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Meet the DIY humanitarians changing it up

An interview series with aid disruptors tackling humanitarian challenges head-on.

Sara Cuevas/TNH

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Most people think of the multi-billion-dollar aid system in terms of the recognisable big players – UN organisations, international NGOs, government donors. 

But thousands of others are working independently to support those affected by crisis. Many aren’t considered formal aid workers, and most go unrecognised by the traditional humanitarian system. 

Here are four people working on the sidelines of the aid sector, making change, and doing things differently. 

Know of any DIY humanitarians that we should feature? Let us know! Email us or message us on social.

Mayuri Bhattacharjee: Improving citizen aid

Mayuri Bhattacharjee, a menstrual health educator and trainer, was horrified by what she saw in the aftermath of the 2017-2018 floods* in Assam, India. The camps where she was working had no programmes or relief items to support women’s menstrual health

Women deserved better, she thought.  

She launched the Dignity in Floods campaign (now Dignity in Disasters), and started pushing hard for change. After two years of petitioning, and with more than 100,000* supporters behind her, the government of India finally recognised the menstrual health rights of women during floods and ensured all flood reliefs camps would now be stocked with sanitary pads.

Bhattacharjee’s hope is that her example of citizen activism inspires other “non-humanitarians” to get involved in whatever way moves them. Aside from women’s health, her group now helps bring knowledge and tools about aid to those outside the sector who want to make a difference, so there’s a quality standard for ad hoc assistance. “In short, we want to inspire your friendly neighbourhood aunt to become the next Henry Dunant,” she says, referring to the noted Swiss humanitarian’s role in inspiring the creation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 1863.

Watch her story here:

Read the interview here:

TNH: What is the goal of your project?

Mayuri Bhattacharjee: The goal of my campaign, Dignity in Disasters, is to democratise the humanitarian relief sector in India and South Asia, making it easier for common people to become humanitarians.

TNH: What was the moment you knew you had to start this work?

Bhattacharjee: The moment I knew I had to start this work was when working in the state of Assam. I was working in flood-hit areas [giving] menstrual health sessions. At that point in time I did not work in the humanitarian sector. I happened to ask a question to one of the participants, “Okay, your village is hit by floods. What do you do?” And that’s when she told me the horror story she faces in flood relief camps when they don’t have menstrual health facilities, or proper or safe toilets, or there are security issues [facing] women. And that’s when I knew I had to start this work – because the bigger organisations were not yet talking about menstrual health during emergencies and disasters. That’s how the journey started.

TNH: When did you know your work was making a difference?

Bhattacharjee: When I first knew I had to do something about this issue, I filed a petition on Knowing that my work was making a difference was a bit of a slow process. But eventually I got to understand that I was creating a mindset change. When I saw that people wanted to help, reading about the story I was telling of the people who were stuck in flood relief camps, and they came forward to help. They said, “Should we send relief materials? Should we sign your petition? Tell us what to do.” I knew that this change, this awareness that I was creating, was the difference I was maybe making. I didn’t know I would be making that difference, but this was happening. And finally, after two years of petitioning, the Assam state government declared menstrual health materials to be part of the state flood relief package. So that meant that menstrual health rights were recognised on par with the right to food and shelter, and that was the moment that I knew, this is the change I could make as a citizen.

TNH: What was the hardest thing about getting your idea off the ground?

Bhattacharjee: The hardest thing about getting this issue off the ground was that this issue was affecting a small part of India. And Assam floods [did] not receive much media coverage until a few years back. And I was talking about floods that hit only seasonally – they are not a regular occurrence. So, to get the interest of people around this subject was the challenge. And to make people feel about this problem, a problem which they don’t face themselves was actually a bit of a challenge. But I found that storytelling really helped… and that’s how people started supporting this campaign.

TNH: How is your approach different to that of ‘traditional’ humanitarians?

Bhattacharjee: When it comes to individual campaigns like ours, I think what we can do is we can take bold steps. We can take bold tactics and we do not have the liability. We can act fast. For example, one of the tactics that we used while doing this campaign was [that] we sent 200 pads to the minister who was in charge of this, and this is something I feel a big organisation could not do because of the risks involved. But this tactic helped us a lot, because it brought focus to the issue, and the minister and the departments, they took notice.

