Politics of Poverty

2013: Annus Horribilis for Humanitarian Crises

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A year that tested the global humanitarian system

Marc Cohen is a Senior Researcher on Humanitarian Policy at Oxfam America. 

Traditionally a time for reflection, the month of January takes its name from the ancient Roman god Janus, who had two faces, one looking forward and one looking back. Photo: http://bit.ly/1cUUuS2
Traditionally a time for reflection, the month of January takes its name from the ancient Roman god Janus, who had two faces, one looking forward and one looking back. Photo: http://bit.ly/1cUUuS2

It is certainly fair to say that 2013 was a “horrible year” for humanitarian crises. This is how Brookings Institution scholar Beth Ferris put it at a January 9 discussion I attended, Humanitarian Crises in 2013: Assessing the Global Response.

Looking Back

The number of people requiring humanitarian assistance in Syria doubled. Fighting broke out in the Central African Republic and South Sudan, leaving more than 2 million people in need of emergency aid. There was also the devastation of Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan in the Philippines, and the ongoing emergencies in Afghanistan, Burma, Colombia, Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and elsewhere.

Panelists at the Brookings event agreed that the year sorely tested the global humanitarian system. Aid too often arrived late and in inadequate amounts. Figures from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) bolster this view. Donors provided just 58 percent of the resources required in OCHA’s 2013 humanitarian appeals. The proportion falls to 42 percent for the Philippine typhoon, despite the considerable media attention to that disaster. Breaking the 2013 humanitarian response down by sector, while donors provided 87 percent of emergency food requirements, the statistics drop to 51 percent for health, 39 percent for water, sanitation, and hygiene, and a mere 32 percent for protection, human rights, and rule of law.

Speakers at Brookings noted that conflicts left millions of people at risk of displacement, hunger, illness, and death. Real human beings stand behind these somewhat abstract numbers. In April last year, Fatima, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon, told Oxfam, “My family is living on bread and oil.”

A young Syrian refugee trying to find a shelter in the cold Lebanese winter. Taken in January 2013. Photo: Luca Sola / Oxfam.
A young Syrian refugee trying to find a shelter in the cold Lebanese winter. Taken in January 2013. Photo: Luca Sola / Oxfam.

François Stamm, North American representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross, told the Brookings audience that well-established humanitarian principles, such as protection of civilians and provision of medical treatment to wounded combatants, frequently fell by the wayside in 2013. Panelists noted that violence against women was rampant in far too many crises. The international community had difficulty mustering the political will to forge political solutions to violent conflicts.

As I sat listening to the panel yesterday, the words of Carole King’s song “Smackwater Jack” came to me, depressingly appropriate: “On the whole, it was a very good year for the undertaker.” The prospects in 2014 are, unfortunately, for more of the same.

Looking Forward

So was there any good news in this tale of 2013 woe? The speakers agreed that there were indeed some positive signs. Sophie Delauney of Doctors Without Borders-USA gave high marks overall to humanitarian response to Yolanda/Haiyan. There was good leadership in the Philippines where armed conflict did not overlap with natural disaster, and logistical difficulties were surmountable.

Panelists also cited the difference that social media can make. New technologies make it possible for concerned citizens around the world to press governments and international institutions for more effective action to provide humanitarian assistance and prevent mass atrocities. In addition, contemporary refugees and displaced persons can and do tweet about the conditions they face, and this has forced humanitarian agencies to make sure that their aid is accountable to those who receive the services.

For Oxfam, two pillars will support more effective humanitarian action going forward:

(1) Greater investment in disaster risk reduction, including emergency preparedness; and
(2) Developing the capacity of citizens and governments in crisis-prone countries to carry out humanitarian action on their own.

Several of the Brookings panelists pointed to the importance of local humanitarian actors in 2013, such as the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, which has played a crucial role in a difficult and dangerous situation, with strong support from the global Red Cross-Red Crescent movement. As OCHA’s Antoine Gérard emphasized, such partnerships between international and local actors have become essential to the humanitarian enterprise and will continue to do so in 2014.

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