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Natural Disasters and Humanitarian Crises in 2012: how did we do?

December 20, 2012
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Ed Cairns, an Oxfam senior policy adviser, looks back on a very mixed year in the response to humanitarian crises.Ed Cairns 2012

You might not have noticed it from the headlines, but this year Oxfam has responded to more crises than ever before. Not megadisasters like Haiti’s earthquake in 2010, but the daily struggle for survival that has just got worse in places like the West African countries of the Sahel. The dearth of headlines may of course also be because much of the world has been preoccupied with its own problems – the Eurozone in crisis, China slowing down, and the US teetering on its fiscal cliff. Perhaps that is why the UN expects this year’s humanitarian appeals to end 2012 around 63% filled. That’s $3 billion of aid to save lives not given – no worse than last year, but significantly down from the pre-recession days of 2007, ’08 and ’09 when such appeals reached more than 70% of their targets.

This year, one crisis came on top of another – sometimes literally. Like northern Mali’s rebellion in April which has forced some 360,000 from their homes, including 160,000 seeking refuge in Mali’s impoverished neighbours. For – without even mentioning Syria – 2012 has not really been a good year for peace. Last week, the UN launched a review of its peacekeeping in Congo after its mission let rebels force 140.000 people from the city of Goma. According to Tariq Rieb, an Oxfam colleague in Congo, the UN’s performance fell ‘way short of what anyone would expect.’ And this only a month after another UN review slammed the UN role in Sri Lanka, where UN and other aid workers failed to do what they could to protect civilians in 2009.

Too many aid workers still think their responsibility ends with providing material necessities, while in many crises what people ask for, even more, is safety. Twenty years after we searched our souls in Bosnia for sending aid to the ‘well-fed dead’ – who nobody was protecting from murder and rape – we still have a long way to go. Although humanitarian aid has come on by leaps and bounds in quality and professionalism, the dilemmas of working in conflicts are proving more stubborn. While what has come to light in Sri Lanka and Congo should prompt a profound look at why the UN, including peacekeeping, is not better at protecting people from, to quote its founders in 1945, the ‘scourge of war’.

Not everything of course is so bleak. Gaza at least got a ceasefire. And in other humanitarian crises, there is a real sense that governments and organisations on the ground are getting better at coping with disasters. Tragically, this month hundreds were killed by Typhoon Bopha in the southern Philippines, but the local Humanitarian Response Consortium went immediately into action to get safe water to the stricken areas, and launch cash-for-work programmes so that families could buy food, clothing and shelter. The local authorities too were well prepared,

typhoon phlippines

tangible proof of how the Philippines has built its national capacity to handle disasters since 2009.

Just as well actually, because the Philippines, like so much of the world, is likely to see more such weather-related disasters in future. So it was not good that, a few thousand miles away in Doha, the world failed to agree much of anything at the latest talks on climate change. There was no big new commitment to cut emissions, while the earth continues, on its current trends, towards the 2C temperature rise that most scientists warn us about. If those trends continue, we can expect more climate-related disasters, and a lot more humanitarian need. And perhaps most worrying of all, coastal areas, like parts of Bangladesh, going under water – despite the progress that has been done to make them less vulnerable to disaster. In one part of south west Bangladesh, Oxfam is leading a consortium building 11,000 shelters, homes and latrines on plinths above flood levels. But if the world fails to tackle climate change, will that really help? We don’t honestly know. And because of that, this year’s greatest humanitarian disaster was probably in… Doha.


  1. Why is the term “Natural Disasters” used in this blog? (in the title). There is no such thing as a “natural” disaster. I am disappointed. This is in contradiction to all Oxfam work on policy and campaign on DRR…

  2. Blame me for the lazy headline writing, Isabelle, not Ed! However, while I fully accept that the human impact of natural events is largely determined by social and economic conditions, it’s a bit extreme to deny the existence of ‘natural disasters’ altogether

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