Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What do I Bring to the Table? Take Two

After our first few of days in class, I have decided to revisit the question: "What do I bring to the table?"

I previously thought that I had very little to bring to the table when it came to disaster relief and management other than my enthusiasm and willingness to learn.  However, I have realised that I do in fact have a bit more to offer...

I forgot that when it comes to practical skills, I actually can take blood pressure, record pulse, perform functional assessments (of human movement to help physiotherapists) and perform blood tests.  I also remembered that having watched several surgeries in Ghana and Uganda, I am actually quite good with blood and trauma and things that may bother others when they see them.

I have also realised that I am quite adept at communicating with others in a clear and tactful way.  I do not shy away from conversation and while I was worried that I might be too outspoken in the group scenarios in class, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was happy to take a step back and listen to the perspectives of others or let them take the lead as well.  But, if there was a bit of a communication gap or someone had to take the position of leader for a time to get the workflow going, I was happy to step in if no one else seemed willing.  I feel that my communication skills and flexibility in manoeuvring within group dynamics could be useful to my working in disaster management.  In addition, I also speak three languages: English, French and Italian, so perhaps I could be a useful translator.

Finally, despite the high level of indecisiveness that plagues my every day life choices in regards to small and relatively trivial matters (i.e. what movie to watch, what to wear in the morning, etc), I actually make big decisions quite quickly.  In addition, while I had not previously given it much thought, I have reacted pretty well in emergency situations that I have found myself in such as car accidents or witnessing women suddenly going into labor.  For example, my father and I were in a car accident and we ended up upside down in a ditch and while my father (a former police officer) sat frozen at the wheel before releasing his seat belt and landing on his head, I managed to reach over and turn the car off, find an exit and make sure that we made it out quickly and safely.  Looking back now, my decisions to act in such situations have been swift and quite level-headed, despite the fact that I do not remember thinking much at all at the time.  My decisions during our group disaster scenarios where we had to decide who we would save and who we would leave behind were very much the same.  I considered the various options carefully but quickly and made a decision that I still stand by, even upon further examination.

As our guest lecturer stated on the first day of class, the worst thing that you can do is not make a decision, so hopefully that would also serve me well if I ever end up working in disasters.  Of course, there might be occasions when going with my gut or making a quick assessment will not be in everyone's best interest, so I should make sure that I know when to take an extra moment to consider the various options.


Friday, December 26, 2014

Humanitarian Aid as Part of an Agenda

What is the wrong way to give humanitarian aid in a conflict?

Can aid in a conflict ever be entirely neutral?

I have to admit, these are questions that I had not given much thought to since watching episodes of M*A*S*H as a child, especially the episodes where the members of the unit were treating or even simply interacting with North Koreans.  I used to think about how nice it was that the American doctors were taking such good care of the North Koreans, treating them the way they would anyone else.  I even remembered being surprised that they were treating the soldiers at all, I mean, did that not sort of defeat the purpose?  They were trying to win the war after all and the more soldiers they saved on the opposing side the more they had to go up against.  Of course, now I realise that the soldiers that they saved probably became prisoners of war being that the M*A*S*H unit was a military faction.  So while it was good of "Trapper John", "Hawkeye" and "Hotlips" to save the North Korean soldiers that came into their facility, those that they did were likely ultimately used as bargaining chips in the war effort for the American and South Korean side.

I also now realise that it would probably have been against international law to not treat the wounded of either side.  But of course, this leads me to even more questions, one of which is: when did warring parties start treating the other side's wounded and what documents outline those obligations? Did the North Korean side have the same sort of facilities to treat their soldiers and people or the soldiers they took as captives on their side and what happened if they did not.  Were they as willing as the Americans to treat the opposing side just as well as their own?

The rights of prisoners of war and individuals wounded by conflict (combatants or non-combatants) are outlined in the Geneva Convention, protected under international law and enforced by the United Nations (Draper 1998).  The regulations in the Convention dictate the proper non-discriminatory treatment of all people (including food and water and medical care), should they be captured by the opposing side (provided they are a signatory to the Convention).  After all, individuals who are fighting in a conflict or are captured as civilians are really just pawns in a much bigger game over which the vast majority of them have very little control (Draper 1998).  They are, in essence, just people who have become weapons and casualties of war.

