Chronicle of crises that's soft and noisy

World Disasters Report
May 11, 2001

Disasters - at least natural disasters - are inevitable, but deaths from disasters are not. To minimise their impact, to predict or even to prevent them, is the challenge for disaster relief. Disasters have a powerful and growing effect on the world, in part as a result of climate change, yet most of us have little or no comprehension of their nature and scale and the degree of suffering they inflict.

Media coverage tends to favour whatever grabs the public imagination. "Pants to poverty" paid off for Comic Relief, while in disasters "if it bleeds, it leads". The World Disasters Report , by contrast, presents a more sober and long-lasting analysis of disasters and international response. Eight annual reports, starting in 1993, provide a unique source of reference from the authoritative perspective of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

The IFRC together with the International Committee of the Red Cross form the Red Cross movement. The ICRC has an exclusively humanitarian mission to protect the lives and dignity of victims of war and internal conflict and to provide them with assistance, which is regul-ated by international humanitarian law. There is no similar body of law to alleviate the effects of natural and technological disasters. Relief is primarily the responsibility of the government of the country concerned, which may be supported by the international relief system.

As a mouthpiece of the world's largest humanitarian organisation, the WDR has a vital role in bridging the gap between the international and local level and in closing the academic and operational divide. It has the potential to become a true expression of the adage: think globally, act locally.

The reports combine a wealth of facts and figures on disasters with an analysis of trends and updates on new developments and initiatives in humanitarian assistance and disaster response. Most reports follow a set format. The first section covers current issues; the second reviews the past year in disasters; and the third contains tables giving a global overview of the number of disasters and the number of people killed or affected - by continent and by phenomenon. The statistics come principally from the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters at the University of Louvain, Belgium, and from the US Committee for Refugees.

On the topic of disasters and related issues, the reports are an essential reference for university libraries and an excellent source for students. Learning and advocacy are their chief functions: anyone involved professionally in speaking on the subject of disasters will find the WDR invaluable. For those directly involved in disaster relief, the reports are an excellent starting point for considering key issues and a much-needed single source of statistics on disasters. Relief workers will need to look elsewhere for more in-depth analyses, which are referred to in the reports.

A broad definition of disaster is adopted, including natural hazards, technological disasters and conflict-related crises. The WDR also covers, for example, the social, economic and human cost of HIV/Aids, the widespread use of anti-personnel mines, the psychological impact of terrorist bombings and the toll of traffic accidents. The reports also document how focus shifted in the 1990s from the south to the north as a result of the wars in former Yugoslavia. A departure in the report for 2000 is that it has a sectoral focus - it examines public-health spending, its demise and the consequences of this for disaster-affected regions.

The facts and figures show the massive and increasing scale of disasters. Some 250 million to 300 million people are affected annually, most of them in Asia. In 1991 and 1998, for example, Chinese flood victims accounted for more than half of the global total.

As to reliability, "soft and noisy" is how the reports describe their data. They are best used to understand the relative scale of things, such as an order-of-magnitude difference between two disasters in different countries, and to provide evidence of trends over time. Although extremely useful, the data are socially and politically constructed and should be treated with caution. As the reports state, most sources have a vested interest in the numbers reported. A host government, a western donor, a refugee representative body and a United Nations organisation will have different takes on the same disaster. In Sudan in 1998, the Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Association reported 2.37 million disaster-affected people, but the UN's World Food Programme and Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated just under 1 million. Tragically, the SRRA estimate was nearer the truth.

Although the reports are open about the questionable quality of some data sources, a browsing student might not realise this. In 1999, the reports decided to drop data on famines for lack of reliable figures and lack of a widely shared definition of famine: there is no clear cut-off between "drought affected" and "famine".

The fatalities for each type of disaster, as opposed to the numbers adversely affected, are of crucial importance. Mortality rates are the most effective weapon for advocates of an international response. But even here, rough estimates can be difficult to obtain. In the 1997 WDR , the explanations of how mortality should be monitored fail to convey the reality of data collection in emergencies and make it sound too simple.

Surveying all eight reports, one finds important recurring themes, only a few of which can be mentioned. First is the need for relief workers to defend the impartiality and humanity of their work against increasing politicisation of aid. International non-governmental organisations are under pressure to act as the agents of donor policy, as more humanitarian aid is channelled through NGOs than before. At the same time, disaster relief frequently has to compensate for government failures to provide public services.

The variable quality of the humanitarian response in Somalia in 1992, in Rwanda in 1994 and in Sudan in 1998 - and the bad press this gave rise to - undermined the confidence of NGOs and generated moves to professionalise humanitarian assistance. There were seen to be too many aid agencies and too little coordination between them. In Kosovo in 1999, more than 400 agencies converged on Pristina intent on getting a piece of the action, in what the WDR aptly terms Kosovo's "humanitarian Klondike".

The reports chronicle various international initiatives for improving assistance. The first and most widely supported is the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Response, a ten-point code establishing universal basic standards of independence, effectiveness and impact. More than 200 voluntary organisations have signed up. There is also the Sphere project, which has developed a set of "common minimal performance standards" and a charter. The WDR for 2000 suggests that Sphere's minimum standards might some day become international law.

Another recurring theme is the importance of understanding what makes people vulnerable to disasters. Vulnerability is analysed in relation to food insecurity, political marginalisation and the misuse of power and extreme climatic events. It is also linked to human rights, as "there is a close correlation between disaster vulnerability and people's ability to claim their basic human rights".

A missed opportunity is the small reference to the UN's International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction. Its goal was to protect people and property from the worst effects of natural hazards and to foster high-level commitments and partnerships between member states and UN organisations. Less than a page of the special report focusing on natural disasters (1999) is dedicated to the IDNDR. If this coverage is anything to go by, it appears that the non-governmental sector and the Red Cross movement were not particularly engaged in the IDNDR. Public knowledge seems equally limited; although natural disasters were splashed over the front pages of newspapers in 1999, there was next to no mention of the concluding efforts of the IDNDR.

In contrast, the Red Cross movement remains centre stage in disaster response. Perhaps more could be made of the opportunity for local Red Cross experience to inform global opinions - particularly as some of the international initiatives described above have yet to prove themselves. Wider ownership of the WDR within the Red Cross would make it more influential among national societies and disaster-relief practitioners. Nevertheless, the reports combine global perspectives on issues and trends with analyses on local emergencies, and they will remain a primary reference source on the subject of disasters.

Helen Young is co-editor, Journal of Disaster Studies, Policy and Management , and associate professor, Tufts University, Massachusetts, United States. The World Disasters Report for 2001 will be published on June 28 at £17.95 and distributed by Eurospan.


World Disasters Report

ISBN - 92 9139 066 6
Publisher - Int. Fed. of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
Price - £15.95

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