Menu ENN Search

What Triggers Humanitarian Intervention?

Summary of published paper1

It is commonly assumed that massive media coverage of a humanitarian crisis will lead to increased allocations of emergency funds. This is often referred to as the 'CNN effect'. A recent study has examined the validity of this assumption.

The hypothesis of the study is that three main factors, working either in conjunction or individually, determine the volume of assistance. These are the intensity of media coverage, the degree of political and security interests that donors have in a particular region or country where a crisis occurs, and the institutional framework and strength of the network of humanitarian organisations involved in the country or region concerned.

In the study, four case-study comparisons are made. The first examines the Indian cyclone of October 1999 and the Mozambique floods of late-January 2000. The remaining three comparisons deal with complex emergencies and involve Angola, Sudan, the Balkans, the Democratic People's Republic (DPR) of Korea, and Afghanistan.

Data on the level of media coverage and volume of emergency assistance were collected for each case study. Media sources were two major television channels in Denmark, as well as 23 leading newspapers; United Kingdom (5), Germany (3), France (3), Italy (2), the United States (7), Spain (1) and Denmark (2). Financial data were derived from OCHAs2 and ECHOs3 databases. Data on level of media coverage were collected for selected periods of time, namely at three month intervals during the central years.

Data were also gathered about the scope and severity of the unfolding emergency situation and the need for outside assistance. Attempts were made to judge the number of people affected and/or the need for food assistance. For the India and Mozambique comparison, figures were compiled from the CRED/OFDA4 database. For the other situations, figures were derived from the relevant UN consolidated interagency appeals (CAP) and mid-year CAP updates. Other sources of data included World Food Programme /Food and Agricultural Organisation food aid needs estimates. It was not possible to derive any quantifiable indicators for level of stakeholder commitment to a given crisis, thus this part of the analysis is built upon qualitative judgements.

Apart from the India - Mozambique comparison, none of the other cases lead to an 'unambiguous confirmation' that media attention is the most significant explanation as to the amounts of emergency aid going to specific crises. For example, the conspicuous differendifferences in aid allocations to Angola, Sudan and Kosovo in 1999 were undoubtedly also a result of immense vested European political and security interests in Kosovo. The authors of the study claim that the massive international emergency assistance to Kosovo became one of a number of crisis management tools used by Western powers in their warfare against the Serbs. They make the same claim about Afghanistan after September 11th where here, security concerns were at the forefront so that the sudden massive level of international assistance became an instrument for crisis management. Similarly in North Korea, donor interests - or more specifically security concerns - were paramount. In the words of the authors, "it seems difficult to explain the relatively high level of emergency assistance to a Communist one-party state with extremely limited media access and very meagre possibilities for aid evaluation".

The authors also assert that even crises that are largely ignored by the media may very well uphold a substantial, albeit insufficient, level of emergency assistance - either because there are significant donor interests in the area or because the stakeholder commitment is long-lived and strong. Sudan and Angola are held up as examples of this, where humanitarian networking and continuous lobbying by well co-ordinated United Nations agencies and international non-governmental organisations are prevalent.

The study concludes that media attention is no more crucial than donor interests in mobilising international resources for humanitarian crises. Rather the case seems to be that the media play a crucial role only when there are no vital security issues at stake, namely when a humanitarian crisis occurs in a place of little strategic importance to aid-funding governments.

The authors also suggest that natural disasters and complex emergencies have a greater tendency to become 'forgotten crises' when major aid donors have no particular security interests vested in the afflicted regions. In such cases, two factors may very well determine the volume of emergency aid that is allocated - the presence and strength of humanitarian stakeholders in the region, and the curiosity and persistence of the international press.

Show footnotes

1Olsen G, Cartensen N and Hoyen K (2003). Humanitarian Crises: What determines the level of emergency assistance? Media coverage, donor interests and the aid business. Disasters, 2003, 27 (2); pp 109-126

2Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)

3European Commission Humanitarian Organisation (ECHO)

4Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED)/Office of United States Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA)

More like this

FEX: Evolution of a Crisis: a Save the Children UK perspective

By Mark Wright Mark Wright was the Save the Children Programme Officer for Southern Africa from November 2000 to November 2002. This article details Save the Children UK's...

