Mohammed Omer Mukhier
In 2005, as never before, individuals and governments reached out to people in need around the globe. They responded to a string of sudden, large-scale disasters that include the Indian Ocean tsunami, the South Asian earthquake and a record hurricane season along America’s Gulf Coast. Last year, disasters killed 99,425 people, affected 161 million people in some way and cost around US$ 160 billion.
The response was record-breaking generosity. In 2005, funding from individuals and governments for humanitarian aid reached at least US$ 17 billion – outstripping any other year on record. Of this, individuals gave over US $5.5 billion for survivors of the tsunami alone.
The sum is more than non-governmental organizations had ever collected in a year, according to this year’s annual World Disasters Report, which focuses on neglected crises and was launched today (December 14) in Geneva by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
There is much to be proud of in this generosity. The donated funds enabled millions of people to eat, drink safe water, find shelter from rain and snow, and start rebuilding their lives and livelihoods after disaster.
But what about those in the shadows?
Few know of the silent tragedy of maternal and neonatal mortality in Nepal that has claimed over 25 times more lives than the conflict. Discrimination against women in Nepal leads many of them to suffer in secrecy during childbirth. An estimated 35,000 women and newborn babies die each year due to unsafe childbirth and neonatal practices, and discrimination against women. Mountains, conflict and poverty prevent their access to adequate healthcare. Yet this crisis goes virtually unnoticed. Such humanitarian tragedies hidden by politics or culture must be exposed in time to help people.
The brighter the media spotlight shines on high-visibility catastrophes, the deeper into shadow fall more chronic – and often more deadly – humanitarian crises. For every high profile catastrophe, there are others ignored or simply not adequately funded. Many millions of people miss out on vital, potentially life-saving aid because crises go unrecorded by most databases, media or donors.
No one records, for example, how many migrants die in the Sahara or in small boats in the seas surrounding Europe while attempting to reach Europe to make a better life for themselves and their families.
In Guatemala, as in many countries, the main disaster databases fail to record the vast number of small, localized floods, mudslides or earthquakes.
Yet these small crises add up to more deaths and affect many more people than a few major events. Recurrent crises create a cumulative impact, ratcheting up vulnerability to larger hazards in the future. In smaller crises that erode the already meagre livelihoods of millions of people, lie the roots of future harm. They also provide an opportunity to mitigate the impact of future disasters. Long-term support is needed to build safer communities through disaster risk reduction programmes so people can cope better with everyday, small-scale disasters.
Last year, food aid prevented widespread deaths from hunger in Malawi. But donors provided just one-fifth of the funds requested by the United Nations (UN) for agricultural support — seeds and fertilizers so smallholder farmers could recover and reduce the risk of another food crisis the following season.
Few donors seem prepared to invest in sustainable agriculture to avoid continuing deadly cycles of food crises. During the 2001–2002 famine, some households were forced to sell or lease their land, Peter Madeya, from Dedza district told the World Disasters Report.
“Many people had rented their fields out for five years in exchange for food so they had no fields left to cultivate and had to rely on piece-work only.”
Delay in responding to a food crisis in Niger led not only to an avoidable loss of life and livelihoods, but also increased the final cost of aid a hundredfold. The international community must learn the lessons of Niger and intervene in time with the right measures – or watch similar suffering in other places such as the Horn of Africa.
When funds are raised for an identified crisis, are they evenly allocated? When we divide the total amount of humanitarian funding the UN raises per emergency by the number of people targeted for that aid, some revealing statistics emerge. Chechnya received US$ 281 per beneficiary in 2005, the South Asia earthquake attracted US$ 310 and Sudan US$ 431 per head.
Far and away the best-funded disaster was, not surprisingly, the tsunami, which raised at least US$ 1,241 per beneficiary in humanitarian aid alone – not including an extra US$ 8 billion for reconstruction. At the other end of the scale, according to the World Disasters Report, the UN’s emergency appeals in 2005 for Chad, Guyana, Côte d’Ivoire, Malawi and Niger garnered an average of less than US$ 27 per person in need.
Some might argue that differences of funding among emergency programmes reflect differing humanitarian needs and the costs of meeting those needs. But compare the extent to which needs are met and a similarly warped picture emerges. While UN appeals for the Republic of Congo, Djibouti and the Central African Republic were on average less than 40 per cent funded, the tsunami appeal was 475 per cent funded and the South Asia earthquake appeal was 196 per cent funded.
Yet there are signs that lessons are being heeded and efforts made to reach those neglected.
In March 2006, the UN launched an expanded Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to provide funds for rapid humanitarian response to crises. A third of its funds will go to neglected crises – and in its first month, the CERF allocated US$ 13 million to agencies in the Horn of Africa. By June, the fund had raised US$ 365 million towards its half-billion dollar target.
Similarly, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies initiated a similar Disaster Relief Emergency Fund 20 years ago, which dispersed over US$ 8.5 million of rapid-response funding in 2005 – half of it for minor or forgotten emergencies.
And while women’s needs are often forgotten in the urgency of an emergency, this isn’t always the case. In Pakistan, after the South Asia earthquake, IRIN news service reported on a camp in Punjab province set up within a week of the disaster to house 300 women and children who’d lost male family members.
“Unlike other camp settlements, where families tend to huddle together in scared clusters, young girls and children run freely through the area, vying for a turn on one of the swings, and women sit outside in the sunshine mending clothes or knitting,” reported IRIN.
Such efforts are well worthwhile. The common theme behind all neglected crises is social vulnerability and chronic poverty, compounded by governments’ inability to cope. These factors expose people to a wide range of disaster risks and undermine their ability to cope and recover.
Much work remains to be done to ensure that millions of people suffering in crises do not remain neglected. In many cases, the first step is to direct political will towards creating the conditions in which humanitarians can operate - in the more neglected, hidden, secret, dangerous parts of the world. Among the priorities for banishing neglect everywhere are:
• Attracting adequate donations for large, common emergency response funds that are not earmarked for particular disasters,
• Developing a global measure of the severity of humanitarian need,
• Ensuring the right kind of funding and response for chronic crises, such as hunger, that fall between development and disaster and, finally,
• Agreeing with donors and host governments on appropriate trigger points for action.
The continuing cycle of neglect and misery must be interrupted by governments, donors, the media and aid organizations willing to think and act differently to address neglect.