Side note: I would be lying if I said that the Convention was not confusing to me.   From what I understand, it basically states that it is okay to for military forces to kill and wound members of the opposing side but if you do capture them and/or they are no longer able to fight (quite possibly because you have injured them so severely) you are legally bound to provide them with basic standards of care and humane treatment.  That premise seems inherently contradictory to me.  Did Guantanamo Bay not therefore violate the Convention every day that it was operational?  And why is it that military forces are allowed to kill each other (and often civilians in the process) by some means but not others?  Mustard gas and nuclear bombs are not okay but machine guns, grenades and other bombs are because it's okay to kill or maim someone but you have to do it humanely and without torturing them?  You can detain someone but not take hostages?  I'm sure that these rules have evolved over a great deal of time as a result of a tremendous amount of consideration and probably do make some sense in practice.  But, from the outside, it is really difficult to marry the different rules outlined in the convention in my mind.  Moreover, I find it truly disturbing that the human race has established a set of rules on how to be at war with each other.  I do suppose however that if the international community decides to allow war, there should be some lines drawn in the sand that cannot (or at least should not) be crossed without punitive action or recourse.

In more recent times, warring sides have developed alternative strategies and found other ways to utilise civilian populations to fulfil their own agendas.  These tactics are more sociopolitical than artillery-based and involve convincing the civilian populations to not support the opposing forces. Another term used to denote this kind of strategy is "counter-insurgency" (Williamson 2011).  There are two main courses of action through which this can be accomplished: the "carrot-and-stick" method or the "winning hearts and minds" method (Williamson 2011).

The carrot-and-stick method consists of rewarding those civilians who do not help or support the efforts of the opposing side (often referred to as "insurgents") with assistance of some kind, whether it be monetary or otherwise (Williamson 2011).  The other side of the carrot-and-stick method involves using the military to punish those who do support the insurgents (Williamson 2011).  The economists in my life are rather fond of this kind of strategy, believing strongly in the power of incentives, especially financial ones.  On the other hand, whoever can offer the most money is not always the side with the best of intentions so perhaps bribery is not the best way forward...

The second, seemingly less forceful (not to mention corrupt) way of going about it is the winning hearts and minds method.  This involves providing humanitarian aid with the goal of winning over the support, trust and fealty of the civilian populations by showing them how benevolent your side is and how good their life could be if they cooperate with you (Williamson 2011).  The goal is to convince the civilians in the area that your way is better, drain the opposing force of their local resources and in doing so win the battle of wills (not necessarily weapons) (Williamson 2011).

A third option that can be implemented alone or in addition to either of the former strategies is establishing proper governance and contributing to the capacity of the domestic court system to bring the rule of law back into the society and promote justice (Williamson 2011).

Neither the carrot-and-stick or the winning the hearts and mind method have proven to be very effective and in fact the strategies have caused problems (Williamson 2011).  When implemented by international military forces in the short term, the hearts and mind strategy has been shown to provide only limited and temporary security benefits and has ultimately hindered the success of the military efforts in Afghanistan (Williamson 2011).  The third method however, is useful in situations where the states are in the process of collapsing or have already (Williamson 2011).

The mere fact that the first two methods are problematic highlights what many have started to believe and that is the need for distinct and intentional separation between humanitarian assistance and military factions (Williamson 2011).  While humanitarian associations and military forces need to communicate and develop trust in one another to ensure that humanitarian volunteers are not being sent into particularly dangerous areas, their courses of action should not cross over more than that (Williamson 2011).  Most importantly, humanitarian aid should be politically neutral and have no ulterior motives other than providing assistance to people in need.

I can understand both sides of the argument.  Humanitarian associations do want to see an end to conflict and a re-establishment of stable government so that they can help societies move towards recovery, independence and equal treatment for all of their people (regardless of gender, race, culture, etc).  So in that regard, it does make sense for them to be supportive of the military forces that are working towards those same goals.  The military could also help to protect their volunteers from attacks.  From the military's perspective, helping the communities on the ground can benefit them by reducing the local resistance that they may face.

