When we commemorated World Humanitarian Day last year, the drought and food crisis in East Africa was at its peak, providing a timely reminder of the devastation that disasters bring.
One year on, and whilst that emergency continues (the UN estimates that 9 million people are still going hungry in the region), a new crisis is bubbling away almost entirely under the media radar. The food crisis in West Africa and the Sahel – a region comprising nine countries – is pushing 18 million people to the edge of survival.
Once again, it is the poorest and most vulnerable – mainly women and children – who are hardest hit.
On World Humanitarian Day 2012, ActionAid joins the international community in celebrating the work of humanitarians all around the world, and in commemorating lives lost in humanitarian service. The crisis in West Africa and the Sahel, along with countless other disasters unfolding across the globe, is a reminder of the continuing importance of this work against a backdrop of increasingly frequent and severe disasters. But it also serves to highlight that the root causes of disasters go much deeper than media images of dying cattle and flooded fields might first suggest. It is ActionAid’s connection with communities that enables us to understand that people are surviving by relying on traditional community support mechanisms, hiding the true extent of the need from the outside world. These mechanisms are being put under increasing pressure, and are already starting to break down.
We know what disasters invariably hit marginalised groups and people living in poverty the hardest. The evidence is there - the death and destruction was much higher following the Haiti earthquake in January 2010 (in which more than 300,000 people were estimated to have been killed) than in Chile (with around 100 deaths) a few months later, even though the intensity of the Chilean earthquake was said to be five hundred times greater.
Whilst the reasons for this disparity are many, the role played by chronic underlying poverty - Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere - cannot be underestimated. Again experience indicates that poor people have limited capacity to cope with, and take much longer to recover from, the impact of disasters, primarily because they lack the social security measures and wider connections for support enjoyed by wealthier individuals.
This link between poverty and vulnerability is precisely why ActionAid’s work in both humanitarian and development contexts prioritises people living in poverty and exclusion. If you stop to think about it, it’s logical:
How can we hope to address the complex relationship between poverty, powerlessness and disasters, without first looking at the underlying factors involved?
To do this, we must be political, working alongside communities to analyse and address the root causes of the poverty and injustice (and so vulnerability) which defines their lives. Whilst World Humanitarian Day serves to highlight the continuing importance of the founding humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence, ActionAid is clear that we do take sides – not with governments or warring factions - but with the poorest and most vulnerable.