TNH: What prevents people from getting involved with humanitarian causes?

Bhattacharjee: I think one of the barriers that people face is that they get overwhelmed when it comes to humanitarian relief or disaster relief. And there is this perception that this is work which should be done by the bigger organisations or the government, and common people can’t do much about it. But while I was working on my campaign I realised that, as an individual, I could make a difference. So that means other people can also make that difference. So, when I speak to young people, I see that they also have this feeling that I’m too small, I’m too young, I can’t do this. But I feel there's so much energy and passion in them that they can make a difference.

TNH: What are the priorities world leaders should focus on when it comes to humanitarian relief?

Bhattacharjee: If I talk from the context of India, I think we need to build resilience so that when a natural disaster hits, we, as common citizens, can take the first steps to safeguard ourselves and our communities. Being prepared and resilient will also bring down the human cost of humanitarian relief.

And I think, in a disaster-hit country like India, disaster preparedness should become a part of our curriculum. Right now, governments are investing in programmes which teach children to learn coding or [to] build apps. But these kids do not know how to purify water if their water lines get hit during an urban flood. Why don’t we know that? Is it a less sexy subject? Or a less glamorous subject? I think, yes. I think [we] need a mindset change that needs a top-down approach, and we need the government to make that change and to invest in such education.

Eric James: Local production for local solutions

Eric James has been working in the aid sector for close to 25 years – enough time to still be passionate, but also to become frustrated by going to places where the most basic materials that could save lives were unavailable. 

He and other co-founders conceived of Field Ready 10 years ago to help address these seemingly small, but consequential gaps. His work, he says, goes beyond talking about helping build resilience by identifying what people need and then making sure they have the capacity to produce the thing they need. 

Since then, Field Ready has supported local production of everything from medical device repairs, to up-cycled plastic insulation for shelters, to locally mass-produced buckets and latrine slabs, to a robotic firefighter.

One of their aims, he says, is to show that essential and urgently needed items can be made locally, quickly, inexpensively, and to meet quality standards. 

To him, this is what localisation is all about. 

Watch his story here: 

Read the interview here:

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

TNH: What is the goal of your project?

Eric James: Field Ready is about localising manufacturing. That is, making things that people need, where and when they need them.

TNH: What was the moment you knew you had to start this work?

James: It wasn't just one moment, it was a process that happened over many years. I have a real passion for aid work, but also a lot of frustration. Again, and again, I would go to a rural health clinic or see a WASH programme that just didn't have the things that they needed. And so it was an epiphany when I realised that there could be things that people need made where they're needed. And so that's the sort of spark of an idea that has led to Field Ready, and that's making things where they're needed.

TNH: When did you know your work was making a difference?

James: We were lucky very early on to see some of the results of our programme, but where I really knew that it hit home was when we made rescue technology, inflatable airbags, completely locally made in northwest Syria. And the very first time that was used, it rescued a mother and daughter. And we did that in a way that was a huge reduction in cost and the use of local supplies. And so that's when it brought home and allowed us to think about other ways we could use the same sort of approach.

TNH: What was the hardest thing about getting your idea off the ground?

James: To make something locally, it's about working with people and the resources and talents they have, and not just identifying the needs and going from there. It's really about a ground-up approach. One of the biggest challenges is mobilising the resources for what we do; convincing people who are far from the field has often been a challenge. But I think people who have spent time and really know what kind of challenges [there] are, [and who] quickly see what we're doing and get behind it, are quite happy about that.

TNH: How is your approach different to that of ‘traditional’ humanitarians?

James: Typically, [humanitarians] would assess the situation and identify what needs there are and then rely on supply chains often that are globalised, which rely on very long, cumbersome, expensive ways to get the materials you need in place. Some research has identified that 60% to 80% of all aid money is spent on logistics in one form or another. So the ordering, procurement, logistics, that's the traditional way. We're not saying we're going to replace all that. What we're saying is that there's a large portion of the materials and finalised items that people need [that] can be made locally, using local talent, resources and so on.

TNH: When things get tough, what keeps you going?

