donors and the global media chase mega-disasters, thousands
of smaller-scale, ‘forgotten’ disasters never make
the news. The phenomenon is not new and the Movement response
is making a difference. But is the overall situation getting
better or worse?
On 10 March, as the world watched massive waves smother
harbour towns along Japan’s north-east coast, tens of thousands
of people fleeing violence in Côte d’Ivoire were
making their way towards the Liberian border.
One of those refugees was Adèle Zranhoundo, 41, who
had fled with her husband and her three youngest children,
losing track of her two grown-up sons on the way. Soon afterwards,
her husband died, leaving her to fend for the little ones in
a strange country.
“Right now, after my husband’s death, I am too
confused to plan for the future, or even to work,” she
said. “I am grateful for the generosity of the people
in this village, who provide me and my children with food,
even though they don’t have much.”
In some ways, Zranhoundo has much in common with the people
affected by Japan’s tsunami. The loss of home, family
and friends. The destruction of her community. Hunger, the
prospect of long-term displacement.
But in other ways, her situation could not be more different.
While the world rallied in support of Japan’s people — and
the country’s government had significant economic and
emergency response capacity — the Ivorians who wandered
days through the forest to reach the Liberian camps received
little attention from much of the global media.
Those who fled Côte d’Ivoire for Liberia are largely
isolated from population centres and government infrastructure,
and humanitarian appeals (by both the Movement and international
organizations) have raised far fewer dollars than the earthquake
and tsunami in Japan. An emergency appeal in January for US$
4.1 million had raised US$ 2 million by 15 June — 48
per cent of its target.
There are many reasons for this disparity. Japan is a major
economic power with many cultural, economic and political
ties around the world. In addition, the shocking and sudden
devastation of a disaster such as the Japan earthquake — combined
with the ongoing nuclear threat — made for a perfect
media firestorm. The 24–7 coverage was augmented by
myriad amateur and professional videos, webcam journalists,
tweets and blogs.
In Liberia’s camps, or the small communities that
have taken in refugees, only a handful of journalists and
delegates from humanitarian organizations carrying video
cameras and notebooks posted news items for far more limited
The CNN effect
As the media increasingly rely on the repetition of compelling
visuals to gain and retain viewers, there is a corresponding
focus on epic mega-disasters — which in turn garner
greater donor support.
This concern is nothing new. For more than a decade, humanitarians
have been talking about ‘the CNN effect’, in
which a few select mega-disasters get the lion’s share
of media and donor attention, while hundreds of smaller disasters
“We are looking at a serious and chronic problem,” says
Hossam Elsharkawi, director of emergencies and recovery for
the Canadian Red Cross Society. “Our reading of the
trends is that there are more frequent, small to medium-sized
disasters and many chronic crises where access both to the
people affected and to media and information is a problem.”
Often, those smaller disasters add up to greater, combined
loss even if they gain little media attention. In Colombia
alone, researchers using a database called DesInventar catalogued
more than 19,000 small and moderate events that took lives,
destroyed assets and infrastructure between 1971 and 2002.
“The total loss in financial terms was greater than
all of the high-profile disasters to affect [Colombia] taken
together, including the deadly eruption of Nevado del Ruiz
in 1985,” researchers Ben Wisner and J.C. Gaillard
later concluded from the data. “The best-known international
database, EM-DAT, of the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology
of Disasters, records only 97 disasters in Colombia for that
period. Few of these 19,000 small and moderate events made
it into the national press in Colombia, let alone the world
this bias towards medium or large disasters is reflected
in aid policy. Some donor governments have rules that permit
aid only for disasters that affect a certain number of people
(Canada, for example, mobilizes aid when more than 5,000
people are affected). “But if a disaster affects 4,000
people, it is just as real to those people,” Elsharkawi
are a few of the reasons why, in 1985, the IFRC established
the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF). The idea was to
create a pool of money that could be used for rapid response
in areas where specific financial appeals were unlikely to
garner the public attention needed to deploy an adequate
and rapid response.