On the other side, aid organisations are, as one of our lecturers stated, businesses.  They need to protect their reputations and maintain the public's trust in their organisations so that they can continue to:
  1. Receive support and financial resources and
  2. Operate in areas of conflict and tension, offering assistance to those in need.
The goals of military forces can inherently conflict with those of aid organisations in that they are aiming to debilitate the opposing side and in doing so may cause the very damage that aid organisations have to help those societies recover from.  In addition, there have been military actions that once known have not received public approval and have in fact been widely condemned.  For example, some of the deplorable behaviour exhibited by American soldiers in the Middle East brought the American forces a great deal of negative publicity.  That sort of behaviour would have likely damaged the reputations of aid organisations associated and/or working with the American military in that area (and possibly around the world).  This may have consequently interfered with the organisations' abilities to function and possibly even endangered their personnel.

While it may be convenient to share responsibilities in other situations (i.e. natural disaster scenarios), perhaps in the case of conflict settings, aid organisations and military factions should stay their own course so that their goals remain clear in the eyes of the public.  In the "principles of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC) Movement and NGOs in Disaster Response Programmes", the IFRC actually states that the aid that it provides "will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint" (IFRC 1994).  Frankly, it seems like the right idea to me, otherwise the situation could become quite confusing.

Finally, upon reading the various perspectives on humanitarianism at, it is difficult to not feel a bit despondent and frustrated at the state of the world.  Some people point at the responsibility of human beings to help one another while others criticise philanthropy along the lines of "colonialism" "the white man's burden" (the feeling of needing to step in and fix everything according to what western societies see as the right way) (Inside Disaster n.d.).  The rest criticise the failings of governmental bodies that fail to prevent disasters and/or sufficiently prepare their societies to minimise damages and therefore result in the need for the "band aid" solution of humanitarian action (Inside Disaster n.d.).  It's nothing that I have not heard before or even thought myself, but everything that human beings do and have ever done can be seen as having both a positive and negative side, depending on your perspective.  We are after all, only human and there are honestly no good deeds that I can think of that are entirely selfless or devoid of potential harm.  While it's very important to critically reflect on all of the consequences of our actions (intended or not), being too judgemental and disparaging is more likely to lead to inaction.  I feel that humanitarianism will continue to evolve as our societies do as well and I hope that how we decide to deal with circumstances will only improve going forward, but I sincerely hope that it does not revert back to a state where we simply decide to never take any action.

This is an interesting diagram about donor government decision-making that I found while reading up on the famine in Somalia.  It highlights the various risks that donor governments must consider when deciding when and how to provide assistance to other countries.

(Bailey 2013, pp. 48)


Bailey, R 2013, Managing Famine Risk: Linking Early Warning to Early Action, A Chatham House Report, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, viewed 29 December 2014, <>.

Draper, GIAD 1998, Reflections on Law and Armed Conflicts: The Selected Works on the Laws of War by the Late Professor Colonel G.I.A.D. Draper, Kluwer Law International, The Hague.

IFRC 1994, Code of conduct, viewed 24 December 2014, <>.

Inside Disaster n.d., What is Humanitarianism?, viewed 24 December 2014, <>.

Williamson, JA 2011, 'Using humanitarian aid to ‘win hearts and minds’: a costly failure?', International Review of the Red Cross, vol. 93, no. 884, pp. 1035-1061, DOI 10.1017/S1816383112000380.


Monday, December 22, 2014

The one minute paper

On day three of our weeklong face-to-face sessions, we were first asked to take stock of the knowledge we had gained thus far and to consider any remaining queries that we had which had not yet been addressed in the lectures.  We were given one minute to write the paper, which was then sent in to the course coordinator Dr. Jo Dunham.  Here is how I answered the two questions:

What is the most useful, meaningful or interesting thing you have learned?

The most interesting thing that I have learned in this class so far is about all of the different laws that govern humanitarian workers abroad.  I knew that the domestic laws had to be followed but I had never thought about the international statutes that need to be adhered to and what those are.  I also found it very interesting to learn about all of the different disasters that have taken place, including many that I had never heard much about (for example, the Solomon Island floods). 

