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Delivering aid amid war: A Q&A with PWRDF Humanitarian Response Coordinator, Naba Gurung

PWRDF Humanitarian Response Coordinator, Naba Gurung

December 12, 2023

By Jacqueline Tucci

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Naba Gurung is the Humanitarian Response Coordinator at PWRDF. Whenever and wherever disaster strikes or conflict erupts, Gurung is managing the response as PWRDF answers the call to support our partners on the ground. In his 22 years with PWRDF, Naba has experienced countless unique situations.  

PWRDF Communications and Marketing Officer, Jacqueline Tucci, recently sat down with Gurung for the February edition of PWRDF’s Under the Sun, to discuss the intricacies of delivering humanitarian aid during times of conflict and war.  

JT: Is your work as PWRDF’s Humanitarian Response Coordinator different when partners are responding to war rather than something like a natural disaster, or other emergency? 

NG: In some ways it’s the same, and in some ways, it’s different. It’s the same in the ultimate target. Whatever the cause of the disaster is, the response would be to save lives and to reduce suffering of those who are most vulnerable. That includes people with disabilities, children, pregnant women, lactating women, those who are elderly or sick, those people. Those who are most in most need. So, in a way, in the approach, it’s the same.

Ideally, partners will consult with those who are affected and then respond to where they can be most impactful, depending on the greatest need and gaps in the overall humanitarian response. Also in an ideal world, partner organizations consult with other agencies who are on the ground and then respond. In that sense, in terms of target and in terms of approach, the response might be similar regardless of the cause of the crisis.

JT: What are some of the unique challenges of responding in a humanitarian context within conflict?

NG: In natural disasters, if it’s happening in a country where there is a strong state presence, the state has the responsibility. Unless they declare an emergency and appeal for a wider response, it is their responsibility first. Security and access are the main challenges in natural disasters. You may have limited road access, road collapse or bridge collapse, or there may be groups who are angry and they may obstruct the aid going through to certain areas, those kind of things. But usually, in the larger community and within the government, everybody is on board. In conflict, you have warring factions, so that makes the situation complicated. Sometimes one group is the state, and the other group is not a state actor. Or rebels who are not signatory to any peace agreements – that further complicates the situation in war and conflict.

I need to remain flexible with the partners in terms of the way they respond. You can’t expect an ideal scenario. Ideally, we want to have a proper consultation with the people within the communities who are affected. But in a war situation, your first priority would be, “okay, let’s deliver.” You may not be able to monitor. You may be able to go to the community today, and tomorrow you may not be able to access the community. You may not be able to consult with the same groups, because those people may have been there the other day or the other week, but now they may be somewhere else, and they may not be together. We’re working in a very fluid situation, and I need to recognize that. That part, that fluidity, that need to remain flexible and to adapt to the local context is a challenge.

For PWRF and our partners, ultimately, we want to respond to save lives, reduce suffering, and we want to do it in a timely and relevant way. In conflict situations, partners and their staff are taking huge risk themselves, putting their safety at risk, their lives. They are on the front line, and that’s a big sacrifice that we rely on.

JT: I’m interested in something you said, which is that the key is to remain flexible and adaptable. I’m wondering what that means to you and what that might look like in these types of conflict situations.

NG: Yeah, so usually we need a plan, to be in solidarity with the partner, but also to contribute our financial resources. Usually, we are not the only organization to respond. We collaborate with other like-minded organizations. We come together to work with a local partner that’s responding to a crisis in a conflict situation. For us to move money, we need at least some kind of a plan. Today we and our partners might come up with a plan, and then it may have to change. We adapt as we go along. I don’t say, “okay, last week you presented this plan.” This week that plan may not fit people’s needs, so we need to revise it.

JT: The humanitarian principles are humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. Are these principles particularly challenging to uphold during times of war compared to other emergencies?

