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What is a humanitarian catastrophe?

Published on 23 February 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

This is the first of a series of posts on the subject of humanitarian aid.

Having involved myself in the subject in the last few weeks, I’ve reflected on some of the issues involved. Not that I’ve come to any conclusions – I’ve just been able to flag a few issues. My ruminations claim to be no more than spotting the tip of an iceberg from afar. What emerges, however, is big and dangerous enough for me to warn people not to steam at full emotional speed in the vicinity of the subject, lest they fall victims to the “law of unintended consequences”.

Sometimes I feel that the Devil celebrates most wildly when we humans try to do good. That’s when we do our worst in the end. As Graham Greene said in The Quiet American: “Innocence is a kind of insanity”.


USSC Judge Potter STEWART famously wrote: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”[1].

I use this quote to focus on our perception of “humanitarian catastrophe”. Do we unfailingly and unflinchingly “see” a humanitarian catastrophe? I have my doubts.

We can easily imagine a tsunami – the TV-screen brings into our living room the image of thousands of deaths. “What a catastrophe” – we exclaim, and feel a deep urge to help. 1.5 million children die from diarrhea each year[2] – far more than deaths from all recent tsunamis combined. 2.6 billion people worldwide still lack proper sanitation[3]. Despite the numbers, the popular mind does not rank “lack of hygiene” as humanitarian catastrophe. Catastrophes are often invisible or silent ones – events we (chose to) ignore.

Part of the reason for this bias is our emotional set-up[4]. We react strongly to something that can happen to us – like an airplane crash. We react less to something that we imagine we can avoid by careful behavior: we do not worry about getting involved in traffic accidents – we are all careful drivers, are we not? – there are over 30’000 deaths in traffic accident each year in the US. We react to “death clusters” more than scattered deaths: traffic-related deaths in the US correspond to a plane crash every second day. Wasting or lingering death on the other hand fails to retain our attention for long; also, it is easily displaced by the next “sudden” catastrophe. We prefer polarizing events over complex ones: famines are easier to grasp than civil wars – though the underlying causes may be the same (I’ll devote a separate blog to “complex emergencies”).

Politics and ideology plays an important role in clouding our perception. The failure to report on the (often government-initiated) deaths in war-torn Kashmir ( +70’000 for the period 1989-2009)[5] contrasts strangely with the overheated coverage of even the most minor unrest in Tibet, leave alone Tehran. Generally speaking, India’s significant under-performance (compared to China) in bettering the conditions of its people is excused – possibly because it is a democracy. As if poverty could be a democratic choice!

394px starved girl

In Western worldview in particular, empathy often triggers impulsive action. We see the face of a starving child – we want to help; we send food, medicine, money, and what else. We task helpers with bringing all this to the victims. Seldom do we reflect on the longer term consequences of our actions. By bringing help now we may condemn others to death in the future. Only, those unfortunate people have no voice today. We are always confronted with alternative “path-dependent outcomes”, and “doing good now” is not sufficient justification for action.

A good case in point was the “mother of all humanitarian efforts” – relief for famine-struck Biafra. The secession of this region led to a two-year war that left over one million dead. Ever since then the unanswerable questions stay, like hungry ghosts, in the room: did humanitarian aid prolong the Biafran war, and with it the genocide it purported to avoid?

Too often the self-evident path of “action now” is chosen, sometimes dogmatically, without reflection to the longer term consequences. These may be far worse than what the international community attempts to prevent. We see the deaths we can prevent today, and forget those we may cause in the future (but the converse is also possible). The first rule of Hippocratic medicine states: “Primum non nocere” – first do no harm. There is more than a whiff of arrogance, or even hubris, is believing that this rules no longer applies.

We are born social beings and humanitarian catastrophes trigger most profound feelings of empathy. We have evolved thanks to our adaptive ability rationally to think through the consequences of our actions. We do so unsparingly in our daily life. We should not disarm when confronted with catastrophes – in “penny wise and pound foolish” fashion. More about this in future entries.

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