What questions do I still have?

I am still wondering about the best framework for making decisions in disasters.  What are the most important things to take care of first?  Who should we save first (i.e. children versus adults, healthy versus sick, etc)?  How do we go about making those decisions and rationalising our decisions with the public in a way that does not cause anger and distrust?

Eryn Wright

I quite enjoyed the activity and was particularly grateful for the opportunity to reflect on what I had learned and to verbalise the questions that still plagued me halfway through the week.  However, the time limit in class forced me to cut my paper short (well, for me anyway), so I thought I could go a bit more into detail here and include some thoughts that I had to leave by the wayside earlier.

One of the most useful things that I have learned about so far but did not have the chance to include in my original paper was the existence of the Sphere Handbook.   It has been very interesting to peruse the humanitarian charter and minimum standards to learn more about the nuts and bolts of responding to a disaster situation.  However, I have to say that despite having access to the Sphere Handbook, I am still a bit bewildered in regards to what rules or guidelines we should follow to make the best decisions when faced with difficult situations on the ground.  That being said, another one of the more meaningful things that I learned during our first in-class session was that above all else, it is imperative that you do make a decision, otherwise nothing will get done, the situation will not change and no one will be helped.

Hopefully as I continue throughout the course, the questions that I have will be answered and the topics that I find a bit confusing will become more clear to me.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Needs of Refugees, Internally Displaced Persons and Asylum Seekers

While they share common characteristics in that they are all fleeing some form of danger to their health and well-being, there are distinct and important differences between refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and asylum seekers.  Refugees have been granted asylum by a country other than that of their origin and/or residence and are protected from being expelled by that country by the principle of non-refoulement.  IDPs have left their homes and fled to another location but have not crossed international borders, instead they remain in their country of origin and/or residence.  Finally, asylum seekers have applied for refugee status with a country other than that of their origin and are awaiting the decision on that status.

There are also stateless people who are people without a nationality of any kind (UNHCR 2015).  This means that they were not granted a nationality by birth from the government in the country where they were born or that of which their parents were nationals (UNHCR 2015).  They were also not granted a nationality based on where they have lived a significant portion of their lives (UNHCR 2015).  This may be the result of discrimination against certain groups (racism, sexism, conflict between tribes, etc), poor legislation or incompetent government bodies (UNHCR 2015).  The 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons provides more information about the legal definition of a stateless person.

These different groups of people have different health needs and levels of protection afforded to them.  As previously mentioned, people who are granted refugee status are protected by international law (whether the country in which they are a refugee has signed the convention or not) from being expelled or sent back to the country that they fled (UNHCR 2011).  As a refugee, an individual enjoys the same protection and rights afforded to the nationals and other residents of that country for as long as the status of refugee is necessary (as it is not necessarily permanent).  That is to say that if someone repatriates voluntarily to their country of origin or become a naturalised citizen of the country in which they were a refugee, they no longer have that status.  The other rights of refugees include:
  • the right to work
  • the right to an education
  • the right to health care
  • the right to housing
  • the right to freedom of religion
  • the right to access the court system
  • the right to be issued an identity and travel documents 
  • the right to public relief and assistance (which I assume means the right to access unemployment, maternity pay and disability funds until they can find a job if they can work) 
  • the right to move freely around the country
  • the right to family unity
(UNHCR 2011)

Refugees also have the right not to be punished for entering the state or territory illegally (UNHCR 2011), something that I found conflicted with Australia's policy on people arriving by boat.  I actually had never heard of that right, but now that I have I certainly have a greater appreciation for the stance that many people have taken against turning the boats back to Indonesia and settling the asylum seekers arriving by boat on Nauru or Manus Island.

