‘Noisy’ emergencies
by Humanitarian Practice Network June 2003

Many humanitarian aid workers have suffered the frustrating and depressing experience of having insufficient resources to be able to respond adequately to people’s needs in the world’s many ‘silent’ emergencies. Many have also dealt with the embarrassment of riches that are made available for a small number of ‘noisy’ emergencies. Each year one, perhaps two, crises dominate international humanitarian response: Hurricane Mitch and famine in Sudan in 1998, East Timor and Kosovo in 1999, floods in Mozambique in 2000, the Gujarat earthquake in 2001, then Afghanistan. These crises attract a storm of media attention, a high proportion of official donors’ funds (and sometimes their militaries too), generous private donations, and a flood of aid agencies. They leave the forgotten crises, and the millions trying to survive them, in the shadows.

Following the special focus on silent crises in the last issue of Humanitarian Exchange (March 2002), the focus of this issue is on ‘noisy’ emergencies. Toby Porter analyses how the major donor governments favour particular emergencies with resources, determining major international humanitarian responses and linking them to the political and foreign policy considerations of the small number of powerful countries that finance the international relief system. The role of the media in galvanising international responses in Mozambique is described, while Nik Gowing explores its part in creating the story, taking recent events in the West Bank as an example. The transition from obscurity to the spotlight is examined by Janet Hunt in the case of East Timor, and by Penny Harrison in Tajikistan since the start of the crisis in neighbouring Afghanistan. And Gani Demolli reveals some of the difficulties that came along with the benefits of being in the Kosovo limelight. These cases have much to tell us about the way humanitarian actors – governmental, non-governmental and multilateral – make decisions about where, when and how they intervene. They can also teach us lessons about how those responses might be made more appropriate and effective in the future.

Lack of strategic interest keeps many crises out of the spotlight, but high levels of insecurity can also keep humanitarian actors away. In this issue, Mike Gent looks at the way aid workers handle the risk that often comes with the job, and Dennis King examines the evidence on lives lost in doing that job.The way data on the subject was assembled provides a model for how information might be managed in the humanitarian sector, an issue discussed here by Robin Schofield.

Other articles in this issue consider development in protracted crises, nutritional intervention approaches, the development of new humanitarian policy initiatives by the French government, and the place of humanitarian assistance in national legislation on international development. To end, Gerald Martone appeals to humanitarian organisations to uphold humanitarian values, stand up for human rights and close the protection gap.