NG: The short answer is “yes.” The first one is, of course, humanity, and that’s what drives all of these responses. All human lives are sacred. That’s the main reason why humanitarian response exists in the first place. Humanity is, of course, the key principle. But the principles become challenging when in an active war situation. I think neutrality is the most challenging. There are partner organizations, there are warring factions and then there are people in the community. People have different lenses and views. It’s hard because you may be perceived as a sympathizer to one group, even if that’s not your intent. Or your organization may not be perceived as such, but you might have someone on staff who may be perceived by other groups as their enemy. Neutrality is a very complicated thing.

You need to advocate at the end of the day. It’s very important. Humanitarian response is important but it doesn’t give you the ultimate solution. You need to advocate for leadership, for peace processes and negotiation. In that case, also, you may be perceived as taking sides. Even though the basis of advocacy would be the protection of civilians, you may be viewed as a supporter or a sympathizer of a certain group. But it’s very important. That’s what I call the “humanitarian resistance.”

Independence is a challenge. In some cases, there’s a very strong actor. Like in the case of Ethiopia, for example, the government force was fighting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, and there was an active blockade. If you are the partner in this case, you are effectively not able to be independent there. Because you’re not able to function in that context, the basic functioning is not allowed at all. In a war situation, all these principles, in one way or another, become very difficult to uphold.

JT: You just said something that piqued my interest. You said humanitarian response is important, but also humanitarian resistance. Can you explain what you meant by that?

NG: I think it’s more and more recognition towards demanding peace. Our partners’ work in general is holistic. They would demand peace building. They would demand negotiations or get involved with preparedness or other kinds of activities that would attempt to address root causes.

JT: So basically, not just delivering aid, but also the advocacy component to try to prevent the crisis in the first place.

NG: Yeah, and that advocacy sometimes comes from a need to navigate a very complex situation. On one hand, partners want to respond in a crisis. And on the other hand, they are aware that they can’t continue responding, and continuing with the status quo. Something must change. That awareness is often a big challenge for them, to balance these two things.

JT: PWRDF operates under a unique model. We work with partners who are local, who are doing the direct work. We don’t send our people to deliver aid. How does that model uniquely position us to effectively support the delivery of humanitarian aid in war and conflict situations?

NG: For us, not being on the ground, we don’t have to worry about an office, or putting staff in a conflict situation. We don’t have to maintain a compound, security, all those things.

In almost any type of humanitarian response, the first responders are the neighbours, the community members. And usually that also involves the churches or other faith institutions. Over time, PWRDF has built mutual trust and respect with our partners. Our partners understand the local context, they are there because they have committed their life to that cause. Dr. Suhaila Tarazi – who is the director general of the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza – could have easily settled in the United States. She has many relatives in the U.S., she has a visa, but she chose to stay there in Gaza and work.

And there’s another partner in Afghanistan whom I recently met. He has multiple visas to come to Canada. He has three boys and a wife in Afghanistan. But he has chosen to stay, in the adverse context there, where more than 90% of Afghans are now in humanitarian need. He has chosen to stay there and work.

One incident he shared with me was, he and some colleagues went for a cash transfer during one project. The partner didn’t have the money to distribute to everybody because the project could only target so many people, but there were others who came. He and his colleague gave whatever money they had in their pocket. They gave whatever money they had and then later realized they didn’t have money to return – they didn’t have project vehicles, so they went in a taxi. They walked seven kilometers back on foot.

So, our work is so dependent on the sacrifice and commitment of our partners. And that’s what makes it possible. In these communities, we have built long-term mutual trust and respect with our partners, and they have in-turn built those kinds of relationships with the communities where they work. Through our partners, we have access to the churches, many people with different skills, networks, but also to the vulnerable people. And they know how to navigate in a very effective way. We have that advantage through PWRDF’s model.

JT: One of PWRDF’s partners, the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza, which you mentioned before, has been experiencing ongoing, violent conflict since October, and was recently hit by rocket fire, destroying parts of the building. What is PWRDF’s process of working with partners during these extremely difficult times? How do we stay in contact and stay aware of the ongoing and likely evolving needs?

NG: Fortunately for us in this case, we haven’t had to be in direct touch with the hospital. We have been in touch with the Diocese of Jerusalem. Communicating with Jerusalem has been no problem, so that communication has been there. I couldn’t be in touch with hospital staff.

