of Africa, we see evidence of people helping people every day. And though international staff like us are called on to contribute to the relief effort, it is almost entirely powered by Kenyans.

Concern's Kenya team works in partnership with local organizations that are Kenyan-run, Kenyan-staffed, and crucially, implement Kenya-appropriate programs. It is through these partners that so-called humanitarians and aid workers -- too often mistaken as solely western -- are enabled to reach the poorest of the poor. Concern's role is to monitor and assess programs, to provide technical expertise when and where it is needed, and to build the capacity of these local partners. We have been in Kenya since 2002, and we will be here for as long as that role is necessary.

In the meantime, local Kenyan organizations on the ground are Concern's eyes and ears, and they are the lifeblood of the Kenyan program. Their work goes unrecognized and unreported, but they are here, meeting the most urgent needs of the poor, responding to crises that never see the light of day in the west. These are catastrophic emergencies for the most part, like the one that is currently ravaging people in the urban slums and causing the suffering of not just hundreds, but hundreds of thousands.

When one thinks of a drought, the typical pictures of sun-scorched deserts and children starving in makeshift camps come to mind. And while these images accurately portray the plight of millions of rural residents, they leave out a group that is facing the same life and death struggle - the urban poor.

Even before the current drought in Kenya, Nairobi's vast 'slums' were dire places. Raw sewage flows down alleys and past doorways. Shacks are crammed side by side and made of any material available. Violent crime is rampant. HIV rates are twice those in found in the rest of Kenya.

One slum where Concern is operational, Korogocho, means 'standing side by side', and the description could not be more fitting. Up to 200,000 people are living in an area of one square mile. Ten or 12 people are often found living in a single small room.

Between rent, water bills, school fees, and food, the average household barely makes it through a day. Economic activity in these slums consists largely of informal activities, such as selling French fries to the drivers stuck in Nairobi's notorious traffic. A good wage is $3 a day.

Since this latest cycle of drought hit Kenya, food prices have skyrocketed. The price of maize (the staple food of Kenyans) has doubled. As food makes up to 60 percent of a household's budget, they have seen their purchasing power cut in half in the course of a few short months.
These food price increases are particularly devastating to urban populations; fixed prices for expenses like rent and water make food the only area of budgeting which is flexible. As a result families cut consumption with every cent of increase in food prices. When this increase reaches the levels we are seeing today, tea for breakfast, lunch and dinner become the norm.

As a result Concern has seen childhood malnutrition rates double in the health centers it supports through its partners. Children are forced out of school because they can't pay fees, crime increases, women are forced into sex work to prevent their children from starving, HIV and disease spread, and social cohesion breaks down as every family member is left to fend for themselves.

Anne epitomizes the daily struggle to survive that urban Kenyan's face every day. Like many residents of Korogocho, Anne came to Nairobi as a teenager in search of economic opportunity. She found work; first as a maid and then in a food processing plant, started a family, and sent her four children to school.

While it was by no means a glamorous life, Anne was surviving, until the recent drought brought her precarious livelihood to the edge of a precipice. The food processing plant has laid her off. Without food from farms there is just none to process. She has tried to find casual employment as a maid, but there is simply no work to be had. The rapid inflation has forced even middle class households to cut back.

Her sister recently died adding her three small children to Anne's four. They are all living together in a 10-foot by 10-foot room.

What little income she can piece together going door-to-door to wash clothes goes directly towards rent, leaving an ever decreasing portion of food for her and her children. "We are down to about half a cup of ugali (a porridge) per person per day."

Despite this, Anne maintains an incredibly generous spirit. When told of Concern's upcoming emergency 'Mobile Technology Cash Transfer Program' implemented in partnership with local organization "Redeemed," her thoughts immediately went to others. "You must take care of the elderly first" she says gesturing to a neighboring shack "I am poor and times are bad, but I can walk and I can work, the old have no one and nothing anymore". Clearly the humanitarian spirit, the ethos of 'people helping people' is not unique to those who happen to work for aid organizations. After all, the motto of this country is "Harambee" which means, "We all pull together."

While food prices remain at these near record-high levels in Kenya, families like Anne's will fight to survive, and will remain the unseen faces of this emergency. We are working to ensure that the impact of the drought on Nairobi's poorest does not fall below the world's radar. So, on this World Humanitarian Day, I would like to celebrate not only my Concern Kenya colleagues working around the clock at Concern, along with Concern's staff in the world's toughest places in 25 countries, but also our partners on the ground, and the millions of Kenyans like Anne who remind me that all of us are, at our best, humanitarians.

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