James: A lot of the things that we do are about making a bespoke piece that fix pieces of medical equipment, for example, or making [a] large number of WASH items. But sometimes it's about creativity and really making a difference in a unique way. And so one of the things that really motivates me, it's one that has all come together in making soap that encourages kids to wash their hands more frequently. Any parent knows that that's not an easy thing. And so, what we’ve done is made soap with toys embedded in them that the children can see. What we found through research is that [it] results in a four-fold increase in hand washing, which is a huge result. And we've been trying to replicate that project [in] as many places as we can.

TNH: What inspires you about the humanitarian sector?

James: We work in a sector that has so many good people, and so many people doing the right things. And throughout my career, I'm lucky to say I've worked alongside some awesome team members and seen amazing things in the most devastated places. So some of my colleagues are the ones that I look up to – engineers in northwest Syria [who] have made life-saving devices; in parts of Asia, where they're doing things that have never been done before. It's those people that I draw inspiration from, and who make me work harder to try and do the right thing to support them.

TNH: What advice would you give to aspiring humanitarians, people who would like to enter the sector?

James: It's a great question because there was not a clear way to get started when I began. And I've devoted a good portion of my career [to] trying to teach others and write about things in a way that's accessible. I think that a key thing to know is the complexity in which this field operates. There’s the easy part of it, and that's the implementation side, but for every project, every activity, there's a whole set of complex things going on in the background that cannot be ignored. And so, understanding those and trying to navigate them in a smart way is truly important. To be good and have a longstanding presence in the field, you need to sort of be able to balance competing priorities. And that's really important.

Natasha Freidus: Connecting givers and receivers of aid 

In 2015, Natasha Freidus found herself in France trying to solve a puzzle. Thousands of Syrians were turning up with overwhelming needs after escaping the conflict in their homeland. At the same time, people and aid goods were arriving in droves to help. However, as far as she could tell, there wasn’t a system to efficiently connect the two. 

Often, Freidus says, aid items and support don’t need to be shipped in from a far-flung warehouse to a crisis context. Well-intentioned people really want to pitch in and help, but often they don’t know how and they end up sending goods that are unusable. During her time in France, she explains, “people… kept bringing us stuff we didn’t need, to help the refugees, like cans of pork and beans for a population that eats halal.” 

Freidus set out to stop the problem of needs going unmet and goods being wasted through NeedsList: a system that bridges that information gap so users and suppliers can be more easily and cheaply connected during times of crisis. 

Watch her story here:

Read the interview here:

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

TNH: What is the goal of your project?

Natasha Freidus: NeedsList is building technology solutions to power faster, more sustainable, and efficient humanitarian action.

TNH: How does your match system work?

Freidus: It's a two-sided marketplace. You have organisations on the front lines who can post needs. It’s a we-based app, and we also have an app that works offline. So that means that we have folks working in the camps in Uganda, or in other places, where they don’t have connectivity, they can post their needs on the app, when they get back to the office and it’s pushed online. Companies or larger players can go in and meet those needs directly. For example, mattresses for Afghan arrivals. I was just talking to United Airlines [and] they’re decommissioning a hotel [shutting it down] and they have all these beds, so they can go in and start meeting those needs. Or if they have something in those offices, like desktop computers, and nobody has posted a need, they can also put an offer for that. And then the resettlement agencies in this case can go in and claim it. So anytime there's basically a match between a need and an offer, both parties get an alert, I get an alert, and it makes me happy.

TNH: What was the moment you knew you had to start this work?

Freidus: Back in 2015, I was on the ground supporting Syrians in France, and I saw that there was just a massive need for a better way to communicate what was needed in real time. We had all these people who wanted the help, and all these items that were needed, but no way to connect the two. We live in a technology-driven world. We know that marketplaces work in pretty much every other sector of our life. So, it was pretty obvious to me that there should be some way to bring a marketplace approach to the humanitarian context.

TNH: What was the hardest thing about getting your idea off the ground?

Freidus: Actually, the hardest aspect of this was being an outsider to the humanitarian system, and trying to get buy-in from more traditional humanitarian stakeholders. And that included everything from adoption to money. What we found, especially at the beginning, is that everybody recognised that there was a need for a better way to do things. And we had incredible response from grassroots and from individual donors. But when it came to getting more traditional institutional players to buy into it, that was the challenge.