JT: So, even though there’s not a lot of direct contact able to happen with the hospital, we have contacts that have been able to stay in touch with staff there. Is that generally the case with other similar conflicts or are there situations where there’s not a lot of contact that’s possible?

NG: Contact is usually possible, even in such situations. For example, partners we have in Tigray, Ethiopia. The partner would also have an office in Addis Ababa (the capital city of Ethiopia), and then satellite field offices in Tigray. So, we would be able to communicate with the staff who are in Addis Ababa.

JT: Sometimes in conflict, aid can’t reach the areas and the populations that we are intending to help, that are really in need. Does PWRDF have a system for responding and continuing to work with partners in these situations?

NG: Yes. So, for example, in Tigray, there was a very active blockade of aid by the government of Ethiopia because they were fighting a rebel group there. Our partners were doing a drinking water project and they had to suspend their work because of security concerns, and because of limited access. Banking was not working, and the market wasn’t working. Then the insecurity became very challenging for the staff, so they had to evacuate, suspend the program, and leave the borehole drinking water project in the middle of it. Now there’s a ceasefire and relative peace. They can access the area now, so they went back to do the project. We had already sent the money; it was just sitting there. We understood the situation and they were able to finish the project later. So that’s one example. You need to be patient; you can’t risk the staff, and it simply wasn’t possible to do the project in that context.

JT: Do you recall any times of crisis or conflict in your career that have been particularly challenging? Tigray is of course one example.

NG: South Sudan. My first visit to South Sudan was 2009. I knew the general context, but I knew very little about South Sudan until that time. South Sudan became independent in 2011, so it was still part of Sudan when I went. The government had been fighting with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, until a peace agreement was reached in 2005. I was fortunate to be there in 2009 as part of the Canadian Food Grants Bank delegation to explore food needs, the opportunities of food security projects there, and learn about who the actors were, where the communities were, what the churches were doing and what other stakeholders were doing.

South Sudan became independent in 2011 and I was thinking, “this is really good.” Then conflict broke out in 2013 – another civil war began. Many INGOs and UN staff had to be evacuated. Many people went to the churches for both safety and for food or water or anything that they could get. We were supporting the Episcopal Church there because many of the church compounds were hosting these people who were escaping violence in their communities.

There are some small groups that are still fighting, but the major groups now have a peace agreement. Gradually, people are returning. It’s an interesting time again. Many people don’t go directly to their original communities because of security issues, but also because they may have some land, but their houses have been destroyed and the community may have just dispersed. They need help to resettle. Basic support is very important.

Now, South Sudan is preparing for an election in 2024. Many people are hopeful that it will be peaceful. It’s satisfying when we see people returning, being able to return, being able to in some ways rebuild their lives and communities.

JT: What is the process of working in a situation where a conflict or war is so bad or drawn-out, that the needs expand beyond the scope of the original response?

NG: Our partners are highly reputed local responders working with vulnerable members of their communities. When a situation goes from bad to worse, PWRDF works closely with other like-minded funding agencies, and in consultation with partner staff on the ground, to create a joint response plan. We pool our financial and human resources which allows wider collaboration and avoids a situation in which the partner staff will have to deal with several funding partners for several individual plans and reports, amidst an already chaotic situation. In the case of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, we had several Zoom calls with partner staff, also involving several other agencies from the United States, the UK, New Zealand and Australia. So far, $423,500 USD has been committed by these agencies, including PWRDF, in support of a 6-month relief and recovery plan within the Diocese, in the health and education sectors in Gaza and West Bank.

In situations where unimaginable levels of suffering is taking place, our partners might also be assisted by larger agencies, like the United Nations. The World Health Organization delivered medical supplies to the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza during the brief ceasefire, and at least once after the ceasefire. Ultimately though, there needs to be political will in the local and global leaders to end the violence and seek a durable solution for peace with justice. This is true in the case of Gaza, but also in many other crises. That’s why advocacy at various levels for peace is as important as immediate relief to save lives and reduce suffering.

Read the February edition of Under the Sun

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