Nothing, it seems, sets off humanitarian workers more than the subject of forgotten emergencies—the emergencies that never appear on the public’s radar screen at all or are only brief blips that are quickly forgotten.
When Michael Kocher, who oversees international programs for the International Rescue Committee, reflects on the issue, he speaks passionately about several emergencies he thinks have been woefully ignored by the international community. Most prominent on his list: the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Central African Republic (which has been overshadowed by similar and related crises in Sudan and Chad). He also notes the broader crisis of the ongoing acts of domestic violence against women and girls—an international phenomenon that knows no boundaries.
But talk to Kocher further, and his list of forgotten emergencies gets longer:
- Humanitarian problems—like health and childhood mortality—in South Sudan that predate the most recent problems related to independence from Sudan;
- Similar situations in northern Uganda
- (“a place of profound need”);
- The 2010 floods (and their under-reported aftermath) in Pakistan; and
- Food insecurity in Mali that is only now getting attention.
Rachel E. L. Wolff, World Vision’s senior director for media relations, has her own list: the 2006 food crisis in the Horn of Africa that presaged the 2011 famine and drought; Cyclone Nargis’s devastation of Bangladesh in 2008; and the 2010 earthquake that crippled parts of Chile but was overshadowed by the response to the far-more devastating earthquake in Haiti.
Donna J. Derr, who coordinates Church World Service’s humanitarian and development efforts, mentioned Chile and Pakistan as well, but also includes the 2011 Cambodia floods; heavy flooding in parts of Angola in late 2011; and the humanitarian situation in Tunisia, which she noted got some media attention during the political power transitions in 2011 but has since been forgotten by the public.
And international disasters are not the only emergencies that become forgotten. The North Dakota floods of 2011 were quickly ignored by national media and forgotten by the U.S. public.
When combined, these lists present a remarkable, perhaps even astonishing, catalog of catastrophic events affecting millions of people.
Different definitions of “forgotten emergency”
Of course, there are different definitions of what constitutes a forgotten emergency. There are the disasters that have simply faded from the public eye—if the public eye is defined as the U.S. and Western public. The 2010 Pakistan floods certainly fit that definition; the sustained coverage of the event in the United States lasted only briefly and attention quickly faded.
The Haiti earthquake and the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami are examples of “mega-events” that receive more sustained coverage and are revisited during one- or five-year commemorations. The Darfur crisis, though a different type of emergency, also has followed this pattern.
But then there are the numerous earthquakes, mudslides, volcanoes and other disasters that get attention immediately and almost as quickly disappear from public sight. Wolff of World Vision says timing is everything, recalling that the Western media were on the verge of expanding coverage of the 2006 Horn of Africa food crises when the war in Lebanon broke out, effectively aborting coverage of the food crisis.
Coverage of the 2010 Chilean earthquake faced a different fate. While objectively it was a larger earthquake than the one that hit Haiti several weeks earlier (and caused up to $30 billion in damage by some estimates), the narrative of the quake became intertwined with that of Haiti’s—and consequently was ignored by the U.S. media and public. “It had about a full week media cycle and was largely over within a week,” Wolff explains. The comparisons with Haiti became a useful, teachable moment to educate the American public about disasters, she says, noting that the example of Chile “showed what is possible when you have better building construction, when you have development.”
But it was also a lesson in how disaster stories are constructed, and how each emergency has its own narrative arc. The story of the Chilean quake was in some ways a successful narrative of disaster preparedness and sound infrastructure, Wolff notes. But that got lost in the more tragic story of Haiti’s long-standing problems that contributed to making a natural disaster far worse.
Image is as important as the story
Ben Arnoldy, deputy international editor of The Christian Science Monitor, who also once served as its South Asia bureau chief, says there is usually a small window of opportunity (a few days) to do stories related to disaster preparedness and other preventative measures, although unfortunately those themes are too often addressed following a disaster and not before.
Still, while he believes the media should focus on preventative measures before the disaster strikes, it is often hard to raise interest in humanitarian issues before, rather than after a disaster, when there is suddenly a torrent of intense, human interest stories ...