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Millions may die…or not: the problem with disaster hype

September 5, 2011

Sadly, over the course of the past few decades, exaggeration seems to have become the rule in the world of humanitarian relief. The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004, which is generally believed to have killed almost a quarter of a million people in 14 countries, is a stark example. In the immediate aftermath, NGOs and U.N. agencies were predicting that without massive aid, the death toll would double because of hunger, lack of clean water, and the spread of infectious disease. Their appeals were extraordinarily successful, raising more than $14 billion from governments, corporations, and a remarkably large number of private donors. And yet, there was little basis for such anxiety: The general rule in natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes is that most fatalities occur in the first 24 hours. The mismatch between the vast sums of money raised globally for tsunami relief and the real needs on the ground was so extreme that Doctors Without Borders soon began returning contributions, while Oxfam diverted funds to other crises. But this did not stop the U.N. from taking credit — on what basis, no one could quite say — for having prevented a second wave of deaths.

The culture of shameless embellishment never seems to dissipate for long. Here is Elisabeth Byrs, the spokeswoman for the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, speaking in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Jan. 12, 2010: “This is a historic disaster,” she said. “We have never been confronted with such a disaster in the U.N. memory. It is like no other.” Let’s be clear: This is not the compassionate rhetoric of solidarity, but advertising hype. It’s bigger, sadder, worse! The fact that those who dispense such misinformation mean well does not lessen the distortion.

This is from an article by David Rieff at Foreign Policy. Definitely worth reading.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Carolyn permalink
    September 5, 2011 4:44 pm

    Jon, are you implying, even though you didn’t mention it, that this may be occurring in the Horn? I acknowledge that the UN is full of idiots, but I am inclined to believe NGOs on the ground and it’s hard to dispute the objective numbers of 10,000 flowing into Dadaab each week…please clarify…

    • September 5, 2011 11:15 pm

      Actually, I was not implying anything. I just thought it was a good article about NGOs tending to use greatly exaggerated language to describe disaster situations in order to get people to donate to them and why that is a bad thing.

      At the same time though, in terms of the famine, I do believe that while some NGOs are expressing the situation and the need in the right way, many NGOs are not. I think the situation is dire and terrible, however, exaggerating the numbers or what might happen doesn’t do anyone any good and actually detracts from what is really happening on the ground.

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