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What Does It Mean to be a Humanitarian?

This blog was originally posted by WfWI President Laurie Adams on the Huffington Post on October 12, 2016.

On September 30th, the Conrad N Hilton Foundation awarded its 21st Humanitarian Prize to the Task Force for Global Health, a US-based organization focused on addressing large-scale health problems around the world. Past recipients of the Hilton Humanitarian Prize include Doctors Without Borders (1998), an international non-governmental organization that delivers emergency medical aid to people affected by conflict and disasters, but also Ecpat International (2013), a network of civil society organizations working to end sexual exploitation of children, and Landesa (2015), a rural development institute that partners with governments to secure land rights for the world’s poorest people.

Conrad Hilton understood that humanitarian work takes many forms. By honoring the contributions of a diverse group of charitable organizations with his foundation, he hoped to focus attention on the great need for humanitarian aid worldwide while encouraging collaboration and partnership to magnify everyone’s impact.

Women for Women International (WfWI) is honored to be included in this impressive group. We were the Hilton Prize awardee in 2006 – the same year we expanded our program into South Sudan – and the prize funds we received from the Hilton Foundation increased our capacity to reach the most marginalized women in conflict-affected areas. This type of unrestricted funding is getting harder to come by, but it is critical to enable the work of organizations like ours.


Peter Laugharn, president and CEO of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation with Laurie Adams at the 2016 Hilton Prize Ceremony

Each year as part of their prize ceremony, the Hilton Foundation hosts a Humanitarian Symposium. Speakers and panelists this year included Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and president of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, Steve Davis of PATH, Hadeel Ibrahim from the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, and WfWI founder Zainab Salbi, and discussion centered around the theme of “Compassion, Collaboration, and Smart Solutions.” I was able to attend this event with Amy Towers (philanthropist, founder of the Nduna Foundation, and one of WfWI’s board members), and we both left feeling inspired and refreshed. Since I can’t possibly share all of the notable experiences I had in New York last week, here are a few highlights.

  • Keynote speaker Mary Robinson set the tone for the day by emphasizing our interdependence on each other and our shared responsibility for taking care of the planet and the most vulnerable people living on it.

  • Raj Kumar (president of Devex) and Hadeel Ibrahim had an engaging discussion on aid delivery, what’s working and what isn’t. Ibrahim pointed out that, while local civil society organizations are best positioned to help people on the ground in crisis situations, a recent UN report found that CSOs received less than 2% of aid funding globally. This is a problem, and needs to be addressed at the top levels of governmental and non-governmental humanitarian delivery programs.

  • University of Oxford professor Alexander Betts helped to give context to the ongoing refugee crisis, presenting important facts and data to what is so often an emotionally charged discussion. He expressed the importance of re-framing our perspective on refugees “from burden to benefit” – and pointed to the innovative approach taken in Jordan which holds promise for other countries.

  • Zainab Salbi’s remarks focused on the importance of recognizing and preserving dignity throughout our humanitarian work and the necessity of being “co-dependent” and a “bridge-maker.” To deliver the best possible programs, urgent crisis response organizations and development organizations must communicate and coordinate efforts. We need each other!

It struck me that WfWI fills a unique niche – we go in conflict-affected communities as soon as we are able to establish effective partnerships with local CSOs, and then we remain throughout the time of rebuilding, as crisis response agencies move on to the next disaster. Humanitarians can provide a wide range of services that are needed at all stages of a crisis, and it is encouraging to see that one of the world’s biggest foundations recognizes this.

For more high points from the Hilton Humanitarian Prize ceremony and symposium, view our tweets from September 30: @laurelannadams and @towersamy.

This blog was originally posted by WfWI President Laurie Adams on the Huffington Post on October 12, 2016.