But of course, asylum seekers have not yet been granted refugee status and in fact that status can be refused for the following reasons: 
  1. They have been unable to provide sufficient and legitimate evidence of persecution or danger to their well-being warranting refuge from their country of origin, or-
  2. They have committed a serious crime (war crime, crime against peace, crimes against humanity, non-political crimes (for example rape, murder, assault), or crimes that are contrary to the policies and principles of the UN).
(UNHCR 2011)

This is where the waters can become a little murky and the clarity of laws, well, cloudy.  According to the UNHCR's Revised Guidelines on Applicable Criteria and Standards Relating to the Detention of Asylum Seekers released from 1999, the arbitrary detention of asylum seekers violates their human rights and may also be a breach of international law.  After all, asylum seekers are in essence refugees, they just have not yet been given that status (UNHCR 1999).  What is considered detention?  It is the confinement of asylum seekers to prison-like environments, detention centres, narrow spaces and essentially anywhere that is an enclosed area that they cannot leave without having to depart the territory completely (Nauru for example, which is pretty upsetting considering the fact that Australia signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention) (UNHCR 1999).  It is not the same as restricting someone's movement, so for example, someone who is living in a home or place of residence but is limited in terms of where they are allowed to visit or travel is not considered a to be in detention (UNHCR 1999).  Detention is especially advised against (and in my opinion, reprehensible) in the case of vulnerable groups such as women, children, people with special needs and unaccompanied minors (UNHCR 1999).  

But of course, there are always caveats.  Asylum seekers may be detained if there are extenuating circumstances and detention is deemed "necessary", especially to maintain public safety.  This loophole is one that the Australian government appears to have taken full advantage of.  These circumstances include everything from verifying documents and the reasons for seeking refuge to suspicions of criminal behaviour and the intentional destruction of identification (UNHCR 1999).  Asylum seekers must also make themselves known to authorities as soon as possible so that the processing of their status can begin (otherwise they are essentially staying illegally) (UNHCR 1999).  
However, the UNHCR states that alternatives to detention should be considered first.  I understood this last statement as an "innocent until proven guilty and thrown in a detention centre" clause and it made even more sense to look at it that way when I read that asylum seekers should be able to be "released on bail" (for a price that is not set too high of course) (UNHCR 1999).  For detention to be lawful, it must not be discriminatory (a rule that I struggled with somewhat given the special remarks against detaining children and women, which to be fair, is slightly discriminatory, but perhaps the rule applies more to cases of race, religion and creed) (UNHCR 1999).  

Overall, the UNHCR is unsurprisingly against the detention of asylum seekers, especially when it is prolonged and the conditions are below the normal standards of living (UNHCR 1999).  This applies to those who arrive by sea as well, or as they are referred to in Australia "boat people".  According to the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocols, if the boats reach Australian waters or Australian land, the people seeking refuge must be allowed to enter Australia as asylum seekers (Roberts 2014).  The same rules apply to other countries receiving refugees.

This brings me to my next point, the rights of asylum seekers and the conditions in detention centres.  Asylum seekers (and stateless persons) are protected both by the national laws of the country as well as the regional and international laws relating to human rights (UNHCR 1999).  These outline the basic standards of treatment of human beings (UNHCR 1999).  Asylum seekers must also abide by these laws.

The way that I understand it, IDPs are a bit of a different story because they still reside within the boundaries of their country so they are protected by national laws.  However, they should also be protected by regional and international laws pertaining to human rights (although whether the country abides by those laws or establishes their own that in fact conflict with international laws depends on the country).  There may also be cases in which there are no established national laws because of conflict or lack of government.  In this case, the regional and international laws would be the ones that applied.  IDPs may require special protection if they are fleeing conflict or persecution in a particular area and it would be up to national or international forces (depending on who will or can offer protection) to do so.

The health needs of refugees, IDPs and asylum seekers are likely to be very similar and would depend more on the circumstances they are fleeing than their official status.  Treatment for trauma (mental and physical), malnutrition, dehydration, communicable diseases, sexual and reproductive health needs, chronic disease management, basic sanitation and hygiene, vaccinations for preventable diseases, as well as spiritual and emotional wellbeing are all potential health needs of all three groups.  All three groups are fleeing something, whether it's a natural disaster or conflict and that something could have caused or facilitated one or many health problems.  Both the basic and special (concerns attributable to the disaster) health needs of those people need to be looked after.  The only thing that will change is who will be meeting those needs, will it be the local government, international governments, NGOs, etc?  Ultimately someone has to...

