Following a morning when the hype over the Ebola epidemic dominated the headlines, and the airwaves had buzzed with renewed scrutiny of the conflict in Syria, UN Under-secretary for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief, Baroness Valerie Amos stopped off in Cardiff to deliver the Welsh Centre for International Affairs 41st anniversary lecture.
The day was not unusual: on a daily basis news of world events, carried to us by 24 hour news, Facebook and Twitter, are reaching us faster than ever before. Whether from bold images or snatches of video footage, we experience fragments of these situations around the world, making us more acutely aware of the reality of conflicts happening around us, and of the people whose lives are thrown in to free-fall by the chaos they create.
Without doubt the UN bears a difficult responsibility. Seeing the suffering caused by conflicts and natural disasters, the immediate human response is to want to get aid to those in need. However even the UN can’t withstand the pull of the political tides on the ground, leaving them navigating difficult situations. When both intervention and inaction can cause damages – be it volunteers kidnapped or displaced peoples going hungry- it seems there is no clear or simple path.
Foreseeing difficult questions ahead, the WCIA’s President, Sir Emyr Jones Parry asked for a degree of understanding to be shown to Baroness Amos. Joking and thanking him for this kindness, Baroness Amos gave a talk that reflected the sheer enormity of the task the UN is faced with. Discussing conflict situations occurring in and out of the media glare from Central African Republic to Syria, with care and candour she attempted to address a lot of issues, with a necessarily wide worldview.
Besides strong statements testifying to the importance of aid and relief efforts, Baroness Amos touched on some of the awkward and more gritty issues of her work: of the need to detach Aid from the hype of internal politics, of the unpleasant realities of having to work ‘under the radar’, with groups that by some governments are considered terrorists, in order to help people whose lives have been caught in the crossfire.
The scale of the UN’s work is dizzying, and faced with such a wide and sweeping view it can be hard to feel connected, to feel capable of helping or making any difference to these distant situations. There are too many conflicts around the world to number, and many of them run deep within cultures, with violence perpetuating itself over time. Frustration can make us numb to them: we have no solution; action on our part is too far removed to make a difference- so why engage at all?
In the Q&A that followed her talk, members of the audience put forward personal questions on subjects from bias in Palestine to intervention in Syria- but one that seemed to strike a chord throughout the room was asked by a slightly bashful student:
“This may be a stupid question, but what can we do to help? Does campaigning make a difference?”
Voiced in the Temple of Peace- a building that is a hub of activism and volunteering in Wales- the question was a fitting one. “I’m a great believer in volunteering and campaigning,” replied Baroness Amos. Commending activists world wide, and the work the WCIA does, she pointed to the fact that “it’s important to choose the way we engage,” and to make that decision ourselves.
When we can only really access in events around of the world through our media in ebbs and waves, the unhappy stories of these conflicts are something we can choose to pay attention to, or overlook. Epidemics, ethnic violence or civil war are grim realities, ones that no-one would want to invite into their daily life. Following the summer, the emphasis put on these situations by the media was raised for debate by BBC editor Jamie Angus, pointing to people being exhausted with hearing about the conflict in Syria, seeing it as “this terrible thing that I can’t influence,” causing them to lose interest and switch off.
With the work the UN does being too large to truly address in one speech, the central message of Baroness Amos’s talk was perhaps really just testifying to the need to continue to pay attention to situations around the world; to give them importance, and to find our own may to connect to these people and places away from the intensity of headlines and news bulletins. Although it is distressing that that our personal actions make no great difference, that many conflicts lack any clear solution, and that progress worldwide is so slow and faltering, there does seem to be one certainty: our apathy can lead to no progress at all.
Article written by Grace Vogiatzis