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Disasters: looking back at the realities for people caught in conflict and disaster

Written by Matthew Foley

This special issue of Disasters marks the 60th anniversary of its parent institution, ODI. Although not quite as old (the journal celebrated its 40th birthday in 2017), its longevity means that it has been at the forefront of disaster studies since the field first emerged as a distinct discipline in the 1970s. From the very first issue, published in 1977, Disasters has always concerned itself, both with the key conceptual and philosophical questions preoccupying scholars, and with the lived realities of people caught up in conflict and disaster, and the dilemmas and trade-offs facing those seeking to help them.

Some of these issues have been with us for decades, and are still subject to debate today. As early as 1980, in an article exploring the differential impacts of a massive earthquake in Peru in May 1970, Stephen W. Dudasik noted how the effects fell hardest on the poorest and most marginalised: ‘As in other natural disasters, not all survivors were injured, nor did everyone lose family and friends’. Rather than assume that disasters affect everyone equally, Dudasik argued, ‘an alternate procedure would be to distribute relatively scarce supplies and services on the basis of need’.

Articles published in the mid-1980s looked at the possibilities open to relief workers confronted with violations of human rights and humanitarian law, the unique role of the ICRC and the need for guidelines and training, the particular needs of people with disabilities in disasters (then as now an area ‘largely neglected by emergency services and those voluntary and statutory organizations directly concerned with disablement’) and the challenges of using socio-economic data in early warning of famine. Writing in 1985, Frances D’Souza bemoaned the ‘discrepancy between what is now known about how to achieve a timely and effective response and what actually happens’

If these perennial problems seem all too familiar today, other articles in the issue reflect more emerging issues and trends. During the 1990s, scholars increasingly began to understand ‘natural’ disasters such as famines as not natural at all, but the product of a complex interaction between climatic conditions, political economies, marginalisation and conflict: that, in some circumstances, famine can be ‘created’, with, as Joanna Macrae and Anthony Zwi put it, ‘the use of food as a weapon of war by omission, commission and provision’ – or, as argued by Jean Drèze in the context of drought in western India, successfully averted through state action and political activism based on a ‘political compulsion to respond in the event of a crisis’. Growing interest in the political economy and instrumentalisation of famine went hand in hand with a growing appreciation of the relationship between the health and morbidity impacts of hunger and malnutrition and people’s individual circumstances, in particular the increased risks faced by people in displacement.

New terms entered the lexicon, notably the concept of ‘complex emergencies’ and the challenge these contexts were seen to present to the independence and impartiality of humanitarian action in highly charged crises marked by splintered military forces, human rights abuse and civilian harm. Article titles during this period vividly convey this sense of existential crisis: ‘The death of humanitarianism? An anatomy of the attack’; ‘The symphony of the damned: racial discourse, complex political emergencies and humanitarian aid’; ‘Proliferating principles; or how to sup with the Devil without getting eaten’.

Confronted with messy, complex post-Cold War conflicts in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and Somalia, and a more assertive interventionism from the major Western powers, the cosy myth that ‘disaster relief’ stood somehow apart from the political and social realities of communities in crisis and conflict was dramatically exposed. Taken together, as John Borton argued in his survey of the international relief system, published in 1993, the sector was in the throes of a ‘process of rapid and fundamental change associated with the end of the Cold War’. Striking a more conceptual note, David Alexander, in his retrospective study of developments in disaster studies published four years later, bemoaned the ‘hoped-for developments [that] did not occur’ and ‘the assets lost in the name of progress’, including ‘academic over-specialisation’ and a failure to transfer technology to ‘where it is most needed’.

The uncomfortable realities of the 1990s – and in particular the moral and human disaster of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 – also prompted a great deal of soul-searching and introspection, and some genuine attempts to frame a new humanitarianism that responded to a more complicated and more threatening world. Writing in 1995, Hugo Slim spoke of the ‘Metamorphosis of the humanitarian practitioner’, and called for a whole new set of skills and attitudes. The chastening experiences of the 1990s also led humanitarian agencies to ask themselves some difficult questions about accountability and standards in humanitarian work. They also saw the creation of new centres of research and learning, including the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG), the Humanitarian Practice Network (HPN) and ALNAP.

Many of the challenges facing the sector only sharpened in the wake of the attacks on the United States in September 2001, and the subsequent US and allied invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. How should humanitarian action relate to and interact with conflict? What kind of response – relief, development, peace-building ‘or something in-between’ – was appropriate or possible in complex political emergencies? As major Western powers increasingly sought to combine military, political, humanitarian and economic action to ‘control, contain and manage areas affected by armed conflict and complex emergencies’, where did this leave humanitarianism as a distinct sphere of intervention? Under what circumstances was it permissible for humanitarians to call on military force to protect civilians under threat? What did protracted violence mean for traditional approaches to livelihoods in emergencies, particularly in circumstances where the assets on which livelihoods are built during times of peace become sources of threat in times of war? And how could ostensibly neutral humanitarian actors stay safe in contexts where they were perceived as agents of a Western neo-colonial agenda of conquest and control?

In many ways, the questions Disasters’ contributors were asking in the immediate post-9/11 period amounted to sharper iterations of some very long-standing challenges. But newer areas of concern were also emerging, including the relationship between climate change and disaster management. New and largely unfamiliar urban contexts were also coming under scrutiny, prompting researchers and policy-makers to explore the challenges of increasingly rapid urbanisation for a sector more accustomed to rural response in marginal areas.

Questions were again being asked about the fundamental identity of the humanitarian system, and the discourse and assumptions that underpinned it. Given the preponderance of the Middle East in the crises and conflicts that marked the post-9/11 era, the role of Muslim humanitarianism became increasingly prominent in a Western-dominated system comprised largely of self-consciously secular or Christian institutions. More broadly, scholars explored the possibilities of more local, indigenous knowledge, in opposition to the ‘scientific’, ‘technocratic’ approach of mainstream humanitarian response, and questioned the discursive framework within which key concepts such as hazard and vulnerability were traditionally understood.

By the mid-2010s the conclusion of the Hyogo Framework for Action refocused attention on disasters and disaster risk management, in particular concepts of resilience, disaster risk reduction and ‘building back better’ after disasters – albeit with little conceptual or definitional clarity around any of these terms. In parallel, an emerging body of scholarship sought to interrogate the links between hazard-related disasters and conflict, and specifically how disasters are ‘created and discursively framed, and how information on them is publicly consumed’.

A more nuanced approach to gender was also emerging, which looked beyond a preoccupation with the specific vulnerabilities of women and girls. Contributors also looked again at the ethics and values of the humanitarian spirit in light of the increasing expansion and ongoing professionalisation of the sector. And the perennial concern for the limitations of humanitarian action in the face of deliberate human rights violations and violence against civilians seemed no nearer a solution than it had been in Rwanda: a long road indeed from concept to practice.

Fittingly perhaps this anthology ends with a series of pieces on the dichotomy that has always existed at the centre of the humanitarian enterprise: between the turmoil of crisis and ‘an endeavour that in many ways attempted to order the world … that tried to contain risk … and was already grappling with its own moral and institutional shortcomings’. While these challenges are only likely to become more acute in an era of global pandemics, climate extremes and environmental decline, and who knows what else, they also point to the continued relevance of research and analysis to inform humanitarian action for the sake of the world’s most vulnerable people.