In 2006, the IFRC’s World Disasters Report highlighted
this global disparity in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean
tsunami and several other major catastrophes. Since then,
DREF has made a substantial difference in the ability of
IFRC and National Societies to mobilize (see graphics, pages
20–23). But the fund is still small (roughly US$ 22.5
million in allocations in 2010, up 9 per cent from 2009)
compared to the needs, and use of the funds is limited to
emergency response, not preparedness or risk reduction.
DREF was set up largely to provide short-term resources that
would get operations going until emergency appeals could
make up the funding gap. Due to a steady increase in the
number of disasters, combined with insufficient response
to emergency appeals, a majority of allocations (77 per cent
in 2010) are now made in the form of non-reimbursed grants
to National Societies for operations, thus increasing the
fund’s reliance on large partners and donors.
There are many reasons why emergency appeal targets frequently
go unmet. The global financial downturn is compounding the
problem, while many of the areas that suffer from numerous,
overlapping ‘hidden’ emergencies are also, ironically,
suffering from donor fatigue.
In western and central Africa, the combination of conflict,
displacement, natural disaster, a general lack of hygiene
and health infrastructure has worsened the effects of several
disastrous health emergencies: polio in the Republic of Congo,
cholera and meningitis in Cameroon and malaria and HIV/AIDS
in several other countries in the region.
While significant resources have poured into some parts
of the region (particularly refugees in the Democratic Republic
of the Congo), the coverage on appeals for other emergencies
has been disappointing. A US$ 1.3 million appeal for the
wild polio outbreak in the Republic of Congo reached only
15 per cent of its goal, while the cholera outbreak in Cameroon
had achieved only 7 per cent of its US$ 1.5 million target
by 16 June. In both cases, DREF funding made up much of the
A growing storm
By far the greatest number of natural disasters are climate-related.
Even individually, the more serious floods, storms and mudslides
can claim many lives. But the vast majority are on a smaller
scale, causing substantial damage to property and infrastructure,
as well as compounding poverty, infectious disease and malnutrition.
When torrential winter rains hit the department of Chacó on
the Pacific coast of Colombia, for example, the resultant
floods affected about 10,000 people, mostly indigenous and
Afro-Colombian communities in one of the poorest departments
in the country. Already dealing with armed conflict, they
now face hunger, damaged infrastructure and decreased mobility.
In eastern Europe, seasonal floods in Moldova spread out
over the flat land and consume cities and towns already facing
hard times. The floods occur in July and August, when many
people in the richer European nations are on vacation and
not necessarily watching the news.
In Asia Pacific, a variety of weather-related events affected
some 20 million people in more than a dozen countries in
2010 alone. The crises ranged from cold in Bangladesh and
Mongolia to cyclones in Viet Nam and an outbreak of acute
watery diarrhoea in Nepal. October’s Typhoon Megi,
which affected some 430,000 families and damaged 150,000
houses near Luzon, Philippines, has only attracted 67 per
cent of the US$ 4.9 million appeal in the six months after
it was launched. For immediate disaster response, DREF contributed
257,000 Swiss francs.
So what should the humanitarian sector do? Some of the people
interviewed for this story suggest that disaster preparedness,
prevention and risk reduction at the local level could make
a significant difference — and that National Societies
will play a key role.
Often serving as auxiliaries to their governments, National
Societies are well placed to respond quickly to small-scale
disasters due to their presence in the affected communities.
They don’t need to wait for international media or
a global funding appeal to respond.
But even with DREF funds, many National Societies do not
have the capacity to respond fully. Part of the challenge,
therefore, lies in building up the local response capability
based on lessons learnt from past disasters (as well as improving
risk reduction and prevention) before the next disaster strikes.
Many of the most serious health consequences of smaller-scale
disasters — contamination of water sources, for example — can
be solved proactively by building raised latrines and protecting
wells from flood waters. For example, the Liberian Red Cross
Society, with the support of various Movement partners, is
securing and improving numerous water sources where they
have been compromised or where the refugee crisis has put
pressure on local water supplies.
