Whangarei man Alan Ward’s humanitarian work took him all over the world.

Following his retirement, his focus has shifted closer to home – asking Parliament to create a humanitarian overseas service medal for Kiwis who provide aid relief in disasters or emergencies overseas.

Ward did five missions with the Red Cross between 1995 and 2002, providing aid to vulnerable people in countries like Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Northern Sudan.

He received a medal from the Defence Force for his work in 2009, but started work on a petition for a new civilian honour due to fears that others were missing out.

Ward said there was a gap in the current honours system, with civilians not getting the recognition they deserved compared to those in the military despite far more being involved in overseas aid than ever before.

“After you’ve had a major conflict there is always a fallout and someone has to pick up the pieces, and very often it’s your aid organisations….

“Somewhere like Tajikistan, at the end of the Soviet Union, there were 100,000 people killed there in civil war, but we didn’t really hear about it here. I can remember the first mission I went on was Tajikistan, and we were feeding 35,000 people, but that sort of thing just disappears because it’s so remote.”

“We were stopped on the road with 15-year-old boys with AK47s and asked for cigarettes – there’s always that type of threat, you never quite knew what to do.”

He told MPs on the foreign affairs, defence and trade committee there was often a hidden risk to the work, with not all combatants observing international law regarding humanitarians.

“A lot of the countries that New Zealand humanitarian aid people are working in are lawless – they have roaming gangs and also have life-threatening diseases which tend not to come to the fore.”

Speaking about his work in North Sudan, Ward said the remote locations he and his colleagues worked in meant they were often at risk.

“We were stopped on the road with 15-year-old boys with AK47s and asked for cigarettes – there’s always that type of threat, you never quite knew what to do.”

It was time for New Zealand to “catch up” with countries like Canada, Australia and the UK, he said.

Humanitarian honours defended

In a written submission to the committee, Clerk of the Executive Council Michael Webster – who is responsible for New Zealand’s honours system – said the country’s approach to recognising humanitarian service overseas was “not out of step” with others that had similar honours systems.

Webster said the NZ Defence Force did not need to be involved in an operation for a civilian to receive an honour, and he advised against broadening the scope of an award to cover anybody who provided humanitarian service overseas.

“Leaving aside awards for bravery or other one-off actions, normally national honours or awards are given because someone has gone ‘over and above others’ in what is expected of them in their course of their normal duties, either in a paid or voluntary capacity.”

However, Ward said there were few, if any, examples where humanitarian workers had been awarded without Defence Force involvement.

Webster said the possibility of expanding honours to cover smaller-scale humanitarian events had been raised in the past, and was part of the NZ Defence Force’s work programme.

One option was creating a variant of the NZ Special Service Medal, established in 2002 to cover special operations, specifically for overseas work in humanitarian crises.

“A high threshold as to the degree of danger and hazard required for an operation to be eligible would most likely continue to apply.”

If the committee’s response was anything to go by, Ward may be in luck: chairman and National MP Todd Muller said he had provided “a very comprehensive outline of the need that exists in terms of recognising work done, often without fanfare, by so many New Zealanders.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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