Posts tagged ‘Disasters Emergency Committee’

November, 2013

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).

November, 2013

Just Giving.

Matthew Hilton Professor of Social History  University of Birmingham

This week sees a series of blogs by staff and postgraduate researchers on the history of non-governmental organisations and humanitarianism. They are being prepared ahead of a workshop in Potsdam looking precisely at this topic.

They appear just as aid is about to reach the victims of the latest natural disaster in the Phillipines. Governments, charities and private organisations around the world have pledged to give up to £240 billion in the massive relief effort. The British public has donated over £50 million, principally through the campaign co-ordinated by the Disasters Emergency Committee, which operates on behalf of all the leading humanitarian charities.

            Such a massive demonstration of public generosity is certainly not new. The response to the Asian tsunami in 2004 was simply staggering as was the Band Aid movement in the 1980s. But these spectacular instances of international giving are only recent examples of dozens of other key moments of mass philanthropy. In the 19th century, the British public raised millions of pounds (in today’s money) for victims of famine across the empire, especially India, and organisations such as the Save the Children Fund put aside political prejudice to rescue starving children in Saratova during the Russian famine of the early 1920s.

There is a long history of persistently high levels of charitable giving in Britain. As a historian I am interested in the different ways Britons have voluntary given up parts of their income to aid and assist others less fortunate than themselves around world (whether  suffering from natural or man-made disasters or experiencing the injustices of primary poverty).


But what does all this charitable activity amount to in the minds of the generous donors? Certainly, it reflects a care and a concern for suffering by people far removed from the everyday concerns of ordinary men and women in Britain. But how far does this concern extend and to what ends? The ambiguities over the meaning of the name of the leading charity website, ‘Just Giving’ is particularly instructive on this point.

Firstly, ‘just giving’ refers to a moral action. It describes the ethical decision to donate and evokes the sense of moral obligation we have to those less fortunate than ourselves. It is understood as a politically neutral term which assumes the act of giving is in itself a moral good, irrespective of how the donation is made, to whom and for what purposes.

Secondly, the phrase also invites a political question. It implores us to ask whether the act of giving is in itself sufficient to deal with the issues that inspired the act of giving. In this sense ‘just giving’ is the starting point for a greater political understanding of the underlying causes of poverty or a humanitarian disaster.

Thirdly, it is a sociological statement that serves as a more negative answer to the above. It is an observation that the act of giving is just, or only, that: as donors we give but we do nothing else beyond it. Just giving is the endpoint of our intervention and we do not reflect on, act on or engage with the issues which provoked our compassion in the first instance.

These three aspects of just giving – in turn, moral, political and sociological – get to the heart of existing debates about charitable, voluntary humanitarianism. Thanks to the deposition and cataloging of major new archives of the leading agencies sustained historical investigation into the support for and growth of charitable humanitarianism in Britain since the late-19th century can now be made. Oxfam’s archives have been recently deposited at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, and will start to become available to researchers from the summer of 2014. These papers will complement those already available for Christian Aid and War on Want, held at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. And at Birmingham the massive deposit of the archives of the Save the Children Fund, brokered by the History department’s DANGO project will enable dozens of research projects to be undertaken into the ways in which the British public has donated to charitable causes.

Hopefully, such projects will enable us to better understand the nature of charitable giving and to cast further light on a central problem all humanitarian NGOs have had to face. Oxfam, Christian Aid and Save the Children are all committed to long term aid and development projects. But they also know that appeals based on such plans hold little sway with the public. Time and time again they are brought back to the relief of disasters as they know images of immediate suffering have a strong pull on the nation’s purse strings.

Matthew Hilton Professor of Social History  University of Birmingham


Useful links:

Disaster Emergency Committee pages on the Philippines Campaign

BBC News: UK Sending Six Aid Planes

BBC News: UK Aid legacy in Asia

Guardian: Five years after the Tsunami

Antinomies of generosity: Moral geographies and post-tsunami aid in Southeast Asia

Public diplomacy as symbolic interactions: A case study of Asian tsunami relief campaigns

Band Aid

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