While DREF funds are sometimes used to prepare for imminent
disasters, they are not intended for long-term risk reduction
and prevention. Some within the IFRC are looking at ways
to allow a greater percentage of emergency appeal funds to
be used for preparedness, risk reduction and capacity building
(particularly in areas affected by repeated, seasonal crises).
Some National Societies, such as the Canadian Red Cross,
are creating their own global funds of unrestricted resources
(which contribute to DREF). One Canadian Red Cross campaign
carries a simple message: “Just because it’s
not in the news doesn’t mean your support isn’t
But it’s a hard sell. With mega-disasters, donors
can see results. From complete devastation, the emergency
response phase provides clear, visual examples of food distribution,
shelter, first aid or improving lives.
With prevention, risk reduction and capacity building, it’s
hard to show and prove that projects are working, says Elsharkawi. “The
standard formula we present is that one dollar invested in
prevention and risk reduction saves seven dollars down the
road,” he says. “But we need a lot more stories
to back that up. We need better research and better evidence
in order to convince people that their money is well invested.”
That is one area where Elsharkawi feels the Movement is
lacking. More serious research and papers published in peer-reviewed
journals, for example, would help build up the credibility
and evidence for donors that risk reduction, prevention and
capacity building make a difference, he says.
Forgotten by whom?
Fortunately for Adèle Zranhoundo, the Liberian families
that have taken her in are not neglecting the crisis in neighbouring
Côte d’Ivoire. Far from it. Liberian communities
along the border have opened their homes to those fleeing
the violence in Côte d’Ivoire. This is largely
because Liberians are still are in contact with Ivorians
who took them in during Liberia’s long and brutal civil
war. Now Liberia is bearing the burden of more than 100,000
“These people I am staying with, they had befriended
my husband when they were themselves refugees in Côte
d’Ivoire,” says Zranhoundo. “But later,
when I recover, I hope I will be able to work in the fields.
And one day, God willing, I will perhaps go back home.”
with Iolanda Jaquemet/ICRC and Benoît
Hidden under the
there is a world of smaller,
It’s well known that the number of natural
disasters is increasing. But a typical TV viewer
could be forgiven if he or she has the impression
that most natural disasters are the massive catastrophes
that dominate the news.
In fact, quite the opposite is true. As the graphics
on this page show, by far the greatest number of disasters
in the last ten years have been floods and most of
them have been smallto medium-sized events. They cause
fewer deaths than the major disasters but combined
they affect a far larger number of people.
These small- and mid-sized disasters get less attention,
but they cause immense financial loss and have wide-ranging
secondary effects such as malnutrition, chronic poverty
and spread of infectious disease.
By contrast, earthquakes and tsunamis are relatively
infrequent but they can be tremendously destructive
and claim many more lives, especially when they hit
densely populated areas.
Understanding this dynamic is a vital part of developing
strategies for rapid international and local response,
as well as building the local capacity to best respond
to and prevent the more frequent, small- to medium-sized
emergencies. The charts on this page show number of
events by category in the last decade, as well as the
approximate number of people affected and killed.
MISSION: FORGOTTEN DISASTERS
Imagine you are flying a massive cargo plane called
the 'International Action' with capability to deliver
a large, but limited amount of aid. Your mission: to
bring the aid where it is need most.
This is your instrument panel. On your radar, you
can see which disasters are getting the most attention
and funding, and which ones are not getting sufficient
funding. You can also see the dramatic rise of climate-related
disasters and which emergencies are falling off the
radar screen of global donors.
Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters
Top 5 under-funded appeals
West Africa: 8.4% (of
US$ 691million requested)
Zimbabwe: 29% (of US$ 488
Djibouti drought: 29.6% (of US$
39 million requested)
Niger 31.5% (of US$ 225 million
Republic of South Sudan: 34% (of US$ 620
million requested) Source: OCHA/Financial Tracking
Service. Includes contributions from governments and
international organizations including ICRC, IFRC and
National Societies (as of July 2011)