Humanitarian principles on the school curriculum

Article, 15.03.2017

Project Humanity, which was initiated by the SDC, familiarises students with the four humanitarian principles. They get an idea of how humanitarian aid works and how they can integrate it in their day-to-day lives. We visited a class at the Wiedikon cantonal school in Zurich.

A woman standing in front of a class and speaking to pupils as photos are projected onto the wall
Young people get an insight into humanitarian aid work from an employee of the SDC's Swiss Humanitarian Aid department.

It's a Tuesday afternoon at the end of January and a class of 13- and 14-year-olds from the Wiedikon cantonal school in Zurich is departing from the usual timetable: instead of Goethe, Hesse and German grammar, today's lesson is on the four humanitarian principles. Billi Bierling, Information Officer at SDC Humanitarian Aid, journalist and climber with professional experience in the occupied Palestinian territory, Pakistan, Lebanon and Jordan, talks about her day-to-day work, conflicts and humanitarian crises, thereby connecting the dots between theory and practice.

The young people have already done 13 lessons on the principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence, so the four humanitarian principles are not new to them. Some of the students describe what they associate with these concepts: "Treating people equally, whatever their skin colour," is how one pupil defines neutrality. Another girl describes independence as "staying neutral when two parties are in conflict".  Billi Bierling expands on the notion of independence in the following way: "You still depend on and live with your parents, so you are not yet independent from them."

What is a humanitarian crisis?

After discussing the concepts, the next part of the lesson focuses on the experiences of a humanitarian aid worker. Billi Bierling gives the class an idea of what a humanitarian crisis is and how severe it can be. In 2009 she was stationed in Pakistan and witnessed how military operations by the Pakistani government against the Taliban spawned a humanitarian crisis. 2.7 million people were internally displaced, which means they had to leave their homes and seek somewhere else to live inside the country.

People could only return home after a year; often, their houses needed to be repaired or even rebuilt. Shortly afterwards, Pakistan was hit by another disaster. In 2010, the country received as much rain in one day as it usually does in a whole year. Pakistan was flooded, 2,000 people lost their lives and 20 million people were reliant on humanitarian aid.

The first step in emergency relief

"The most important thing was to hand out plastic sheets to people so they could protect themselves from the rain," recalls the former journalist, who wanted to cycle to work on the first day of the floods, but a colleague stopped her. Besides food and medical supplies, accommodation is one of the first forms of aid that people need in humanitarian crises; this is referred to as emergency relief.

On the ground within 48 hours

Billi Bierling showed how Switzerland is able to provide this emergency relief in a very short time using the example of Nepal, where she has lived for six months of the year since 2004. Nepal was hit by a powerful earthquake on 25 April 2015. Two days before, Billi Bierling had left the Himalayan country and touched down in her native Germany. But she didn't stay there long.

"The head of Swiss Humanitarian Aid called me and asked me to fly back to the Nepalese capital Kathmandu with the rapid intervention team," she tells the pupils as they listen, transfixed. A few hours later, just after midnight, she landed in the city, which although very familiar suddenly felt alien to her.

"During the day Kathmandu is a bustling and very noisy city. But after 9 p.m. it is empty and all you can hear are dogs barking. However, that night was different: people were scurrying about, but it was deadly silent. And even the dogs weren't barking," Bierling recalls.

Once again, plastic sheets were what people needed most urgently. "Having a roof over your head is often the most important thing in situations like these."

Good times and bad

Over the course of her professional life, Billi Bierling has had both positive and negative experiences.  The young people ask her about both. The 48-year-old tells the story of Mohammed, whom she met in Pakistan. She had been posted by Swiss Humanitarian Aid to the UN refugee relief agency UNHCR as a press officer and met a young man in a wheelchair suffering from polio. He explained that he wrote poems and stories and that he needed a laptop to do so.

The journalist wrote an article about Mohammed, whose parents had fled to Pakistan from Afghanistan, and published it on the UNHCR website (see links). Some students in Canada were so moved by the article that they raised the money to make Mohammed's wish come true.

One of the unpleasant experiences involved meeting a young woman in Pakistan who screamed at Billi and accused humanitarian aid workers of doing nothing but turning up with pens and paper and driving around in big cars. "I answered that although I didn't have anything in my hands to give her, I could tell her story to the world and therefore make help possible."

Almost two hours later, the class is still attentive, asking about Billi's motivation, career and experiences. She tirelessly recounts the poverty she has witnessed, the guilt she sometimes feels when she sees the conveniences we enjoy in the West, and the hospitality of people that she has experienced on her deployments abroad. She also talks about how the aid provided must be sustainable.

The two-hour lesson on humanitarian principles has flown by and the pupils seem pleased. They all shake Billi Bierling's hand as they leave.

Three questions to Susanna Graf, initiator of Project Humanity


How did Project Humanity come about?

An increasing number of humanitarian aid workers are victims of attacks. This is what gave us the idea of giving people a better understanding of the humanitarian principles. And why not start with the young generation? Children and young people are the ones who will shape the future and have a direct stake in it.  They can think about and maybe even further develop the humanitarian principles, because in half a century from now the humanitarian challenges we face may be quite different – whether in Switzerland, Rwanda or Zimbabwe.

The four humanitarian principles form the basis of all humanitarian efforts worldwide. They emerged from the commitment, values and seven fundamental principles of the Red Cross movement. For this reason, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Swiss Red Cross (SRC) are important partners in this project.