According to the UNHCR, there were 51.2 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide as of 2013: 16.7 million refugees, 33.3 million IDPs and approximately 1.07 million asylum seekers (UNHCR 2013).  There are also an estimated 10 million people who are defined as stateless (UNHCR 2013).  A staggering 86% of refugees end up in developing countries, meaning that on a global scale, the number that ever reach places like Australia is quite small (UNHCR 2013).  

In closing I thought I would include some personal reflections.  I can honestly say that I see both sides of the debate when it comes to accepting refugees.  I understand the desire for restrictions, especially on those that do not apply through the regular channels.  It is difficult to know whether those individuals pose a threat to public safety and I appreciate the fact that the government's first responsibility is to protect its own people.  The recent terror attack (although some have argued about calling it that) at the Lindt cafe in Sydney will unfortunately not help the case against detention considering the fact that the perpetuator came to Australia as a refugee.  Then again, he was only one person and every society has its bad apples, are we going to let the actions of a few people with bad intentions dictate how we treat all refugees and asylum seekers?   

I also understand the fact that Australia has to try to find some way to deter people from getting on old, rickety, dangerous boats that tend to tip, placing all of the lives on board in danger.  However, refusing refuge seems to fly directly in the face of international law and its responsibilities as a nation.  Surely there is another way, but of course I am not a politician so even if I came up with an idea it would not mean much.

I can even sometimes understand the perspective that some people really just want to come to Australia for a better life and in fact have nothing to fear in their home countries and in that case aren't in fact refugees (unfortunately border patrol shows are not helping to change that growing view).  But, I also believe that the government should not automatically assume that is the case from the start.  

My husband's cousin Nikki has worked for the Multicultural Development Association (MDA) for several years and has recently been sent to Nauru along with her partner to help settle refugees there.  The conditions that she speaks of are appalling.  Essentially their role is to get people working and to help set up some sort of economy because there is none.  There is almost nothing there except for people and resources that come in very infrequently.  In all honesty, it sounds like a place that people should be seeking refuge from, not where those in need should be sent to.  Who knows, maybe the conditions will improve over time, I mean I do have an enormous amount of faith in Nikki, but it certainly will be a herculean task.  Then again, maybe other countries will soon start accepting applications for refugee status from people looking to escape the conditions they are subjected to on Nauru.  It certainly does not adhere to the UNHCR's principles.


Roberts, G 2014, Asylum seeker boat turn-back questions going unanswered by Government, says UNHCR, ABC News, viewed 21 December 2014, <>.

UNHCR 1999, UNHCR's Revised Guidelines on Applicable Criteria and Standards Relating to the Detention of Asylum Seekers, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Geneva, viewed 20 December 2014, <>

UNHCR 2011, The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocols, UNHCR, Geneva, viewed 20 December 2014, <>.

UNHCR 2013, UNHCR Global Trends 2013, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Geneva, viewed 20 December 2014, <>.

UNHCR 2015, What is Statelessness?, viewed 19 December 2014, <>.


Monday, December 15, 2014

Examples of Disasters Past

In preparation for our first day of the face-to-face workshop, we were instructed to put together a short presentation detailing the timeline of a historical disaster of our choice.  There were several disasters that I found particularly interesting so I have decided to present two of them: the Bosnian war and the 2011 famine in Somalia.

The Bosnian War:

I knew very little about the events in Bosnia growing up because I was so young when they took place.  I remember hearing the name Sarajevo and brief references to the fact that it had become a very dangerous place at one point, but I never knew the details of what had happened there.  As an adult I have become increasingly interested in the history of the region, especially after having met people from Croatia and Slovenia.  I therefore decided that it was about time that I learn more about the Bosnian war and this activity provided the perfect opportunity to explore the man-made disaster.  What I did not expect, was how difficult it would be to find concrete information about the war as several of the resources that I found had conflicting dates listed for specific events.  This presentation contains what I considered to be the most consistent information, or best approximation of what occurred based on the various accounts that I have read.