TNH: How is your approach different to that of ‘traditional’ humanitarians?

Freidus: What we've seen is that the larger NGOs each have their own tools for needs assessment… Part of the challenge is each one has their own needs assessment tool. And so, I'd say the biggest difference around what we're doing is, it’s a tool designed to bring together stakeholders, both large NGOs, grassroots organisations, the private sector and the public sector. So having them all on the same platform so that they can all see what each other's needs are, they can meet one another's needs.

That goes from not just companies meeting needs for non-profits, but what we see in the field all the time is that non-profits might have a surplus of one item, and somebody just down the street needs it. And so, there's this real asymmetry in information that's happening, especially in crisis moments. And our platform is not a panacea, it's not going to fix everything. But it connects the players so that if you do have something that's needed, and someone else needs it, boom, you can match those two.

TNH: When things get tough, what keeps you going?

Freidus: We ask our users to send in photos when items get to them. So every email, every day I'm getting emails saying there was a match in Iraq, there was a match in Venezuela, there was a match in San Francisco.

One story that sticks out is, at the very beginning, when we knew we were onto something was really around solving this gap in information. We were using the tool on the [Greek] island of Lesvos in 2016-2017, in response to a number of refugees arriving on the islands. One local non-profit needed a defibrillator, an AED, and they posted a need. This is something that traditionally would cost thousands of dollars. When they posted it on the platform, another non-profit right across the island had an extra one in their warehouse and they dropped it off the next day.That's when I said, “okay, we're onto something here”.

[Another idea] that's very close to our heart, [is] this idea of inclusivity and leadership. Our partners on the ground, our frontline workers from refugee-led organisations… were posting needs for face masks. Shortly after we got this photograph of all these elders in the camp in northern Uganda, wearing masks that were produced locally, and manufactured locally. And I think that breaking the cycle of aid – to have the need-identification to manufacturing to distribution all happening locally by locally led organisations – that's been absolutely tremendous and super-exciting.

It's actually much easier to get buy-in from the local institutions, because they know that the existing systems don't work… they want to try new things. And so it kind of gets at this idea of whether you affect change from the grassroots bottom up or top down, and I've always believed we have to do it both ways.

If we can start connecting these people that are in the same place, and really create local ecosystems by leveraging resources, that has tremendous potential at scale. Today we’re working in the next displacement crisis, as Afghans have been resettled all over the world. We’re operating in the United States to support Afghan resettlement for 50,000 plus people with nine major resettlement agencies. So it's been a tremendous opportunity and learning experience to see what this looks like, again, at scale.

TNH: What prevents people getting involved with humanitarian causes?

Freidus: I think one of the biggest barriers to innovation in the sector is that it's not a market-based sector. So your customers are not the one paying for the solution. And the biggest challenge is figuring out who is the customer? In our case, we've seen over and over again that people agree, “yes, this is needed,” but figuring out who is going to cover the costs, that's a different issue. And so, I think for people who are thinking about getting involved, figuring that out early on, and not expecting it to just work itself out, is going to be key.

TNH: Who are the people you admire in humanitarian work? Who has “got it right” in the sector?

Freidus: I think the humanitarian sector is really at a turning point right now in terms of inclusion and representation issues. And so we're seeing that people who are directly affected by humanitarian issues are saying, "we need to be included in power and decision-making". We're seeing that happening right now in Geneva, and we see it at the grassroots level.

One of the people I admire in this field is Sana Mustafa, who has been really essential [in] leading the Refugee Inclusion Movement. She and a whole host of other refugee-led organisations have just won a large grant, called the Refugee Resourcing Leadership Initiative, to really build the capacity of grassroots organisations. So it’s folks like that who are really inspiring, and we work with a number of them.

This was not something I thought about as much explicitly at the beginning. We were always focused on grassroots. But it's so clear to me that investing in organisations that are directly affected by the problem makes sense from every aspect, not just [from] an ethical point of view. These are the people that know the problem the best, they speak the language, they know the culture, and they know how to get stuff done. And so I'm really excited by organisations that are moving resources that way and taking leadership that way.

