accessibility & help

Humanitarian aid in action

Communities trapped by the fighting in Syria are desperate for the basics of survival. Humanitarian relief agencies are ready to provide what help they can. But a dangerous and unpredictable conflict zone means there are many barriers to overcome.

Help young people explore these barriers and appreciate the scale and complexity of the relief effort. Begin with a photograph of an aid truck being inspected, and end with messages of hope and humanity.


Learning objectives

By the end of this activity young people will be able to:

  • Identify various key tasks involved in a major relief effort and describe which they think would be most difficult to achieve in a conflict zone.
  • Consider different roles technology might play in humanitarian aid efforts and how it could be used to build trust.

Age range: 11–14
Curriculum links: Citizenship


Photo activity

A man inspects aid inside Red Crescent vehicles on their way to al Foua and Kefraya in Idlib province Syria January 11 2016© Info

At first glance there's not much happening in this photo. Two men are standing in the back of a truck. Yet there is drama. What is going on may help reduce the suffering of a lot of people.

Ask the group to say who they think the men are and what they are doing.

After discussion explain that the man in the foreground is working with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. He is part of a team of volunteers and workers who have brought humanitarian aid to people in conflict areas over the past five years.

This particular relief effort was headline news across the world in January. A convoy of trucks was bringing essential food, water and medicines to towns and cities that had been cut off from all assistance for months. According to some reports, people were at starvation point.

The man inside the truck belongs to one of the armed groups in the area. He is inspecting the aid supplies.

It is a serious and tense business. Talk about what the man might be looking for. Why is it important that all groups have confidence that the aid convey isn't being used for some other purpose — for instance, to bring in weapons or ammunition?

Ask young people to try and complete this sentence in their own words:

If weapons or ammunition were found in containers marked as humanitarian aid, then...

Once the have their completed sentences, expand their ideas around the potential consequences by continuing to ask ‘and then…’

Encourage young people to consider both short and long term consequences for different groups of people.

For example, they could complete different sentences discussing what would it mean for:

  • the people trapped by fighting?
  • volunteers working for humanitarian organisations?
  • the future likelihood of being able to gain access to besieged areas to deliver aid?

The logistics of humanitarian relief

Aid delivery in Madaya© Info

Bringing essential supplies to people trapped by armed conflict can be challenging. Some basic tasks might include:

  • finding out what people most need
  • gathering together enough supplies to meet those needs
  • getting those supplies safely to them through routes that are agreed by all relevant parties to the conflict
  • finding ways to secure the convoy against ambush or theft.

Which of the above do young people think might be most difficult? How long might the process take? What setbacks might there be during a period of active armed conflict? How essential is it that the people get the help they need? What might happen if they didn’t?

The aid effort shown in the photograph was co-ordinated by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the United Nations.

It took months to negotiate. Seeking agreement with the different groups was complicated and time-consuming.

The parties agreed to allow humanitarian aid into a town that they were controlling access to. But only if the opposing side also let in aid to areas they controlled, at exactly the same time.

That meant aid to the city of Madaya, in the south, was linked to the delivery of aid to two towns in the north of the country, Foua and Kefraya.

This required significant co-ordination, with minute-by-minute checks.

As Marianne Gasser, the head of the ICRC delegation in Syria, explained:

"One town could not be given relief without relief going to the others - and at exactly the same time. This system was so strictly followed that when one truck literally got stuck in the mud in the north, the trucks in the south could not move until it was freed."

She explained that no food could be delivered to one town until it was shown that the same food was being delivered to the other side. They used photos on WhatsApp to verify what was happening.

"This is not the way to run relief operations", says Marianne Gasser.

Discuss why not?

Humanitarian agencies and workers are motivated to provide help efficiently and effectively to people who need it, with no conditions attached. Ask young people to think through why this approach is important.

Technology and trust

Trust is vital in many forms of negotiation.

The International Committee of the Red Cross and Syrian Arab Red Crescent need to be seen as neutral and impartial to be able to gain access to help people most in need during a conflict.

If they gain the respect of all sides they can be trusted to do what they say they will. Without trust, everything is much harder.

During the convoy in January 2016, the aid agencies in Syria used WhatsApp to verify each stage of the joint venture.

Invite young people to think of some of the different roles technology might play in humanitarian aid efforts? In what ways might technology be used to build trust between people?

Relief items

Agencies have been trying to provide humanitarian relief to millions of people affected by the fighting in Syria for the past five years.

Here are some statistics, to give an idea of the range and extent of the relief effort. These are just some of the items the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent delivered in 2015.

  • 2,373 pairs of crutches
  • anti-lice shampoo for 122,000 people
  • 1.2 million litres of bottled water to displaced people and hospitals
  • generators to 22 health-care facilities
  • winter clothes to over 410,000 people
  • school kits to about 120,000 children
  • 6.5 million bread packs

Think about the different items listed and why they are important to the people receiving them. Are they things they want or things they need?

Choose one example then imagine the scene, in a family or a hospital. How might the recipients feel? What difference will it make to their lives, their mood and their hope?

Improvise or role-play a scene in a hospital where vital supplies arrive. Or imagine you live in Syria and are there when items arrive. Compose a social media update that communicates your reaction.

Dropping aid from planes

Recently, International Development secretary, Justine Greening responded to the following question from MPs:

If you can drop bombs, why can't you drop food parcels?

Ask young people to think through what their answer to this might be.

Here’s how Justine replied:

"Those operations are very different in nature. One of them can happen from literally thousands of feet up. But if we are going to get bread, water and medical supplies to the right people, that is an entirely different RAF operation, requiring aircraft to fly much, much lower, which is why it is so hard to do effectively."

Air drops are sometimes used to deliver aid to remote or inaccessible places. They have been used recently in Syria. But, as the earlier activities show, conflict zones are very difficult.

Invite young people to consider some key questions and explain their responses in their own words:

  • Would air drops be safer than convoy deliveries for the aid workers?
  • Would they still need the approval of all the parties to the armed conflict?
  • Can aid be delivered precisely to those who need it?


This resource was written by P. J. White of Alt62 and published in March 2016.