Gaza, Ebola, Iraq … are we approaching disaster overload?

 As high-profile conflicts jostle for public and media attention, other humanitarian crises are pushed off the news agenda.

Reflecting on the responses to the number of man-made emergencies detonating or still smouldering around the world earlier this year, from Syria to Ukraine and from Nigeria and South Sudan to Central African Republic (CAR), Kofi Annan appeared uncharacteristically weary.

“You sometimes have a feeling that the global community – and even the big powers – can only focus on one crisis at a time,” the former UN secretary general said.


 “We’ve moved from Syria to Ukraine. Look at how the focus on Ukraine has eclipsed what is going on in Syria and in other places. The only crisis that has got a bit of attention and been able to break through the Ukrainian dominance is [Boko Haram’s kidnapping of] the girls of Nigeria.”

That was three months ago: before Ebola; before Isis’s genocidal march through Iraq; before the downing of MH17, and before war erupted in Gaza. Add to that tally the food crisis likely to affect 14 million people in nine east African countries, and you wonder what Annan would say today.

Step forward Helen Clark, head of the UN Development Programme: “It’s hard to remember a time when more crises were jostling for space in the headline news, or when the world’s leading diplomats, such as the US secretary of state, John Kerry, and the UN secretary general [Ban Ki-moon], were engaged in shuttle diplomacy on so many issues simultaneously,” she says.

But such are the challenges facing aid agencies and NGOs. And for some, the number, scale and complexity of the crises now vying for political prominence and publicity are unheard of.

MDG : Humanitarian crisis  : Rescue workers search through the rubble of a house in Gaza

Rescue workers search through the rubble of a house in Gaza. Photograph: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images

“We have four emergency appeals open at the moment – Syria, Gaza, South Sudan and CAR – which is unprecedented, particularly as they’re all focused on conflict,” says Dominique Shorten, head of emergency fundraising at Save the Children.

“Quite often, we might have a natural disaster appeal open alongside one or two conflicts, but never four of this size and scale,” she adds.

Such a proliferation of problems inevitably demands a careful weighing up of resources. The public’s current focus on Gaza – the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) appeal launched last week has already raised more than £6m – is testament to people’s generosity even in sympathy-strapped times, but it also has a knock-on effect on other emergencies.

Shorten says: “Some of the fundraising activities that we were looking to do for South Sudan have been replaced by fundraising activities for Gaza. It’s tough. It’s a really difficult time at the moment. We know that the children on the ground need our help, whether in CAR, South Sudan or Iraq. The question is how we fund that help.”

Although Brendan Paddy, head of communications at the DEC, would hesitate to describe the demand for resources as unique, he will go so far as to say it’s an exceptional time: “I’ve been doing this for 10 years or so, and I can’t think of another period when there were so many emergencies in so many parts of the world.”

The DEC, whose appeals usually last six months, generally has one and a half on the go each year. At the moment, it has two running – Gaza and Syria. It is increasingly worried about the situation in South Sudan, where eight months of civil war are estimated to have killed tens of thousands of people, driven 1.5 million people from their homes and left almost 5 million in dire need of humanitarian assistance.

“We’ve said, on the record, that the two humanitarian conditions for a DEC appeal have already been met: the scale and the extent of the need are more than sufficiently serious to justify an appeal,” says Paddy. “And although access clearly is challenging because of the conflict, there is sufficient access for members to be able to do a great deal more if they had the resources.”

And yet a South Sudan appeal from the DEC is not imminent; conspicuous by their absence are the two interlinked factors on which the success of any appeal rests: public awareness and lasting media coverage.

Paddy says: “It’s the nature of slowly developing food crises, whether caused by conflicts or natural events, that until they reach their most extreme peak, perhaps with the declaration of a famine, it’s often very difficult for the media to justify high levels of sustained coverage over a period of days and weeks, which is really a necessary precondition for us to launch a successful appeal.”

And although the DEC feels “very torn”, Paddy adds, it simply cannot launch an appeal that is unlikely to pull in money.

Marie-Noelle Rodrigue, head of operations at Médecins sans Frontières, is also reminded of 2011, when MSF had to deal with the post-election crisis in Ivory Coast, the Arab spring, a measles outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) that lasted for eight months and a cholera outbreak in Haiti.

“That was tough but what is difficult today is Ebola, because it’s so specific and you need so many staff with experience of haemorrhagic fever,” she said, adding that the charity urgently needs medical and non-medical workers.

“MSF is struggling - as everyone is - to try to maintain what we have been doing in CAR and South Sudan given the Ebola crisis and the crises in Gaza and Kurdistan.”

Not everyone, however, agrees on the severity of the situation.

“It’s a busy phase at the moment but it is not by any stretch of the imagination unprecedented,” says Jane Cocking, Oxfam’s humanitarian director.

“This time three years ago we were actually dealing with more medium and large-scale crises than we are now. We had the Horn of Africa food crisis, which affected millions of people, we had renewed fighting and displacement in DRC, we had floods in Pakistan, we had an extended acute food crisis in Yemen and we had the beginnings of the Syria crisis and the beginnings of the food crisis in Mali.”

Such confluences, says Cocking, are cyclical: in 2005, you had the Asian tsunami, Darfur and the Pakistan earthquake. The difference today is the immense profile of the emergencies in Gaza and Iraq.

“They are big and important and difficult and complicated,” says Cocking. “But then you put the level of interest and focus on that small number of high-profile ones against the lack of interest in the others, like South Sudan, Somalia, northern Kenya – which has massive global adult malnutrition rates and which affects far more people than the Gaza crisis.

“That is not to say the Gaza crisis is not important. It is. But actually it’s the profile of some of the emergencies that is unusual and the absence of profile of some of the ones that are arguably more intractable, larger and more difficult to solve.”

She points to South Sudan in particular, where famine is predicted and peace seems enduringly elusive.

MDG: Humanitarian aid crisis : AU peacekeeping convoy of IDP Muslims from the capital Bangui, CAR

Internally displaced persons on a peacekeeping convoy escorting Muslims from the CAR capital Bangui to northern towns. Photograph: Siegfried Modola/Reuters

“It’s already having an impact on four different countries – South Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya – and so we are desperately trying to raise the profile of that,” says Cocking. “But the lack of geopolitical significance and so on means that is a very difficult job.”

It is a familiarly troubling diagnosis. At the beginning of July, I met Ettie Higgins, Unicef’s deputy representative in South Sudan, at her office in Juba.

Five weeks ago, the biggest obstacles to her efforts to raise funds and awareness were the emergencies in Syria, Iraq and CAR, and a media lens trained more closely on the South African courtroom where Oscar Pistorius is on trial than on the rest of the continent.

In the aftermath of Gaza and amid the persecution of Iraq’s Christians, her assessment of the humanitarian disaster in South Sudan rings sadly true. “It’s not a big headline story …  and I just think that people aren’t going to be interested in another bad news story.”

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