The Age of Disaster Overload

Sam Jones has an excellent – even essential – read in The Guardian on how the recent confluence of major disasters is kicking the humanitarian sector’s butt up one side of fundraising street and down the other.

The monetary citation:

“We’ve said, on the record, that the two humanitarian conditions for a DEC appeal [for South Sudan] have already been met: the scale and the extent of the need are more than sufficiently serious to justify an appeal,” says [Brendan] Paddy, [head of communications at the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC)] “And although access clearly is challenging because of the conflict, there is sufficient access for members to be able to do a great deal more if they had the resources.”

And yet a South Sudan appeal from the DEC is not imminent; conspicuous by their absence are the two interlinked factors on which the success of any appeal rests: public awareness and lasting media coverage.

Paddy says: “It’s the nature of slowly developing food crises, whether caused by conflicts or natural events, that until they reach their most extreme peak, perhaps with the declaration of a famine, it’s often very difficult for the media to justify high levels of sustained coverage over a period of days and weeks, which is really a necessary precondition for us to launch a successful appeal.”

And although the DEC feels “very torn”, Paddy adds, it simply cannot launch an appeal that is unlikely to pull in money.

Sobering as it all is, Jones is missing an essential dimension to the crisis: it’s not just the way all these Brand Name Emergencies find themselves squabbling over the same, limited pool of donor funds; it’s the way they collectively drive the non-emergency disasters off into the communicational void.

I’m thinking Chad here. And places like Cameroon, and Western Algeria, and Kyrgyzstan, and the literally four dozen other places where an agency like the WFP responds to chronic hunger situations that are, by their very chronic-ness, not even “emergencies” in the usual sense of the word.

If DEC can’t run an emergency appeal on South Sudan, where the UN Security Council just held a joint session, what imaginable hope is there for Niger?

6 thoughts on “The Age of Disaster Overload”

  1. What frustrates me is that ‘non emergency disasters’ (i.e. chronic stress, ‘slow onset famines’, and the like) do not seem to be ‘sold’ to the public at all, even though effective assistance at that stage would probably be much more cost-effective than money spent for acute crises.

    assistance for chronic stress does happen, in areas like agriculture (e.g. efforts to enhance the resilience of farmers and rural economies, experiments in index-linked insurance) or other sectors (e.g. safety nets / social protection). But this work seems largely something done (and discussed) by development professionals, with relatively little mainstream media attention… Chronic stress is not so dramatic, and hard to measure, so not easily packaged for mass appeals, though it’s far more widespread than disasters. I understand why conventional media finds it hard to engage with chronic stress. I have less sympathy with the many humanitarian practitioners who do not understand chronic stress, or who wilfully ignore it in favour of chasing the next ‘high-profile’ crisis. Those professionals really should know better .

  2. Is there a difference between “chronic stress” and “They live in a very poor country.”? Unlocking public funds for the former requires finding a bright line to distinguish it from the latter, because otherwise it all appears overwhelming, and “a drop in the bucket.”

  3. What sells better: slow onset famine or high-profile cases. No doubt it is the latter. Where is the greatest need; again, the latter.

    Donor fatigue is an issue. In the South Sudan case there seems to be appeal fatigue based on donor fatigue.

  4. Small reality check though: The current situation is nothing compared to what the world will soon face given the +4° (in 2100) climate change projections.
    The 21st century will be… interesting 😦

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