World Humanitarian Day: Inspiration from the heart of conflict

LWF’s Josef Pfattner stands with a group working on strengthening resilience and self-sufficiency for women in Chad. Photo: LWF/Chad
LWF’s Josef Pfattner stands with a group working on strengthening resilience and self-sufficiency for women in Chad. Photo: LWF/Chad

A reflection on the unique contributions of faith-based organizations

(LWI) - The annual observance of World Humanitarian Day on 19 August has a particular resonance for Josef Pfattner. He works as The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) Interim Regional Program Coordinator for Kenya-Djibouti-Somalia, but in August 2003 he was located in the Iraqi city of Basra with the Rome-based organization Intersos. Watching the bombing of the Baghdad hotel that killed United Nations (UN) special representative Sergio Vieira de Mello and 21 of his colleagues had a profound effect on Pfattner, as well as on the humanitarian world in which he has served ever since.

“I remember we switched on the TV and saw the attack on the UN building in Baghdad and of course it affected all of us deeply,” he recalls. “I was working as coordinator of a project funded by various UN agencies and all their international staff members were relocated immediately to Jordan and Kuwait.”

But the local workers, “they don’t get evacuated and they don’t have protection, so you have to put yourself in their shoes,” he continues. Maintaining good relationships with local staff is a key lesson he learnt during his time in Iraq.

Finding solutions, staying positive

Compared to most humanitarian workers, Pfattner has been leading an unusual life, working for eight months of the year as an interim Representative and Program Coordinator for LWF’s country programs in some of the world’s hotspots, including South Sudan, Chad and the Central African Republic, where large parts of the population are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. For the remaining months, he retreats to a remote mountain hut with his children to look after cows in his native Alto Adige region of northern Italy.

“Those may seem like two totally different worlds,” he says, “but there are similarities” from which he draws inspiration. "Living in those different countries I have learnt to problem solve, maintain a positive attitude and create a good atmosphere in the team - the same skills that are necessary for living on the mountain top with no internet and only a solar panel for electricity.” 

 LWF/CAR

Pfattner inspects a market gardening project with Mirabele, an LWF staff member in the Central African Republic. Photo: LWF/CAR

After spending several years with secular humanitarian organizations, he started working with the faith-based coalition ACT Alliance in 2008. “To begin with,” he confesses, “I didn’t think that a faith-based organization would fit with my perception of how to do humanitarian work. But I was really positively surprised to see how well they apply humanitarian principles – in fact I think, as faith-based organizations, we apply them more consistently, primarily because it is the right thing to do but also because we are being so closely watched by those who may not trust our motives or believe that we serve people irrespective of their faith.”

Advocacy and human rights promotion

Reflecting on the changes of the past two decades, Pfattner says that humanitarian workers used to be seen “like firefighters, trying to save lives and contain the damage in a crisis situation.” Nowadays, he continues, “they are rightfully playing a much bigger role in advocacy, in promoting human rights and in making people aware of how a just society works.” He continues: “Of course, some governments don’t like this and as a result, they have moved “to limit the space of humanitarian organizations, to reduce access and to make life more difficult for them.”

A lot of LWF’s humanitarian work, Pfattner observes, is based on long-term livelihoods and income generation so that people can live autonomous lives. “When I started in this field, I used to be told that any program lasting over a year was not humanitarian, but rather development work,” he laughs. “But now you see in Eastern Chad there are people from Darfur who have been there for over a decade. The same is true in Kenya’s refugee camps and the host governments cannot keep providing support and protection, so our job is to ensure crucial education and livelihoods for these people.”

 LWF/Chad

Pfattner visits a mechanic’s workshop managed by a graduate from an LWF-run training school in Chad.Photo: LWF/Chad

Visiting LWF-run schools and income generating projects in remote rural villages or refugee camps continues to inspire and motivate Pfattner, as he sees the impact that even small-scale projects can have on the lives of individuals and communities. But he also feels a profound sense of frustration “when I look at places like Syria and see that the political will is lacking to prevent or stop these big conflicts.” He has worked for the LWF in Jordan, which hosts over 600,000 refugees from the war in Syria, saying: “We are trying to mitigate the suffering of the people, but if powerful nations would be willing to work together to end the conflicts, our work would not be needed."

The combination of local experience on the ground and support from LWF’s headquarters in Geneva is a real asset that continues to change lives for the better.
Josef Pfattner, LWF Interim Regional Program Coordinator for Kenya-Djibouti-Somalia

Shrinking funds for humanitarian work is a worry for Pfattner, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. But what gives him most hope is to see how LWF is strengthening ties between its member churches and the country programs providing support to the most vulnerable communities. “What LWF, and other faith-based organizations, can offer is the professional skills of our humanitarian teams, alongside the local structures of a church that knows the needs of the people, speaks their language and understands their cultural norms,” he says.

Serving as interim director of the LWF program in Jordan in 2015, Pfattner witnessed this constructive cooperation close up. He concludes: “The combination of local experience on the ground and support from LWF’s headquarters in Geneva is a real asset that continues to change lives for the better.”

LWF/P. Hitchen


Throughout August, Lutheran World Information will feature interviews with humanitarian workers contributing to LWF’s emergency and development work worldwide.

World Humanitarian Day is observed each year on 19 August to honor humanitarian aid workers, including United Nations and other personnel, who are committed to the service of the world’s most vulnerable people and communities. It marks the day on which the former UN Special Representative of the Secretary General to Iraq, Sérgio Vieira de Mello, and 21 of his colleagues were killed in the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad in 2003.