References for "The Bosnian War":

1.  AFP 2013, Timeline: Conflict in Bosnia-Hercegovina, viewed 14 December 2014, <>.

2.  Ball, P, Tabeau, E & Verwimp, P 2007, The Bosnian Book of Dead: Assessment of the Database (Full Report), Housholds in Conflict Network, The Institute of Developmental Studies, University of Sussex, England, viewed 15 December 2014, <>.

3.  BBC 2012, Bosnia-Hercegovina timeline, viewed 14 December 2014, <>.

4.  U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian 2013, Milestones: 1989-1992, The Breakup of Yugoslavia, 1990-1992, viewed 14 December 2014, <>

The 2011 Famine in Somalia:

One of the reasons that I found the 2011 famine in Somalia so interesting was that I had not heard much about it.  I had heard a great deal about previous famines in that region, particularly in Ethiopia, but was completely unaware of this particular disaster.  What I found most disconcerting was the fact that I was living in Uganda at the exact time that the famine took place.  From what I remember about the news coverage that we were receiving at the time, the focus was mostly on the political uprisings in Egypt, Libya and the Ivory Coast as well as the separation of Sudan and the upcoming election in Uganda itself (the latter of which ultimately took place without issue).  Another issue could have been the general desensitisation to reports of problems in Somalia because it has been an unstable country for so long.  In other words, there may have been reports of the famine while we were there that we failed to take notice of due to the fact that the country had been in conflict for so long.

References for "The 2011 Famine in Somalia":

1.  BBC 2011, Somali famine spreads to three more areas says UN, viewed 13 December 2014, <>.

2.  Lautze, S, Bell, W, Alinovi, L & Russo, L 2012, ‘Early warning, late response (again): The 2011 famine in Somalia’, Global Food Security, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 43-49.

3.  Salama, P, Moloney, G, Bilukha, OO, Talley, L, Maxwell, D, Hailey, P, Hillbruner, C, Masese-Mwirigi, L, Odundo, E & Golden, MH 2012, ‘Famine in Somalia: Evidence for a declaration’, Global Food Security, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 13-19.

4.  Seal, A & Bailey, R 2013, ‘The 2011 Famine in Somalia: lessons learnt from a failed response?’, Conflict and Health, vol. 7, no. 22, pp. 1-5.

5.  Slim, H 2012, IASC Real-Time Evaluation of the Humanitarian Response to the Horn of Africa Drought Crisis in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya,  Synthesis Report, Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC).


Sunday, December 14, 2014

Disaster Trees

The study guide for the course included an activity called the "disaster tree", in which we were instructed to classify the various disasters that impact humans into four categories: "natural", "man-made", "hybrid" and "intentional". The tree, like our knowledge about disaster, should evolve and change throughout the semester and as such, I will add a number of different versions to this post over time. The following is my first attempt at classifying all of the disasters that I can think of off of the top of my head.

My first attempt was not bad, however reading through the course material I have noticed that I was missing several disasters. Among them were landslides and avalanches, nuclear catastrophes, famines and epidemics, all of which I knew of but had not come to mind when I thought of disasters. I also had not included limnic eruptions, a disaster that I learned about by watching the SBS series "Countdown to Catastrophe". Limnic eruptions occur when lakes near volcanoes fill with carbon dioxide which then erupts and asphyxiates the living beings in the surrounding area.

After reading “Natural Disasters” by Redmond (2005), I also began to consider what constitutes natural and man-made disasters very differently, which led me to propose an alternate disaster tree including more of the events that I have been learning about. In the journal article, Redmond states that all disasters are essentially human made based on where and how people choose or are obligated to live. As a result, I removed the vast majority of the disasters that I had initially listed as natural and reclassified them under the “Hybrid” branch instead. The only two that I left in the “Natural” column were asteroids and tornadoes because they can occur anywhere and severely impact populations regardless of how they live. While it is widely accepted that anthropogenic (human made) climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of storms and other natural disasters, its impact (if any) on tornadoes is still unknown. However, I did ultimately add tornadoes to the hybrid branch as well, due to the fact that some populations of people have chosen to reside in areas that are frequently hit by tornadoes (i.e. “tornado alley” in the United States) despite the well-known risks associated with living there.