James Thuch Madhier: Sourcing clean and sustainable water

As a child growing up in South Sudan in the late 1990s, James Thuch Madhier witnessed starvation and extreme hunger due to the ongoing conflict. At just 15 years old, he was forced to flee to northern Kenya, going on to study in Canada. The memory of suffering during his childhood haunted him for years, and he decided he could do something about it. 

As an adult, he noticed that some of the things that had forced him to flee his home country were still unaddressed, despite the presence of the international aid development communities during all the intervening time. As a recipient of aid but also someone now working with the aid sector, he says that the established institutions often lack a real penetration or connection with local communities. Aghast by the disparity between the amounts of money spent at conferences for policy discussions and what actually exists on the ground, Madhier wanted to make more sustainable and locally led solutions. 

“I just felt that I needed to act and start with my own community, where I came from, and try to showcase a different approach to actually empower people that have been affected by some of these humanitarian challenges.”

He says he decided the best entry point would be water, because “in humanitarian and conflict situations like South Sudan, infrastructure is the first to suffer.” He says that while the larger conflict dynamics may be addressed, those underlying issues that may feed the conflict tend to be ignored and can continue to destabilise the country. “I wanted to critically look at the root causes of the problems, address them there, and find solutions to those problems,” he says.

In 2017, Madhier launched the Rainmaker Enterprise, an initiative that uses solar power to provide water and mechanised farming services to communities in South Sudan. “We’re not just providing water to communities for drinking… but for farming, for feeding livestock, and creating livelihoods.” So far, it’s helped 3,000 families access clean and sustainable water.  He’s hoping to bring it to more.  

Watch his story here: 

Read the interview here:

TNH: What is the goal of your project?

James Thuch Madhier: The goal of the Rainmaker Enterprise is to restore or build dignity for communities that have long been caught in protracted humanitarian crises. We install solar powered water solutions, including mechanised farming services so that communities can address some of the issues they've faced for years.

TNH: What was the moment you knew you had to start this work?

Madhier: It started way back in 1998, when, as a child, I witnessed one of the most horrific experiences that anybody should ever see: seeing another human being starve to death before you because of extreme hunger and lack of food to eat. This was in southern Sudan, [which] at the time… was caught in a deadly civil war that cut them off and left people vulnerable to extreme hunger, leading to the most … terrible famine that happened that year. This was the moment, witnessing that, it was on a different level, to see somebody die of hunger, not because of diseases, or not because maybe they were shot.

When I got the opportunity to go and study in Canada, it helped me contextualise some of those experiences. I told myself, ”I think now is the time to act.” After seeing the entrenched issues of climate change … and how that is playing out with the interconnected issues of protracted conflict in places like South Sudan, I told myself, “I will not wait any longer to see thousands of other people die like they did when I was a child.” And I had to begin.

TNH: What was the hardest thing about getting your idea off the ground?

Madhier: The [biggest] hurdle was lack of support, lack of resources to be able to actually implement the innovative solutions. It took time, really, I didn't have any resources. I was a new immigrant in Canada and didn't have any resources at my disposal, apart from my energy and drive and a handful of very energetic students that came on board as well and supported the vision.

TNH: Tell me a little bit about how the solar power project?

Madhier: We sat down with the local communities … across South Sudan. One of the things that came out was the barrier that prevents people from actually unleashing their full selves. Once those barriers are removed, people can actually take control of their own issues.

One of the key barriers that we found was lack of access to water, not just the basic drinking water, but for their livestock, water for farming, because issues of extreme drought are becoming really increasingly a challenge to smallholder farmers, where in South Sudan, 95% of people depend on rainfed agriculture. It's either, it is too dry, or, when it rains, it's so sporadic that it causes flooding and destroys crops. So, every year, people are helpless, they are at the brink of, again, facing famine.

We set out to design a solution that would bring in an integrated approach to addressing this issue: having a solar powered water infrastructure that would enable large-scale irrigation programmes for communities, smallholder farmers, and also for their livestock watering, and also for their own community health aspects as well. This is what we set out to do, and I'm very happy to say that we were actually able to get it done. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that brought the world to a standstill, we managed to install a large-scale solar powered water supply system for over 3,000 families in South Sudan.

