SONGSOPTOK: Let us forget for a moment the UN definition of ‘humanitarianism’. What is your personal definition? In what context would you apply the word?

REKHA DATTA: Personal Definition of Humanitarianism: I use the term ‘humanitarian’ to refer to a concern for the human condition; caring concern for other human beings. ‘Humanitarianism’ is not a term I generally see associated with UN actions, which I think are closer to ‘humanitarian’ actions, implying an ethical responsibility to improve the human conditions of fellow citizens of the world.

SONGSOPTOK: What, according to you, are the specific types of events that call for humanitarian actions?

REKHA DATTA: I tend to see human security as essential to a life with dignity, rights and access to resources. Any threat to human security, either political, economic, or natural disaster related, are occasions for humanitarian action.

SONGSOPTOK: Why, in your opinion, do countries and societies even need humanitarian actions, often initiated and coordinated by the so called first world economies?

REKHA DATTA: I think the first world economy led actions are usually the ones that get media attention in the context of disasters and conflicts. Many such actions are carried on by local and national level groups and NGOs on a daily basis without the headlines following them.

SONGSOPTOK: Can individuals play a significant role in initiating or participating in humanitarian actions? In what way?

REKHA DATTA: Individuals are the core of any collective action. An individual who is teaching children after school in a poverty ridden area where they cannot afford to pay for tutoring, for example, is engaged in a humanitarian action. In this case, the individual is empowering children who, with education may earn the qualifications for decent employment and be able to help their families out of poverty. Helping someone drowning in a tsunami, be it caused by natural waves or cycles of poverty, would, in my estimate, be a humanitarian action.

SONGSOPTOK: What should be the role of the world community, especially organizations like the UN, to encourage humanitarian actions in different countries, especially those suffering from internal war or external aggression? Do you think that their efforts are sufficient? If not, what else should be done to help the countries / societies / populations in need?

REKHA DATTA: The UN has been an advocate as well as the center of action when it comes to humanitarian actions and assistance. While the UN establishment is capable of handling large scale emergency assistance worldwide during a humanitarian crisis, there are other ways as well that that the UN addresses these issues. The UN and other international agencies that are focusing on capacity building through education and development are LinkedIn humanitarian approaches in that they act as preventive measures or build capacity rather than focus only on ‘rescue’ after a crisis.

SONGSOPTOK: What should ideally be the role of the governments in humanitarian actions – both in afflicted countries and in the other countries of the world? Are government activities sufficient in this context?

REKHA DATTA: Humanitarian action under the UN auspices, especially following the R2P norms (Responsibility to Protect), addresses these questions very well. Since 2005, R2P obliges signatory states to be responsible for their citizens in more holistic ways than before. It protects individuals in states and regions where perpetrators violate the rights of their citizens and prevent agencies such as the UN under the pretexts of sovereignty jurisdiction.

SONGSOPTOK:   In your opinion, do religious institutions play an important role in humanitarian actions? In your own experience, what kind of actions have you witnessed that have been pioneered by religious institutions?

REKHA DATTA: Worldwide, religious institutions, or groups affiliated with them, have offered charitable assistance and rehabilitation as part of humanitarian actions in crisis  and non-crisis situations. Growing up in Kolkata, India, we would often witness flood damages and some of the most vulnerable populations would be slum dwellers who would lose their homes and belongings to the flood waters. I recall an organization, the Bharat Sevashram Sangha, to be active in rescue operations of assisting water bound people, as well as organizing charity drives to assist them.

SONGSOPTOK: Non Governmental Organizations (NGO) are often in the forefront of humanitarian actions and yet there have been widespread criticism about the efficacy and utility of NGOs in different countries, especially in Asia & Africa. What is your own experience? Should NGOs be given more power and independence where humanitarian actions are concerned?

REKHA DATTA: NGO’s, like any other groups, can and do use their organizational capacities and infrastructure to engage in emergency and crisis situations. Even those that are not especially dedicated to such cause have gotten involved in such operations. NGO’s Hoover, like some other organizations, need to be more transparent and accountable, I order to be more effective and efficient.

SONGSOPTOK: What should be the aim of humanitarian actions in afflicted countries – short term relief or long term actions that would help societies build up their own strengths and resources? Please share your knowledge or experience about long term actions undertaken anywhere in the world.

REKHA DATTA: The goal of humanitarian action has to include both. When someone loses their family members and belongings to a natural disaster, giving them access to school is not the immediate solution to helping them. They need immediate assistance for survival. Longer  term though, focusing on economic development, homes designed for disaster resistance, education for citizens so they can afford better living and have more knowledge about the science behind it.

SONGSOPTOK: It is often seen that the strongest help and support comes from within the communities affected by conflicts or natural disasters. How, in your opinion, can communities be empowered to successfully face such situations? What, in this context, could be the role of formal or informal grassroots organizations?

REKHA DATTA: There has to be a multi layered solution. Here again, I would emphasize that capacity building and access to resources ought to be a priority for all societies, I.e. Governments. In conjunction with that, grassroots organizations can channel their needs and empower communities to overcome their challenges.

SONGSOPTOK: Women and children are most vulnerable in situations of conflicts or disasters. What, according to you, are the specific actions that need to be taken to ensure the safety and security of women and children?

REKHA DATTA: It is clear after centuries of conflict and cessation of them that the longer term and so called ‘collateral damages’ need to be addressed systematically. Sending humanitarian aid to help the survivors and victims is not enough. Rape as a weapon of war is to be avoided by all countries and parties to conflict. Fortunately, some recent actions have addressed this and brought the perpetrators to justice, installing some faith in international law. Unfortunately, however, sexual violence in wartime and in peacetime is a real menace and danger. To combat this, there has to be transformative solutions, starting with children and how girls and boys are treated in various societies, their access to education, reproductive choices, and making women equal partners in development. Individuals, governments, NGOs, and international organizations have to work in tandem to make this happen. Some progress is made in some pockets around the world. This, I dare say, however, is the tip of the iceberg. Deeper and more ingrained cultural and institutional changes are needed to keep women and children equal, make it safe for girls to get education and reach their potential. WE have to work together to keep breaking the barriers.

SONGSOPTOK: How do you, as an individual, practice humanitarianism? Is it an important part of your value system & mental make-up? Please share your thoughts and experiences with us.

REKHA DATTA: I do not have the skills or ability to do anything significant such as curing disease or solving the problem of poverty. As an educator, my goal is to inspire my students, for them to have compassion for others, and to establish the human connection. My work with the community also highlights that. I learned from Sister Cyril, the former principal of Loreto Sealdah and the founder of the Rainbow program, an inclusive model of education where street children and those from upper middle classes learn, play, and eat together, that all you need is to care for the children. That will. Be the key to inspiring them to do better, to succeed as individuals. My parents taught us the value of being human, regardless of religion, caste, creed, or wealth. What I learned in a Hindu home rarely contradicted with what I learned at an Irish missionary school. We had Muslim friends, we went to Sunday Church; years later, as an immigrant student and later citizen of a country that it not my birth one, I suppose all those experiences have created a seamless unity in my mind such that I do not even see myself or others as different.



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