Giving voice to silent emergencies
by Anna Jefferys April 2002

Humanitarian agencies have developed mechanisms to gauge a society’s vulnerability to conflict and natural disaster. But little attention has been paid to analysing the forces that shape the international humanitarian system’s response.

Since 1989, more than four million people have been killed in conflicts, most of them internal, and many of them chronic, localised and long-running. Natural disasters too are costing more lives and causing more damage, particularly in the developing world. In the last ten years, 300 natural disasters have been recorded, affecting people in 108 countries and killing up to 150,000 annually. While some of these emergencies attract significant amounts of publicity and political attention, others fester outside of the public eye. How many people know, for instance, that famines are occurring right now in Malawi, Angola, Sudan and Somalia, and that famine conditions are currently unfolding in Zimbabwe? These emergencies are effectively silent: marginalised in donors’ funding decisions; the object of little if any political interest in the West; rarely if ever covered in the media; and all too often neglected by humanitarian organisations themselves.

Funding patterns

Aid is apportioned in highly unbalanced and partial ways. While responses to UN consolidated appeals (CAPs) do not paint a complete picture, they are indicative of wider aid trends. In 1999, the donor response to CAPs for the former Yugoslavia was $207 per person; for Sierra Leone, it was $16, and $8 for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Between 1993 and 1997, Africa as a whole received on average just half of the requested CAP funding. While these funding commitments reflect the different costs of doing business in Africa and Europe, the differential is nevertheless significant. The consistent under-funding of particular CAPs reflects a wider funding cycle, whereby low media attention leads to low donor interest, leading to low aid commitments, and low estimates of the funding that may be available, thus reducing levels of proposed programming for the next round of funding. Even lower down the scale are those long-running emergencies – the separatist war in the Western Sahara, the ethnic conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and the insurgency in the southern Philippines, for instance – that do not merit a CAP appeal at all.

Moreover, although the international donor commitment to humanitarian crises has risen in recent years, committed funds are often extracted from overall – and dwindling – aid budgets. During the 1990s, as the number of active wars increased, foreign aid budgets stagnated; OECD humanitarian aid decreased from 0.03% to 0.022% of total gross national product (GNP), and only five of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC)’s 22 donors reached the UN target for aid spending of 0.7% in 1999. Thus, aid from DAC donors in 1999 was 12% lower in real terms than it was in 1992. Over the last ten years, aid to Sub-Saharan Africa fell by 29%, from $37 to $21 per head.

International interest and political will

These patterns of funding are linked to the level of outside political interest and media attention that particular emergencies attract. In turn, this depends greatly on how important these countries are to the interests of the relevant major states and regional organisations. Thus, the provision of assistance is decided more on the geo-strategic priorities of the main donors than on the objective existence of need. As many key donors increasingly channel their funding bilaterally, rather than through multilateral agencies like the UN (bilateral funding for humanitarian assistance was on average four times higher than in the previous decade), this linkage will probably become all the more prominent because it will become easier for individual donors to earmark their funds for particular countries. In the wake of 11 September, it appears that we may be returning to a world where aid is used to reward allies and punish or starve enemies within a wider security agenda. In December 2001, for instance, the US pledged Pakistan over $1 billion in debt forgiveness, investment, trade and refugee relief as a reward for its part in the ‘war on terrorism’. In the same month, sanctions against Iraq were extended by another six months, despite their clear humanitarian impact.

Donor, recipient and non-recipient countries can be seen to sit in interconnected spheres of influence, encompassing the geopolitical (political, economic, cultural and historical), as well as the geographic. The response to Hurricane Mitch, for instance, was strongest in the US, Canada and Spain; Australia, New Zealand and Japan tend to respond more to emergencies in Asia and the Pacific. In 1999, ECHO funding for the former Yugoslavia and Kosovo was four times that for all 70 African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries combined. Between 1990 and 1994, Germany, Austria and Italy all increased their humanitarian assistance to respond to need in the Balkans. As Oxfam puts it: ‘donors are more likely to help people who look like them, and whose history or plight they can relate to or understand’.

The media also plays an instrumental role in determining whether, and how, an emergency is communicated to the world. Editorial choices govern what constitutes a story, and what does not; in the US, for instance, the conflict in Bosnia received 25 times more press coverage than the Rwandan genocide. In the 1990s, evening news bulletins on US television devoted 82% of the airtime given to foreign coverage to just 14 countries, or 7% of the world’s total. Europe received more coverage than all of Africa, Central and South America combined. Even where particular crises do attract media attention, coverage tends to be short-lived; within a week of the volcanic eruption in the DRC in 2002, for instance, British news channels had by and large stopped reporting on it.

This creates the misleading impression that these crises too are short-lived, with a finite beginning and a conclusive end. When the story is dropped, the crisis is perceived by the public to be over. In this way, emergencies are depicted as being a break from the norm, when in fact they may themselves be the normal condition for many affected people. Thus, while the eye-catching and sudden disaster – the earthquake, flood or eruption – grabs the headlines and attracts the lion’s share of assistance, less dramatic yet equally severe catastrophes languish unnoticed, and under-funded. Each year between 1992 and 1998, an earthquake, flood, volcanic eruption or hurricane attracted the largest proportion of humanitarian aid devoted to natural disasters. Slow-onset disasters like drought are low on the list; in 2001, the drought in the Horn of Africa, for instance, received just 13% of requested funding.

