Choosing dignity and humanity to make lasting change


There is a very specific point in my life that I think had a profound impact on the way I see the world. I was around 14 years-old and my Father - a Chartered Accountant - had taken up the voluntary role of Treasurer for a local organisation that supported refugees. He had invited a young Bulgarian refugee to join us for Christmas Lunch - I would guess that he was around 19 or 20 years-old. The experience of listening to his story and realising what a person only a few years older than me from somewhere else in Europe had been through was very affecting. I wouldn’t say that it was at the front of my mind from there on in, but it was definitely nestled away at the back, changing the way that I saw the world.

Changing the narrative

I strongly believe that to make the most effective change we need to change the narrative first. We need to shift the balance away from an inward looking, ‘how does this affect me’ attitude, towards an empathic, outward looking, ‘we’re all in this together’ viewpoint. Our vision of the world should be one where we feel that an attack on someone somewhere is an attack on all of us.

I think the word ‘humanitarian’ is misused. Once a military force involved on one side of a conflict says they are on a humanitarian mission, then the word ceases to have meaning for me. You can no longer grab onto it. The key test is to ask, ‘Is what I am doing consistent with the humanitarian principles of impartiality and neutrality? Is it reinforcing respect for humanity and personal dignity, or is it diminishing it?’ ‘Humanitarian’ should be redefined in this way - so that it reinforces our humanity and other people’s dignity and produces opportunities for other people to live fulfilled lives.

Part of this is changing the way we react to crises. A refugee I met from Chad once said to me, ‘You know, you guys always come along and offer us food, healthcare, a tent. But what we want are jobs, education and a place to live that lets us achieve these things on our own. Think if you were in our position. What would you want? A way to get by for a week or a way to rebuild your life?’ Dignity and humanity are key.

Small gestures, big impact

In my career with the UN, I have seen the worst of humanity, but also the best. I believe one person can make a difference and find it extraordinary that even small gestures can have such an impact on the overall outcome for people. Whatever people’s skills and background, I think that everyone can respond in a way that is valuable.

For me, the most important thing you can do is take the time to learn something about a situation that sounds important and is of interest to you, where it looks like people are being treated inhumanely and without dignity. You might be interested because you’ve been to the country, or just because you have seen some photographs. Whatever the reason, do a little research, find out more and talk to other people about it.

Everyday people

I’ve been lucky to work with some incredible and influential people, but it’s ordinary people who continue to inspire me every day. I was listening to the BBC World Service recently and there was a young Syrian refugee on who had taught himself to swim. At one point in his life he had made the treacherous crossing from Turkey to Greece – now he is planning on going to the Olympics with the refugee team. These stories lift my mood and refresh my faith in humanity – I hope they do the same for others.


About Martin Barber

Martin has a long career in the United Nations and led the UK NGO Refugee Council in the 80s. He is currently involved in a new movement called United Against Inhumanity, is the author of Blinded by Humanity, and is a valued member of the CanDo community.