19/08/2014 13:00 BST | Updated 19/10/2014 06:59 BST

Why I Keep Being an Aid Worker Despite the Dangers

Every day the news seems to suggest the World is getting scarier and more dangerous. Iraq, Gaza, Syria, South Sudan - the list goes on. For me reading the news is never a shock. I spend my working life immersed in the horrors, the violence and the poverty that blight the globe.


Last month I was on a 12-seater plane touching down on a dirt strip in the middle of a small town in South Sudan. The flight was carrying our hastily assembled assessment team tasked with determining the scale of humanitarian needs in a part of the country, where more than a million people have been displaced by fighting, amidst a growing food crisis. Hearing the staccato sounds of gunfire from town our pilots quickly unloaded our gear, as they were anxious to take off and leave us to our mission. Melting in the 45C heat we watched the plane disappear, as a number of goats curiously scrutinized us. But as the sound of gunfire grew louder the goats were the least of my worries.

It was one of those poignant moments when you consider the consequences of saying 'yes' to a particular trip, and more broadly, working in humanitarian emergency response. People do often ask me why I insist on traveling to places other people are trying desperately to get out of.

But I always find - or rather, meet - the answers to that question on my regular visits to some of the world's trouble spots.

On that same trip to South Sudan I met children who had fled their homes due to the fighting. They'd walked five days with their families, and were staying with distant relatives, sleeping wherever they could find space. In the absence of teachers they had found ways to entertain themselves by building sculptures with the hard mud found everywhere during the dry season. Seemingly a benign activity, when I looked closer they told me they were 'playing war' and had designed soldiers and tanks going to the battlefield. Their elder brothers were carrying rifles, reminding us that those mud sculptures are inspired not by Hollywood but by the reality facing these children every day. A reality no child should ever have to face.

Since I left that town it has become a battleground between opposition and government forces and changed hands at least three times. I wonder what it looks like now? Or if these boys are even still alive?

In the Democratic Republic of Congo I visited a displacement camp of over 5,000 people. Many of the children there have spent the majority of their lives in that camp having fled the fighting years ago. They live in improvised tents, with limited access to food or water, never mind education. As an aid worker today you are all too often faced with the sad fact that cases are judged as not 'bad enough' to justify much attention or money, as immediate crises like Syria and Iraq take precedence.

This brings with it the brutal reality of aid work that we choose to be part of. No matter how hard you try, some people you meet will be left without help. And you have to be part of making the decision about who gets to eat. In Lebanon my team and I had to tell Syrian refugees living in makeshift tents that they were not going to receive more aid as others were more in greater need, and the available funding for aid agencies was not enough to cover it all.

Their facial expressions and those heart-wrenching conversations stay with you when you return to the safety of London and think nothing of spending 20 pounds on a meal - often more than a family of 5 somewhere like South Sudan have to live on for a week. A part of you stays in those refugee camp or in the tents of the desperate. Having put a face to the brokenness of the world it becomes impossible to forget it.

And yet, it also becomes impossible to believe that I am not able to improve the world around me. In the middle of seeming endless despair you also get to experience some extraordinary scenes of human generosity, kindness and resilience. Local school directors in Lebanon choosing to open their schools to refugees instead of leaving the country themselves. Business owners choosing to give their profit to hungry and displaced families. Aid workers who risk their own lives live for years in conflict zones to help those less fortunate. The relief on the face of parents when they realise that they will, at last, be able to feed their children again. This job brings a lot of challenges sure, but finding motivation to get up in the morning is not one of them

Understanding the complexities of the crisis in Iraq, Syria, the Central African Republic or South Sudan is difficult. But taking a step towards helping those in need there does not have to be. There are people working tirelessly on the ground who know what needs to be done, and by supporting them we can make a difference for children in need.

Johan Eldebo is senior humanitarian policy adviser at World Vision UK.