Silent emergencies
by Humanitarian Practice Network June 2003

Shared humanity and the principle of impartiality are the foundations of humanitarianism. Evolving global policy trends are, however, moving away from the impartial allocation of public humanitarian assistance, and eroding the universality of humanitarian action.

Over the last decade, major political and military interventions have taken place under a humanitarian banner, and the total volume of humanitarian aid has steadily increased. These trends would seem to auger well for people in need of humanitarian assistance and protection. But in reality, international engagement and resources are being deployed very selectively; depending on where they live, there are very significant differences in people’s ability to access international humanitarian assistance. In the majority of cases, international engagement in crisis areas is notable by its absence.

For these silent, forgotten emergencies, humanitarian assistance remains the last, often very small international contribution to protecting some of the most vulnerable populations on earth.The near-abandonment of these people is increasingly obvious as humanitarian resources are being concentrated in countries, or parts of countries, of greatest strategic significance to the main actors. This is a violation of the principle of impartiality at a global level.

Yet it is surprisingly difficult to match humanitarian assistance with need globally. The impact of under-resourcing and the lack of response to silent, forgotten emergencies is not documented systematically, and there are no internationally-accepted figures which allow easy comparison between countries of the extent of need for protection and assistance. There is, however, plenty of evidence from around the world concerning people’s lack of access to food, shelter, medical care and other basic prerequisites for survival in conflicts and disasters.

Many agencies and organisations concentrate their assistance in line with globally available resources, and the implications of global trends on the impartiality of assistance seem to have drawn relatively little comment. It remains to be seen whether humanitarian actors manage a concerted riposte to broader changes in international response, and ensure that humanitarian aid really does address need without discrimination and irrespective of race, religion, political affiliation and other considerations.

Silent emergencies are the special focus of this issue of Humanitarian Exchange. Anna Jefferys of Save the Children (UK) examines the concept of the silent emergency, and suggests ways to assess and address this silence. We also look at six of the world’s most silent emergencies: Shabunda in the Democratic Republic of Congo; the Casamance in Senegal; Uganda; Chechnya; north-east India; and North Korea.

Following up our special feature on Afghanistan in the last issue, we have two articles which draw on previous evaluations of humanitarian response to political crisis, and on the review of the Strategic Framework, to identify lessons for the international response in Afghanistan. Articles on a wide range of humanitarian practice, institutional initiatives and policy developments around the world complete the issue.