World Humanitarian Day: the UN’s own airline

Social development Disaster response

“The World Needs More…” is the theme for this year’s World Humanitarian Day. It is held each year on 19 August, the anniversary of the 2003 bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq, when 22 aid workers lost their lives. As well as commemorating all whose who have died while undertaking humanitarian work, the day also celebrates the spirit that inspires aid work around the world, says the UN.

One of the most effective ways for the UN to deliver emergency aid to remote communities is the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS), which is managed by the UN’s World Food Programme.

The UNHAS has a fleet of more than 50 chartered helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft currently deployed in 13 operations. In 2013, UNHAS carried 364,236 passengers, flew 1,934 tonnes of vital supplies and performed 2,068 medical and security evacuations, serving communities which had been cut off from overland links.

Via the UNHAS the WFP can deploy life-saving food assistance within 48 hours to almost anywhere in the world. And it not just UN agencies who have benefitted. During 2013 the service transported relief supplies, including food and non-food items, for several organizations such as Catholic Relief Services, Irish Aid, FAO and Solidarités International, in coordination with the United Nations Humanitarian Response Depot (UNHRD).

Over the last year the service has ensured critical humanitarian access for both sudden-onset emergencies, such as Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and conflict-related emergencies, including those in South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

The people involved in this work live remarkable lives. This video takes a look at two of them, including Sofien Elfeki, a former commercial airline crew member who now runs logistics for humanitarian missions.

Over the years the UNHAS has evolved into a highly-efficient performance-based organisation which has predictable international funding streams, allowing it to respond quickly to emergencies and work with an increasing number of partners on new initiatives. A recent example of this is the basing of two stand-by helicopters in Entebbe, Uganda, ready for deployment in 24 hours, whether the emergency is in continental Africa, Madagascar or Pakistan. “With the ability to carry essential food assistance and cargo, they are well equipped to transfer aid workers to the most hard-to-reach places, as well as perform medical evacuations,” according to WFP Aviation, the body responsible for operating the UNHAS fleet.

And it’s not just about delivering aid.

“In line with our exit strategy, the initiatives also helped build the capacity of civil aviation authorities, local government institutions and other humanitarian aviation service providers,” according to the 2013 WFP Aviation annual review.

Today is a day to celebrate the work done by the professionals from all parts of the world who work in some very difficult places in order to make other people’s lives a little better, or in many cases to save lives. The world needs more… humanitarians.