Enamoured with Emergency: the Disaster Relief Industry

Andrew Jones  PhD Candidate, University of Birmingham

The recent destruction wrought by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines has triggered a major mobilisation of the global humanitarian aid network. Donor governments and UN agencies have pledged substantial contributions for emergency relief. International non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have gone into action, backed by the financial and moral support of donor publics. In Britain the Disasters Emergency Committee, an umbrella body of leading aid agencies tasked with launching and co-ordinating the humanitarian sector’s response to major disasters, raised £23 million from the British public for typhoon relief in just 48 hours attesting to the groundswell of support for urgent relief operations in the Philippines.


UK official relief aid being loaded onto HMS daring for distribution in the Philippines. Picture: Simon Davis/DFID

The international response to the typhoon has also reaffirmed a truism long acknowledged within the aid industry; in the business of saving humans, evocative media images of disaster and human suffering are unrivalled in their power to mobilise compassion and resources. Donor publics respond to graphic footage of human suffering (usually children) by donating en masse to leading NGOs, and exert pressure on their governments to act. The British government notably only despatched a warship to assist in relief efforts (HMS Daring) after the Philippines had become a domestic political issue, despite the international community being aware of the impending typhoon before it struck. The entire global aid response to the Philippines is now attracting criticism for its perceived slowness; this is partially the result of failures by the Philippine National Government, and the complex logistical problems involved in any disaster relief operation. It also reflects how the international community only responds to overseas suffering when dramatic images are broadcast on television. By this point, it is already too late for many of those living in disaster-afflicted regions.

Historically, this tendency has presented opportunities and restrictions for those organisations engaged in international humanitarianism. Arguably, the financial and institutional expansion which characterises the modern history of aid agencies such as Oxfam and Save the Children has been fuelled by a perpetual cycle of heavily-mediated disasters in the Global South. Through their appeals and publicity, these NGOs have extracted large amounts of public funding through the universal appeal of images of vulnerable, suffering children. This in turn has enabled them to build up their capacities and public profiles, further cementing their popular association with disaster relief. The involvement of aid agencies in such major overseas emergencies as the Nigerian civil war (1968), the Bangladesh cyclone and war of liberation (1970-71), famine in the Sahel (1973-74), post-Pol Pot Cambodia (1979), famine in Ethiopia (1984-85), and genocide in Rwanda (1994) has been described as a roll-call of disasters which resembles “the campaign honours of a venerated regiment”. Mark Duffield refers to the modern NGO movement expanding on the basis of the state of “permanent emergency” which exists among the world’s most vulnerable populations[1].

However, perhaps less well known is that as early as the 1960s, a critique of this inherently short-term, crisis-oriented approach to humanitarianism was emerging within the NGO community. The stimulus for this was organisations such as Christian Aid and Oxfam recasting themselves as ‘development agencies’, promoting expert-led solutions to the root causes of suffering in the Global South. In the process, these bodies gradually took up a more overt advocacy and campaigning role, aiming to build up grassroots support for policy reforms connected to the international development agenda. In this context, emergency relief increasingly came to be seen as an outdated form of philanthropy, ineffective in the larger struggle for long-term change. This new attitude could be seen in the spread of a critique of NGO disaster publicity, which attacked the ubiquitous images of starving children as unethical, exploitative, and incompatible with development. Much of this criticism came from within the sector; Oxfam notably announced in the Guardian in 1973 that it was to stop using such imagery, and seek to “educate rather than incite pity… people have become blunted by disaster”[2].

Of course, in practice such fears of the public becoming “blunted by disaster” proved to be ill-founded, and the compelling power of such images has proved difficult for publicity-oriented NGOs to avoid. Despite the long-standing criticisms made of emergency relief, NGOs have consistently scaled up their commitments and capacities for humanitarian aid, reflecting a broader increase of relief as a proportion of all international assistance. The UK Disasters Emergency Committee is an obvious example of this process at work. Founded in 1963 as a means for leading agencies to make joint emergency appeals on television (rather than compete among themselves) the DEC’s membership and fundraising power has expanded considerably over time. The DEC now regularly extracts huge sums from the public on the basis of disaster, including a remarkable record sum of £392 million in public donations for the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.

The continued rise in the importance and appeal of emergency relief aid, especially in relation to development advocacy and campaigning, raises challenging questions about non-state humanitarianism and the public attitudes which shape how some humans come to be ‘saved’. As the large response to typhoon Haiyan would suggest, the public as a whole is simply far more responsive to the visual spectacle of disasters. Indeed, opinion polls indicate that large sections of the public do not perceive any distinction between development aid and humanitarian aid, conceiving of international aid as a whole as short-term charity[3]. The huge outpouring of global compassion triggered by media coverage of the Philippines typhoon also underlines how challenging it is to mobilise popular and political support for campaigning on the causes of global underdevelopment. Issues such as debt, trade and economic interdependence are inevitably less geared to unambiguous, dramatic representation; a dilemma familiar to many employed within the NGO sector. However, it should also be acknowledged that international humanitarians have themselves contributed to creating this problem of public engagement, as NGOs have used simplistic images and narratives of disasters and disaster relief to fuel their own expansion. Saving humans is a moral and ethical imperative; it is also a complex industry, where there is often no explicit connection between the causes of human suffering, and its effects.

Andrew Jones is a Doctoral Researcher in the School of History and Cultures. He is currently completing his PhD thesis on the modern history of the British humanitarian NGO sector.

[1] Mark Duffield, Development, Security and Unending War: Governing the World of Peoples (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007), pp.74-75.

[2] Lindsay Mackie, ‘Oxfam changing child plea image’, The Guardian, 6 October 1973, p.4.

[3] Ida Mc Donnell, ‘United Kingdom’, in Ida Mc Donnell et al. (eds.), Public Opinion and the Fight against Poverty (Paris: OECD, 2003, pp.217-224).


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: