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An easy place to say hello and a difficult place to say goodbye

Dr Unni Krishnan is Director of the Emergency Health Unit, Save The Children’s global capability to provide life saving medical assistance and health care in humanitarian settings. After three and a half years with Save the Children, Dr Unni is moving on to work with War Child in Amsterdam. Here he shares some stories from his time with the EHU.

Hellos are alike. Good-byes are unique.

Over the past 3.5 years at Save the Children, I’ve had a unique opportunity – to turn every day into a meaningful one.

I have understood the true meaning our work and the difference it makes to children’s lives. One such example is the story of Shadibabiran, a 16-year-old Rohingya girl we featured in our publication “Horrors I will never forget”.

Shadibabiran’s suffering, her courage to speak up and her struggle to survive will always remain in my memory. And the work Save the Children’s Emergency Health Unit does in the lives of such children will always be a source of inspiration for us all in our efforts to make the world a better, safe, peaceful, healthy and just place for children.

As I pack to go, let me offer you a short flashback:

How we worked as a TEAM:

Saving children’s lives is too big a task to be left for nurses or doctors. It is done best through collaboration and partnerships.

In October 2016, a few months after I started with the Emergency Health Unit, Haiti was hit by a massive hurricane and a cholera outbreak. I was deployed there. We had to make quick decisions and act fast. A battle against cholera is a race against time. Cholera can dehydrate and kill a child in six hours.

Two key lessons from the Haiti response were: One, strong leadership and quick decisions to deploy experienced people and experts and to prioritise children are key to stop cholera in its tracks –don’t dither, or delay. Two, a crisis response is only as good as the people involved – you need a combination of technical experts and ‘possibilists’ who make impossible things happen.

In disaster and conflict settings, perfection shouldn’t stand in the way of doing good work. Momentum is everything. Sometimes our work feels like driving at night – you can only see as far as the headlights go. That is a good start. As Theodore Roosevelt said: “The best thing you can do is the right thing; the next best thing you can do is the wrong thing; the worst thing you can do is nothing”.

To make a meaningful difference in children’s lives and to put a smile back on their face, humanitarian agencies need to innovate and collaborate. We have made a great beginning by collaborating with MERCY Malaysia. The future is for those who collaborate!

STARS are local

I will always remember Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. In mid-2017, approximately 700,000 Rohingya refugees fleeing violence and a terror that – as UN officials called – was orchestrated with “genocidal intent”, reached Cox’s Bazar. It was the fastest-growing refugee crisis in recent times. I remember receiving Rohingya children who arrived hungry, sick, malnourished and ‘traumatized’.  Listening to their suffering made me think that there was no suffering left in hell; much of it was in the memories of Rohingya children.

I met Rimjhim, a young Bangladeshi nurse working in a health centre run by the Emergency Health Unit, in Cox’s Bazar. She graduated as a nurse in early 2018 and it was her first job. Her work reminds me of what Martin Luther King said: “Everything that is done in the world is done by hope.” Rimjhim, and my colleagues Tom and Kambale from the Emergency Health Unit, have shown me how to perform magic with hope. The lesson here? Local aid workers are our true superheroes. Our frontline staff and volunteers always quietly teach me that big lesson — you don’t have to be perfect to be brilliant.

Evidence with COMPASSION

Humanitarian assistance, be it lifesaving or not, needs to be principled, professional and evidence-based to meet standards.

I worked as a principal author for the 2018 edition of the Sphere Handbook, the ‘ultimate reference book’ for aid agencies. The process of developing this book between 2017 and 2018 provided a huge challenge and a ‘big win’.

One addition in the new edition is the inclusion of the first global-level guidance on how to provide medical and palliative care and treatment for terminally ill children in humanitarian settings. There was resistance from some quarters to the inclusion of such guidelines since the norm is to spend money on ‘lives we can definitely save with our support’ (and avoid spending money on those ‘who can survive even without our support’ or ‘those who will any way die even with our support’) since that may be considered as an ‘evidence based’ approach.

Evidence is useful, but the world is not run only by evidence. Without compassion, no profession is ever complete. We need to be careful not to get stuck in our own individual areas of interest, expertise or cocoons.

I truly believe that we can make a real difference if we strictly follow the spirit of the Humanitarian Charter and Sphere standards and the Core Humanitarian Standard. The first ever global guidelines on inclusion of persons with disabilities in humanitarian settings is expected to be out soon (I had the honour of representing Save the Children to develop this). Please stay tuned.


Back in Kerala, South India, where I’m from, as a child my days were more predictable. Mornings meant steaming jaggery-laced black coffee and a few newspapers with opposing editorial lines. People read the papers page-to-page, back-to-back. Early days of school activism taught me that there are three pillars for democracy – the parliament, judiciary and a free press. Press is the easiest to access.

It has been a great honour to work with a vibrant, dedicated and creative communications, media, advocacy and campaigns teams at Save the Children. Every collaborative action with these teams reaffirmed my belief in the power of a free press, campaigning and storytelling.

These people help to make a huge difference and shape opinions of people on whom you have no direct control or access. A true megaphone to amplify children’s voices. Thank you! For the record- thanks to the Stop The War on Children campaign, I have stopped ‘funding the Saudis’ by reducing Uber rides, after learning that Saudis own stakes in Uber and every ride I take .

A valuable 3.5 years

So, what do I count as my humble contributions? I believe, firstly, however small it may be, I have contributed to making the world a safer, peaceful, healthy and just place for children and young people. Secondly, I have contributed to ensuring that disasters, wars and diseases need not be death sentences for children. Thirdly, I have contributed to ensuring that it is possible to create safe spaces for children caught up in disasters, conflicts and epidemics.

New figures from the World Health Organization show that among the age group 15-29, suicide is the second reason for death. This is a ‘silent emergency’. I am keen to do my bit to change this story and spend dedicated time on mental health and emotional wellbeing.

I am also hoping to do focused research on the intersect / synergy between Artificial Intelligence and compassion. Machines and robots are coming! It is necessary to make them more humane. Experts warn me it is a losing battle. I believe it is worth trying.

Humanitarian workers, at least I can speak for myself, are like Australian vegemite – either you love them, or you hate them. I believe I’ve made some great friends – a true gift you give yourself for the rest of one’s life.

If I treat my 3.5 years in Save the Children as a Hollywood movie, the credit line will run as long as the movie! But allow me to take the opportunity to thank each one of you, especially those who work behind the scenes, to make the Emergency Health Unit and Save the Children work.

Let me thank especially the anonymous superheroes in the ICT team or editors, storytellers and creative designers in the comms and media team, philanthropy, fundraising, human resource, finance teams and our wonderful volunteers and interns and the Centre for Humanitarian Leadership. It wouldn’t have been possible for the Emergency Health Unit to reach out and support more than 2.5 million people without you.

Thank you for making the Emergency Health Unit and Save the Children a memorable place.

Visit Save the Children’s UK site to see what we’re working on now >

Donate to our Emergency Fund > 

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