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Giving voice to silent emergencies

Summary of editorial1

A recent issue of Humanitarian Exchange focuses on 'Silent Emergencies'. According to the editorial, many emergencies do not attract significant amounts of publicity or political attention. They are 'silent' since they receive little media interest and are marginalised in donor funding decisions. It is argued that aid is apportioned in highly imbalanced and partial ways. UN consolidated appeals (CAPs) reflect this. In 1999, the response to the CAP for former Yugoslavia was $207 per capita compared to only $16 for Sierra Leone and $8 for DRC. While these commitments partly reflect the relative costs of doing business in Africa and Europe, they also reflect the level of political commitment and interest.

A cycle emerges where scant media attention leads to limited donor interest, poor aid commitments and ultimately low estimates of funding that may be available. This in turn reduces the level of proposed programming for the next round of funding. Even further down the scale are those long running emergencies that do not merit a CAP appeal at all, such as the separatist war in western Sahara, the ethnic conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and the insurgency in southern Philippines.

Furthermore, aid budgets are dwindling. During the 1990s, foreign aid budgets stagnated despite an increase in the number of active wars. For example, OECD humanitarian aid decreased from 0.03% to 0.022%. These patterns are undoubtedly linked to the level of outside political interest and media attention.

Ten countries / areas receiving most humanitarian assistance (US$m):2
FRY (Serbia and Montenegro) 237.24
Europe (unallocated) 177.64
Ex-Yugoslavia (unspecified ) 141.79
Ethiopia 102.39
Mozambique 94.59
East Timor 91.59
Iraq 75.77
Sudan 51.91
Angola 48.27
Bosnia 43.06


Ten countries / areas with most people in need of assistance:3
South Korea 8,004,000
Somalia 4,000,000
South East Ethiopia 3,500,000
Sudan 2,367,200
Angola 2,000,000
Afghanistan 2,000,000
Tajikistan 1,300,000
Burundi 860,000
Sierra Leone 760,000
Uganda 585,000


The editorial asserts that political interest and media attention depends on how important countries are geo-strategically. Many key donors increasingly channel their funding bilaterally rather than multilaterally via UN agencies. The author projects this association will become more obvious as individual donors earmark their funds for particular countries with increasing ease.

Donor, recipient and non-recipient countries can be seen to sit in interconnected spheres of influence encompassing the geopolitical as well as the geographic. The response to Hurricane Mitch for instance, was strongest in the US, Canada and Spain, while Australia, New Zealand and Japan tend to respond more to emergencies in Asia and Pacific, and ECHO to former Yugoslavia.

As Oxfam recently put it 'donors are more likely to help people who look like them and whose history or plight they can relate to or understand.'

Media are also key factors in determining response. In the US for instance, the conflict in Bosnia received 25 times more press coverage than the Rwandan genocide. Even where crises do attract media attention, coverage tends to be short lived. For example, within a week of volcanic eruptions in DRC, British media had stopped reporting on it. This gives the misleading impression that emergencies are short-lived whereas in fact emergency conditions may be ongoing in many countries. Slow onset disasters such as drought are increasingly low on the priority list of media interest.

SC UK and CARE Australia are among the few agencies so far to have produced guidelines for this subject area. SC UK has identified a series of quantitative indicators that could be used to judge the relative silence of a given emergency. These consist of:

SC UK has also outlined a series of key areas for action. These include:

Show footnotes

1Editorial by Anna Jeffreys,Humanitarian Exchange 20, March 2002.

2Bilateral allocations only (data refers to 2000) Source: DAC

3Data refers to 1999 Source: OCHA Consolidated appeal

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Reference this page

Giving voice to silent emergencies. Field Exchange 16, August 2002. p4.



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