The DIHAD experience

The Humanitarian Leadership Academy is all about learning, and where better to learn than from your peers?  Many of us attend conferences in the hope of being inspired, to learn about best practice in our professional field, and to meet people with whom we might forge longstanding collaborations for mutual benefit.  Budget is of course limited, so we are careful about our choices, thinking hard about value for money and potential outcomes.  Some events, like the BOND conference in London, are ‘no-brainers’ – it’s cleanly presented, inclusive and diverse.  There are many others where travel is required or the entry fees are high; but there is great value in casting the conference net across multiple regions.  Our diverse staff, both from our global office located in London, and from our partnership network  based in the Philippines, Middle East, Bangladesh and East Africa, aim to coordinate our attendance across a number of key events globally, to ensure we are keeping pace with developments across the humanitarian sector and beyond.

It is for this reason we chose to attend DIHAD this year, located in Dubai UAE but attracting visitors from Africa, Europe and further afield.  Our CEO Saba Al Mubaslat secured a speaking slot, and we were drawn by the conference theme – ‘People on the move’.  Dubai, with its excellent travel connections and use as a humanitarian logistics hub,  seems a sensible place to discuss the many issues raised by the mass movement of people.  The subject was explored thoroughly and from multiple angles, by people representing a vast range of agencies and institutions.   The message which stuck most in my mind was made by Josephine Schmidt, recently appointed editor of ‘The New Humanitarian’ (formerly known as IRIN).

Ms Schmidt made an excellent case for heightened awareness of the vital nature of ‘language and the use of vocabulary’ – she highlighted the role of the media in shaping public opinion of migrants, using this Al Jazeera article to illustrate her point that a single word like migrant can be distilled and de-sensitised until we the reader no longer see a “person – like you, filled with thoughts and history and hopes – who is on the tracks delaying a train, (but)…a migrant. A nuisance”. The effect of this ‘reductive terminology’ is a corresponding reduction in dignity, empathy and also funding for the humanitarian assistance so vitally needed by those fleeing violence and other intolerable circumstances. Presenting local voices in a dignified and humanising manner helps to counter this unwelcome tide of apathy for the human emotion and experience within mass displacement.  We at the Humanitarian Leadership Academy are wholly aligned with The New Humanitarian in our commitment to local voices and inclusion of local actors in the humanitarian sector.

Seats at the table

During the conference we were fortunate to meet our friend of the Academy, HSBC’s Sabrin Rahman, Regional Head of Sustainability (MENAT).  Sabrin and I have recently worked together to produce a white paper on the subject of private sector engagement in humanitarian action, which you can download and read here.  One of our key themes in this paper concerns inclusion – in the same way that we believe localisation must be kept high on the sector’s agenda, we maintain the necessity of the inclusion of multiple sectors to work toward humanitarian solutions.  The private sector has much to bring to the table, in the form of expertise, resource and an appetite for continuous improvement.  Conferences are an amazing opportunity to foster dialogue between public, private and NGO entities – if you show up to the same event or workshop, there’s a chance you already have some common ground to build upon.

I was therefore delighted to attend a panel session in which private sector representatives were given the opportunity to discuss their approach to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Given the bleak environment described by a fellow speaker, Claus Sorensen, former Director General of DG ECHO, who used the contexts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Myanmar to state that the sector is “in danger of sleepwalking into disaster”; you would think that this session would light up the conference, bringing ideas and energy to the debate and opportunity in the room.  The speakers themselves indeed met this expectation, but were met with some challenging questions and perspectives both from the stage and the audience.  Is it not time that we who work in the humanitarian sector, operating to global codes of conduct which include a commitment to inclusivity, open our minds to learning the language of the private sector, and welcoming them to the table to encourage more rapid progress toward humanitarian solutions?

In a later panel session, another speaker, Carsten Schmitz of GIZ talked about the “danger of getting mired in piloting without moving to a scale-up point.  It’s about how we create impact, not how much money we spend –  let’s get into start-up mode and see what we can learn from failure”.  This is a great point, and is one of the key recommendations we make in our white paper – please do have a read and get in touch with me if you’d like to challenge or contribute to the discussion!

I’ll meet you there

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

These beautiful lines written by Persian poet and Sufi master Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi speak to each reader differently, I’m sure.  To me, they whisper of the conference of my dreams; a space where viewpoints are presented clearly, through evidenced arguments and articulate presenting styles.  Opportunity for questions and dialogue are made available under shade-casting trees, whilst the tall swaying grass, weeds and wildflowers of new ideas mingle, percolate and conspire under a wide blue sky of open-minded curiosity.

Maybe we’ll meet there one day.

Rowan Johnson
Private Sector Adviser
Middle East
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