The strengths and weaknesses of humanitarian crisis appeals

Young mother Sahra Haashi watches over her son, Mahamed, who is severely malnourished, at a Save the Children clinic in Burao, Somaliland. (Credit: Charlie Ensor)

The Disasters Emergency Committee said it raised £50 million in three weeks to support humanitarian aid for people in East Africa. While it is good news in the short term, there is concern that the constant cycle of these emergency appeals fails to help address underlying issues.

The collective of British aid groups was able to raise a much-needed £72 million for Yemen and East Africa in recent advocacy actions.

“Thanks to the bravery and resilience of both local aid workers and community volunteers, life-saving food aid, medical assistance and vital water supplies are reaching the people who need it most,” Saleh Saeed, CEO of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), said in a statement. “We have reports about aid delivery making an immediate difference to the lives of affected communities.”

However, the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the body that leads humanitarian appeals, admitted that not enough was being done to support prevention and preparedness. It found that less than 5 percent of humanitarian funding and less than 1 percent of development funds were spent on prevention in 2013.

“The emphasis on emergency fundraising deflects attention from the structural causes of poverty and famine, evoking pity and charity,” Christina Bennett, a researcher with the London-based think tank the Overseas Development Institute, wrote recently in a blog post. “But what we need is outrage and the desire for preventive action and political solutions if we are to prevent such crises from happening again.”

She worries that the appeals cycle perpetuates a sort of “crisis fatigue.” People begin to ignore what is happening when they are bombarded with images of people suffering from around the world. She pointed to the crisis in Syria as evidence of the world’s waning interest.

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The tension between development and humanitarian aid is not new. One of the main agenda items at the World Humanitarian Summit last year was to discuss and implement plans that will link the two. It was one of the reasons why Doctors Without Borders did not attend the event. The medical charity argued that there were more important items, such as protection and access for aid workers, to consider.

The word ‘resilience’ emerged as the buzzword du jour after the 2011 famine in Somalia. Ethiopia’s ability to limit the number of people who went hungry due to the drought was championed as evidence of effective development progress. The 1984 famine in Ethiopia killed more than 400,000 people and launched the Live Aid era of celebrity humanitarian activism.

The DEC is in part designed to deal with the problem of “crisis fatigue. It is a mass-appeal body, similar to OCHA, composed of U.K.-based aid groups including Save the Children, Oxfam and Concern Worldwide. It uses collective power to raise money for humanitarian crises, as opposed to each organization launching individual appeals. By working together, the group leverages celebrity endorsements – Bill Nighy, Mo Farrah and Eddie Redmayne were recruited for the East Africa appeal.

The body is also able to work with the U.K. government. For the East Africa appeal, the U.K. committed to matching individual donations up to £10 million. It made a similar contribution to the Yemen appeal launched in December. Money raised helps Save the Children supply food, water and medical supplies to communities in Ethiopia and Somalia, and the British Red Cross deliver emergency food aid to South Sudan, said Saeed.

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More than 16 million people are on the brink of hunger in East Africa. Many are part of the 22 million people at risk of dying from hunger in Nigeria, Yemen, South Sudan and Somalia. Warnings by the U.N. to avert a historic famine managed to raise less than one quarter of the $4.5 billion appeal by the March deadline.

While drought is a contributing factor to food insecurity, human factors are the leading causes of a problem turning into a disaster. Conflict and the breakdown of basic services is a common thread among the four countries. People displaced from their homes are unable to farm or generate the income needed to buy food. Humanitarian assistance is the only lifeline for millions in need of food.

Immediate assistance is crucial, but so is taking actions that will ensure hunger is no longer a problem. That means engaging politically with the groups that are fighting to come up with a resolution and making investments in long-term development so that people are able to cope with natural disasters, Bennett said.

“Avoiding humanitarian crises could save money and more lives than continuing to focus on emergency response,” she wrote. “Headlines like ‘Famine averted in East Africa’ might elicit less pity, but they would mean far more for countries and communities locked in cycles of hunger and poverty.”

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.