Through a Humanitarian Lens: An Unusual Year

Chris Herlinger | December 30, 2013

A refugee girl in class in a school operated by St. Andrew's Refugee Services in Cairo, Egypt. Located at St. Andrews United Church of Cairo, the program is supported by CWS. Photo: Paul Jeffrey

A refugee girl in class in a school operated by St. Andrew’s Refugee Services in Cairo, Egypt. Located at St. Andrews United Church of Cairo, the program is supported by CWS. Photo: Paul Jeffrey

As originally published by Huffington Post, 12/27/2013, 4:16 p.m.

If we look at 2013 through a humanitarian lens, what do we see?

An unusual year in some ways — a year in which conflict situations nearly equaled natural disasters outside the United States (think Syria, South Sudan, Central African Republic) and yet, natural disasters still proved potent and powerful (think Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines).

While there was not a huge media-consuming event like Hurricane Sandy in the United States, my Church World Service colleagues, who deal with domestic emergencies, were plenty busy. “An incessant string of regional disasters has affected thousands of households,” my colleague Susanne Gilmore wrote recently. “The cumulative impact amounts to a major disaster. Destructive water, wind and/or fire events have affected almost every U.S. state this year.”

I’m writing this from my home state of Colorado — and communities here are still trying to recover from the late summer floods that crippled many towns and rural areas.

Looking outside the U.S. borders, we see some troubling signs. Economic growth in recent years has improved the lives of many in a number of African countries. Yet we enter 2014 with conflicts expanding in a number of African locales, most especially in South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

The situation in South Sudan is a particular heartbreak, given that so much energy and goodwill (and not to mention financial aid) has been provided to this new and young country. “It’s been like a ‘U-turn,’ ” said Donna Derr, who oversees humanitarian efforts for CWS.

As for Syria, the situation there did not improve in 2013, and Derr said the international community did not avail itself well in dealing with Syria and its attendant humanitarian crisis, which is spilling way beyond its borders. “We didn’t address it effectively,” she said.

Yet when I asked Derr about what humanitarian crisis didn’t get the attention it deserved, she mentioned one that has barely gotten attention in the United States — the worst Coffee Rust plague in Central America since 1976.

Coffee Rust is a fungus that eats away at crops and plants. When it strikes, the only thing farmers can do is to destroy crops to prevent the spread of the fungus. This is causing huge economic problems in Costa Rica, Guatemala and Honduras — affecting the lives of millions in some way.

If that is not welcome news from Latin America, Pope Francis’ first year as pope certainly has been good news from a humanitarian perspective. The fact that the Argentine cleric has placed the fight against poverty and hunger at the center of his papacy has captured the hearts of many of us in the humanitarian field, whether we’re Catholic or not. “He speaks our language,” is the message one Catholic colleague has heard repeatedly from non-Catholics about the pope’s efforts.

Another colleague, Martin Coria, who heads the CWS office in Buenos Aires, said that Francis’ “plain-speaking” has been a particular gift. “One thing many fellow Argentineans, including myself, appreciate and highlight about Pope Francis is that when he speaks we — all — understand what he is saying! He speaks for all, not just for the experts.”

For those within the church, “Pope Francis invites and challenges Christians and the church to go to the borders, leave the center and go to the peripheries,” Coria said. “He seems to be saying that big and good things — in biblical terms — are waiting for those who dare to do it.”

In a tough year of ongoing humanitarian challenges and problems, that was a much-needed balm.

Chris Herlinger is senior writer for CWS.

For an additional view of 2013, see