This Doctor Is Rewriting the Rules of Humanitarian Aid

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Samantha Nutt
Photo: Michael Kovac/Getty Images

For more than two decades physician Samantha Nutt has traveled to war zones to establish humanitarian-aid programs for the estimated 420 million kids living in countries affected by conflict. Her nonprofits, War Child Canada and War Child USA, provide access to education, legal services, and job opportunities to people in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Uganda. Dr. Nutt hires mostly native staffers already familiar with their communities’ needs and works with local groups as well as international partners like U.N. Women to ensure families are fully equipped to break the cycle of violence and hardship. “We don’t approach it as charity,” Dr. Nutt says. “We approach it through a point of inclusion, partnership, and global responsibility.”

Think Global: Dr. Nutt has been fighting for causes she believes in since she was a kid. As a high school student in Toronto, she raised money for famine relief in Ethiopia during Live Aid, and in college, she marched in support of South Africans to end apartheid. But her most transformational experience came on the front lines, when UNICEF recruited the then-24-year-old doctor to work in Somalia. “I began to see that so many humanitarian interventions don’t ever really address the root causes of war,” she says. “Focusing on food, water, and shelter is important, but then we send people back out there to suffer the same fate when we withdraw to address the next crisis.” Instead, Dr. Nutt’s organizations develop sustainable programs that are based on long-term needs at the local level.

Samantha Nutt
A young girl shows Dr. Nutt her favorite doll at a camp outside Mosul, Iraq, which houses thousands of people displaced by ISIS. Courtesy Samantha Nutt

Act Local: “In my 20s I used to be this self-righteous pain in the ass, yelling, ‘Don’t you know there are children dying in Africa?’ Then you realize you are running out of friends,” she jokes. “To bring people into the conversation, you start in a way that is light, relatable, and engaging. Then you take them through the full spectrum of emotions and they feel like they can take action.”

Dr. Nutt says that tourism, volunteering locally, and committing to sending monthly contributions to a charitable cause are all effective ways to help. She also emphasizes the importance of understanding how our consumer and investment practices can lead to global unrest. “I try to dispel this myth that we are not all connected to war,” she says. “For example, coltan, a mineral used in cell phones, is exploited from the eastern provinces of the [Democratic Republic of] Congo, contributing to violence and instability there. Also, in 2018, 30 state-managed pension funds in the U.S. held more than $2.5 billion in combined investments in three of the world’s biggest weapons and ammunition manufacturers.”

Samantha Nutt
Dr. Nutt meets a family in Malakal, South Sudan. Courtesy Samantha Nutt

Rise Up: “I work in war zones. I don’t know if that makes me a badass or a fool,” Dr. Nutt says. “I have been smuggled into Afghanistan in the back of a car under a carpet. I have been in the [DRC] with the rock band Sum 41 filming a documentary when at least 100,000 rounds of munitions, rocket launchers, and grenades went off. My life has been threatened.” But, Dr. Nutt insists, giving kids a chance to succeed far outweighs the dangers. “When you have been exposed to war in this way, the things that haunt you also drive you,” she says. “We see kids who, six years ago, were fighting in militia groups. Now they’re graduating with the chance to become doctors and lawyers. That gives me real hope.”

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