Silent emergencies and humanitarian principles

Using a principled, needs-based approach would go some way to addressing the inequities that shape the international response to emergencies. While aid agencies cannot claim that a government does not have the right to defend itself in the face of civil war, they can press for the rights of civilians to life, food, shelter, clean water, and security to be respected in line with humanitarian principles. Save the Children (UK) and CARE Australia are among the few agencies so far to have produced guidelines in this area. Save has identified a series of quantitative indicators that could be used to judge the relative ‘silence’ of a given emergency in terms of:

Donor interest

  • how much aid is received per capita?;
  • what do DAC statistics reveal?;
  • what percentage of CAP appeals is raised and allocated to a particular emergency?

Wider political interest

  • how many times is a particular emergency raised in government and parliamentary fora, such as House of Commons debates or parliamentary questions in the UK (as listed in Hansard); in Congress in the US (as listed in the Congressional Record); in questions tabled by European Parliament members; or in the UN Security Council?;
  • how much diplomatic activity is associated with a particular emergency, such as resolutions and démarches?;
  • is there a Western military presence? If so, of what type, and whose?

Media interest

  • how much coverage over time does an emergency receive in key outlets – the BBC, the UK’s main broadsheets, continental European newspapers like Figaro and Die Welt, US television news programmes on ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN?

NGO capacity and response

  • how did key NGOs respond to a particular emergency? What level of effort and resources did they expend, as described in their annual reports?

SC-UK has also outlined a series of key areas for action:

  • Information-gathering and analysis

A centralised information resource should be set up to capture existing research relating to silent emergencies, drawn from humanitarian agencies, NGOs, governments and academic bodies. A ‘watch group’ should be formed to analyse this data, so as to elaborate a contextual analysis of the real risks and difficulties facing populations; to standardise relative levels of humanitarian need; and to monitor how and why certain emergencies are silent.

  • Public exposure

Linked into the above process, the humanitarian community should adopt a more transparent, coordinated advocacy strategy towards the media and donors so as to promote a more in-depth awareness and analysis of emergencies occurring around the world. While advocacy alone cannot compensate for the lack of political will to resolve crises, it can at least raise the level and scope of debate.

  • Influencing international funding choices

A more rigorous, equitable and needs-based international funding structure should be developed, whereby governments live up to their rhetoric and their obligations under international law to allow need, rather than their interests, to guide their humanitarian response. As a corollary, donors will develop more needs-based financial planning so that CAPs become more reflective of international realities; and will share the burden of meeting CAP requirements across the board in a needs-based fashion. Finally, governments, multilaterals and NGOs will increase the flexibility of their humanitarian response by bolstering their commitment to emergency preparedness in their humanitarian aid budgets.

NGOs aim to live up to a humanitarian ethic broadly articulated in the Red Cross and Red Crescent code of conduct. This means responding to all emergencies impartially, irrespective of their type, size or location. However, it is difficult to maintain these standards in silent emergencies because of the dependence on donor decision-making for institutional funding, and on the media to mobilise private fundraising. NGOs cannot hold ‘special’ appeals all the time, and must pick and choose their crises carefully in order to reap the requisite funds. To ensure that humanitarian principles are protected, that emergencies do not get sidelined, and that media pressures, donor interest, international profile and influencing opportunities do not cloud the emergency response, humanitarian agencies need to think through the criteria they apply in deciding whether, and how, to respond to a particular crisis.

Anna Jefferys is a policy officer in the Emergencies section of Save the Children (UK). She would like to thank independent humanitarian policy advisor Jane Barry; Amelia Bookstein, Policy Advisor, Oxfam; and Mike Gaouette, Emergencies Director, Save the Children (UK), for their input into this article.

References and further reading

World Disasters Report 2001 (Geneva: IFRC, 2001).

Marcus Oxley, ‘Measuring Humanitarian Need’, Humanitarian Exchange 19, September 2001.

Jane Barry, ‘When Should SC-UK Respond to an Emergency?’, SC-UK Emergency Section Policy Paper, 2001.

An End to Forgotten Emergencies? (Oxford: Oxfam International, May 2000).

A Forgotten War, A Forgotten Emergency: The DRC (Oxford: Oxfam International, November 2000).

Development Initiatives, Global Humanitarian Assistance (London: Earthscan, 2000).

Dispatches from Disaster Zones: The Reporting of Humanitarian Emergencies, papers from a conference held in London, 27–28 May 1998.

Michael Ignatieff, Warrior’s Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience (New York: Henry Holt, 1998).

Tim Allen and Jean Seaton (eds), The Media of Conflict: War Reporting and Representations of Ethnic Violence (London: Zed Books, 1999).

G. Myers et al., ‘The Inscription of Difference: News Coverage of the Conflicts in Rwanda and Bosnia’, Political Geography, vol. 15, no. 1, 1996.