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A tour through the changing landscape of humanitarian aid

This reader discovered in Michael VanRooyen a man of humility and empathy, shaped by Christian ideals, whom God has used to help suffering people, as well as to teach others who assist them.

A tour through the changing landscape of humanitarian aid

From an early age, two influences led author Michael VanRooyen to become an emergency physician and to pursue humanitarian medicine, which is the emergency provision of basic health care for some of the world’s most vulnerable and severely threatened people.

VanRooyen’s Catholic father joined the Dutch resistance in his youth, helping to hide Jews and assisting them to escape from the Nazis’ tyranny. When he himself was captured, he was sent to the notorious concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen, and was tortured, experienced forced labour, and nearly starved to death. In 1945, when he was liberated by Allied forces, he weighed 78 pounds.

Young VanRooyen understood that war had decimated his father’s homeland, as well as Europe, and that his father was blessed to have survived and to make his home in the United States. VanRooyen writes, “To me, war was never about patriotism, uniforms and salutes. While I admired the bravery of soldiers and understood the necessity of some conflicts, I never thought war was noble or idealistic; I always saw it as brutal and evil, the most terrible of human endeavours.”

Experiences with the medical world also influenced VanRooyen. When he was a child, his mother became ill with cancer and died a few years later. Since he wasn’t allowed to visit his mother in her hospital room, he spent time in the cafeteria, feeling vulnerable and alone, while his father visited with her. Later, as a teen, he came upon a terrible farm accident and witnessed the actions of first responders who were able to save the victim’s life.

These influences – a clear sense of the evil of war and the role of emergency medical personnel to offer care and save lives – led VanRooyen into emergency medicine in the United States and eventually into global field work, bringing emergency care to more than 30 countries, including Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur-Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Iraq and North Korea.

In The World’s Emergency Room, VanRooyen walks readers through the changing landscape of humanitarian aid, pointing out how aid has become a commodity exploited and manipulated by combatants, often failing to reach those people for whom it is intended. He also shows how the founding precepts of humanitarian aid – neutrality, independence, impartiality and humanity – have been sidelined by military forces who no longer observe the Geneva Convention. The Geneva Convention “created an international understanding that hospitals, ambulances and medical staffs of opposing militaries are neutral and must be protected from direct attack during armed conflict.” But the reality is that medical personnel, ambulances and hospitals have been targeted, and deprivation of healthcare has become a weapon of war. For example, VanRooyen points out, in the current Syrian conflict, more than 400 doctors, nurses and medics have been killed and many more have been detained and tortured, often in retaliation for assisting people of opposing factions.

Through his experiences, VanRooyen had an epiphany. He realized that systemic changes were necessary in order for aid workers to be better prepared to face the unpredictable nature of conflict and to strengthen the response of the humanitarian aid community. In 2005, he co-founded the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) at Harvard University. The HHI’s aim was to train future aid workers by combining academic research on humanitarian crises and aid with actual global field experience. VanRooyen shares the obstacles that the HHI faced as it struggled to find its place in the academic community. Now, more than a decade later, VanRooyen is seeing the fruit of the HHI as he witnesses its graduates playing an active role in humanitarian solutions in the field.

As VanRooyen looks back on his career, he admits that many people have a pessimistic view of the changing role and future of humanitarian aid. He, however, has a more hopeful view: “I foresee the potential for an aid world where there are robust ways to educate, include, monitor and promote new aid agencies, building on the lessons of the past and employing the best tools for coordination and a heightened sense of accountability to those we serve. This improved version of humanitarianism will certainly not come about by default or by accident, but will require new and creative engagements with the existing giants of aid.”

This reader discovered in Michael VanRooyen a man of humility and empathy, shaped by Christian ideals, whom God has used to help suffering people, as well as to teach others who assist them.

About the Author
A tour through the changing landscape of humanitarian aid

Sonya VanderVeen Feddema, Freelance writer

Sonya VanderVeen Feddema is a freelance writer living in St Catharines, Ont.