FEX: Don’t let them eat cake

By Susanne Jaspars Susane Jaspers is a Nutritionist specialising in emergency nutrition, food aid and food security. This article is based on her experiences in Albania and...

FEX: Shared experiences of Southern Africa crisis

Malawi 2002, Medical Missionaries of Mary distribute Concern funded maize to most needy in Lilongwe Summary of meeting By Marie McGrath (ENN) On November 5th, 2002 a meeting...

FEX: 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...

FEX: Aid responses to Afghanistan: lessons from previous evaluations

Summary of report1 A review of over 50 formal evaluation reports was conducted by a Development Assistance Committee (DAC) Working party on Aid Evaluation (Organisation for...

FEX: Challenges for humanitarian response in Kosovo

Houses inhabited by gypsies in northern town of Mitrovica, Kosovo, set on fire by returning Kosovars Annalies Borrel, Rita Bhatia and Anna Young This article looks at...

FEX: Multiple crises overwhelm emergency food relief agencies

Summary of published article1 Location: Global What we know: The world is facing its largest refugee crisis since World War 2. Inadequate funding is significantly...

FEX: Kosovo Evaluation

During 1998 and early 1999 the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbian) forces increased their efforts to 'ethnically cleanse' Kosovo. They justified this on the basis that...

FEX: Co-ordinating a Humanitarian Response in Sudan

A man unloading a sack of 'Super Unimix' - a protein-rich nutritional supplement - supplied by UNICEF, from a World Food Programme plane. Paul Murphy, Regional Policy Adviser,...

FEX: Disparate responses to need in Southern Africa

By Gaëlle Fedida Blanket food distribution in Bunjei, Angola, August, 2002 Since 1993, Gaëlle Fedida has worked in humanitarian aid in a wide variety of countries, including...

FEX: Links between needs assessment and decisions in food crisis responses

Summary of published review1 Workers wade into the Sea to collect WFP food at the southern Somali port of Merka A recently completed study under the WFP Strengthening...

FEX: Conflict: a cause and effect of hunger

Summary of draft review1 The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) is currently working on a review of what is known about the linkages between hunger. Some of...

FEX: DEC Sothern Africa Crisis Appeal

Summary of published report Over 1300 people waiting for seed vouchers in Maboleni Valid International has recently published an evaluation of the Disaster Emergency...

FEX: Issue 08 Editorial

Dear Readers, Land-mark dates like a new millennium often make us think about the past as well as the future. Field Exchange 8 is also in reflective mood and includes a...

FEX: Disparate responses to need in Southern Africa: a WFP perspective

by Judith Lewis, Coordinator United Nations Regional Inter-Agency Coordination and Support Office in Southern Africa (RIACSO) WFP Regional Director for East & Southern...

FEX: Synthesis of Key points from the SCN Symposium ‘Nutrition in the context of crisis and conflict’

Statement for endorsement by the UN Secretary General on Nutrition in Conflict and Crisis - 15th March 2002 As reported in the last Field Exchange, the ACC/SCN Sub Committee...

FEX: Oxfam

Interview by Jeremy Shoham. Nick Roseveare (Deputy Director of the Humanitarian Department) and Susanne Jaspars (Food Security and Nutrition Co-ordinator) were...

FEX: Oxfam Ireland

Interview with Brian Scott Name Oxfam Ireland Address 9 Burgh Quay, Dublin 2, Ireland Year formed 1998 Telephone +353 (0)1 672 7662 Director Brian Scott Fax +353...

FEX: The Triple Threat: Southern Africa’s emergency behind the emergency

By George Aelion, WFP A Junior Farmer Field Life School site in Swaziland, one of five pilots started in 2006. George Aelion is Senior Regional Programme Advisor, with the...

FEX: When is a system not a system? Challenges to improved humanitarian action in food crises

Summary of symposium presentation Austen Davis, the General Director of MSF Holland made a presentation on 'Challenges to Improved Humanitarian action in Food Crises' at the...

Close

Reference this page

What Triggers Humanitarian Intervention?. Field Exchange 20, November 2003. p6. www.ennonline.net/fex/20/what

(ENN_3754)

Close

Download to a citation manager

The below files can be imported into your preferred reference management tool, most tools will allow you to manually import the RIS file. Endnote may required a specific filter file to be used.