TNH: This powered water system is not only innovative, but it's also sustainable. Why is it so important for you to put sustainability at the core of your business?

Madhier: [The project] must generate some revenue so that local people can continue to benefit from these vital services. We also looked at the sustainability aspect of the environment, how really the energy that we use to supply the water should not cause more harm to the environment, and create another challenge in 30 years. We also looked at sustainability from the standpoint of water management – making sure that every drop of water that we draw from the ground counts. That’s why our motto says “building dignity, drop by drop”.

What we mean, every single drop that we get out of the ground is actually utilised in a proper way. So for the farming aspect, for example, we use drip irrigation. [We’re trying to] enable the communities to learn from the get-go that they need to be sustainable if they are able to address the issues for now and the future generations.

My personal principle and my personal motto that I try to infuse in the work of Rainmaker: If you feel that you are not going to sustain this for this group of people, do not engage, do not engage at all. Because what is worse is when you show people what works, a new way of living, and then all of a sudden it’s not sustainable and you cannot afford to have it. Well, then it’s more detrimental [than never having it in the first place]. People have been fetching water from open holes that are dirty, and all of a sudden they have clean drinking water. Now their world view is different, completely different. And then five months later, that source of water is no longer there, because it has broken down and nobody's there to repair it. Then, that person imagines himself or herself going back to that dirty pond to fetch the water there. The mind shift in itself is really, really detrimental. So you've done worse than good by actually engaging in something that you cannot sustain. This is the principle that we want to operate on. We want to try our best. If we engage, we engage knowing that we are going to create a sustainable infrastructure for those individuals that we have engaged with.

TNH: How is your approach different to that of ‘traditional’ humanitarians?

Madhier: The main difference that we have with the traditional humanitarian sector is mainly we work with the local. We are embedded in those communities that we are serving. Some of the knowledge that we rely on is a knowledge that is embedded within our structures and everything that we do. And the people that we work with, 95% of them are from these local communities. They are the drivers of these particular initiatives. And that is another element of sustainability that is really key to making sure that the humanitarian delivery is maintained and sustained. It should really involve the local people in a more substantial way, not just engaging them, or handing them aid or handing them material, it should literally put the tools into their own hands to be able to take control of their own issues. And I think that's our key difference.

TNH: When things get tough, what keeps you going?

Madhier: The story of an elderly man that was forced out of his own community, to flee to go to a neighbouring community. He is a spiritual leader in his own community. The open well that was near to him was increasingly becoming a risk to his own health and the health of his wife and family. His wife was too weak to go and fetch the water from this open well, and he had to make a tough decision to leave his own community and go to a neighbouring community that had access to clean drinking water from a borehole. When we came in and installed the solar-powered water supply system, the distance for him was reduced to five minutes. So he could crawl out of his own bed and bring clean drinking water. And having him back within the community was a relief not only to himself, but to the entire community that depended on his guidance and leadership as an elder that was highly respected in the community. When we look at a story like that, we feel that more of this vulnerable population – the elderly people, the young girls and boys that have to skip school – [can now access clean water], that [is what] keeps us going.

Hundreds of young boys and girls that are tasked with the role of going to fetch water over a kilometre every day, and often fail to go to school and drop out of school because of lack of access, now have the opportunity to attend to their future education. I think that example really inspires us and keeps us going every day.

We also think about the women that we work with, women who, when famine happens, they are the last to eat, because they have to care for their families. With access to water nearby, they can put more of their time into actually economic-generating activities, engaging in economic-generating activity so that they can feed their families better and feed themselves too, right?

These people, no matter how hard the going gets, we feel inspired and we feel that we are doing it together with them. And we have a journey, and we have a story to cultivate and to create and show the world.

(*A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the floods took place in 2019, and that Bhattacharjee had one million supporters behind her. The story was amended on 19 October to reflect that the floods were in 2017-2018 and that Bhattacharjee had more than 100,000 supporters behind her.)

Interviews by Teodora Agarici. Videos by Ciara Lee. Edited by Jessica Alexander.

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