Disaster Hopping: The Battle Over Our Attention And Funds

By Joy ter Welle (@JoyterWelleGH)

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An ebola outbreak that is far from controlled in Western Africa, the Islamic State, conflicts in Israel and Palestine, recent instability in Ukraine, civil war in South Sudan, military coups, war and rebellions in Central African Republic, and protests in Hong Kong. All of these emergencies are calling out for our attention in the midst of national politics, a global economic crisis, and the newest iPhone of course. Many of these emergencies affect you on the other side of the world. Speculations arise about whether the ebola virus could become airborne, and cause a pandemic. People from at least 81 countries are Islamic State fighters, an entire family from my hometown in the Netherlands died in the Ukraine airplane crash. Although there is already plenty to think about here, the situation was very different a few months or years ago. Different emergencies were ‘popular’ in traditional and social media. However, the intense hype doesn’t last long, and after a few months, we cease from spending any more time thinking about it: we, the public and the media, hop from one disaster to the other. But just because we stop thinking about an issue, it doesn’t mean that the issue itself dissolves into thin air.

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Haiti Earthquake

Haiti was all hot and happening after the earthquake in 2010 and the subsequent cholera outbreak. Now, Haiti is forgotten. In my search for the current situation in Haiti, I was astounded by the lack of information out there. It’s quite normal that no data is available about  the most recent years. I guess it’s not surprising that most of the data is from 2010/2011 or earlier. However, during an emergency, reports flood in about the terrible situation. A couple of years later, the situation is still bad, but it is discussed nowhere in traditional or social media. The internal displacement monitoring centre (IDMC) posted in 2013 about  the situation of internally displaced people (IDPs). IDPs are people that flee from their homes and migrate within their countries. According to IDMC, 70,000 people were displaced in 2012 alone, due to storm and flood disasters, especially Hurricane Sandy. Although the number of IDPs living in camps has fallen over 77 percent from July 2010 to October 2012, many of these people have been forcefully evicted from the camps, with no where else to go. The 357,000 IDPs still living in camps, live in shelters made out of ‘flimsy material, without doors, walls, or locks, built in the streets or anywhere with a few square feet available’. Although I do not exactly know the situation in Haiti at the moment, the situation described by IDMC in 2013 certainly shows that a disaster will go on whether we pay attention to it or not.

Displaced Haitians Set Up Encampment at Port-au-Prince Golf Course
Displaced Haitians Set Up Encampment at Port-au-Prince Golf Course

Another country that moved to the background rather quickly is the Philippines. The earthquake Bohol shook the province of Bohol in the Philippines the 15th of October in 2013. Not long after, on the 8th of November, typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines. Although in two different regions, two disasters occurring so shortly after each other affected the emergency response. UNOCHA, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, estimated that 11 million people were affected due to the typhoon, with 90 percent of housing destroyed in some areas. Even with a large scale international relief response, restoring housing and livelihoods is a long term process, and is essential for resilience against future disasters.

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Typhoon Haiyan

So why do we move from one disaster to the other? Of course there are several reasons, and one of the most obvious seems to be that the most recent emergencies are the most urgent: more people are dying, and it has a higher potential of escalating. It seems that our time and money is better spent in such areas. But how do we know if that’s the case if we stop discussing the situation after just a few months or weeks? We need to track the development of the emergency response better, to see whether the actions we’re undertaking have the desired effect, and to determine when we can shift our focus to more pressing matters. Even then, we need to make sure that we often return to the topic to evaluate the situation. But most importantly, we need to open the discussion on the decision of where we can best direct our attention and money. What do you think? Should we keep on focusing on the most recent disasters, or is it worth while to concentrate on those that are now being forgotten? How can we accomplish this?

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