While I do understand Redmond’s point of view, I struggle with the idea that all natural disasters are fundamentally human made. After all, as a species humans do need to live somewhere and there is nowhere on Earth that is completely immune to all forms of natural disasters. Therefore, human beings would be responsible for all natural disasters that affect them simply by being alive and in my opinion that is not enough of a reason to deem a species culpable. It would be the equivalent of saying that the damage to animal populations caused by a lightning-generated forest fire is fundamentally the fault of the animals for living in the area. There are simply some consequences of disasters that cannot be entirely avoided or prevented.

However, I do recognise that human beings are contributing to climate change and an increase in the severity and frequency of many natural disasters (i.e. storms, earthquakes, etc), thereby making some of them and the aspects of their occurrences both natural and man-made. But, since some number of natural disasters would occur with or without human contributions because of the Earth’s systems, it is my belief that the disasters that I had re-classified as hybrids for the second version of my disaster tree should actually fall under both the natural and hybrid branches. I have therefore added the anthropogenically-driven increase in the frequency and severity of natural disasters under the hybrid branch instead of re-naming them all as that is the aspect of them that I consider to be man-made. I have also added some more disasters that I had not previously included such as technological accidents, transportation accidents, The following is the final version of my disaster tree that reflects my own views of how disasters should be classified.

Disasters can also be classified under different characteristics. The following tree classifies natural disasters based on where they occur: "above the Earth's surface" or "under the Earth's surface".

I decided that I would position a disaster under the heading of "below Earth's surface" if the process began under the Earth's crust, even if the ultimate impact with humans occurred on the Earth's surface. For example, a tsunami is considered a disaster when it makes landfall and destroys life and man-made structures by flooding areas. However, tsunamis are typically caused by earthquakes in the ocean floor and therefore the process begins under the Earth's surface. This is how I decided that I would proceed with completing my tree in this case, but I am sure it is not the only way that classification could take place. I have found that classifying disaster can in fact be quite subjective depending on the factors and perspectives that are being considered.

Disasters can also be classified based on the nature of the systems through which they occur in the environment. The following tree categorises the disasters based on whether they are "meteorological/hydrological" or "biological" disasters.

There are surely other ways to classify disasters, perhaps by their impacts on humans, the type of damage that they cause, or maybe even where they tend to occur. However, these trees would likely be more complicated and have a great deal more crossover between categories as several disasters have similar impacts on human populations. For example, crush injuries, trauma and hypothermia can occur in earthquakes, storms, mudslides and tsunamis alike. There are also many areas on Earth that suffer from a wide range of disasters because of their location and/or topography, etc. Examples include areas with both active volcanoes and lakes that can act as the site of limnic eruptions.

I will continue to consider the various ways in which disasters can be classified throughout the remainder of this course and how these classifications may or may not be subjective.


Saturday, December 13, 2014


Throughout my degree, the importance of surveillance has been a recurring theme.  Mostly I have learned about disease surveillance in regards to controlling and preventing outbreaks and epidemics.  But, there are many other types of surveillance systems that monitor events in the environment and our societies to warn of potential or imminent disasters.  These include storm surveillance and meteorological reports, tsunami, tornado, drought and fire warning systems as well as government organisations aimed at gathering intel about potential terrorist threats or military actions.  Much like disease surveillance systems, these are geared at notifying governments, institutions, communities and individuals of potential danger so that they can take steps to prepare and protect themselves as well as their assets to minimise the damage as much as possible.

For example, the identification and tracking of a tropical cyclone by a satellite allows those monitoring the system to inform governments, institutions (such as hospitals and schools), communities, businesses and individuals about where the storm might hit, how powerful it will be and how long it might last.  This information can be used to predict the amount of damage the storm may cause and highlight areas or sites that may be particularly vulnerable to the impact.  When provided in a timely and accurate manner, this information is invaluable to preparation efforts.  Local hospitals and schools as well as police and fire departments can begin evacuation and other emergency protocols to limit the loss of life, organise refuge centres for those who cannot leave and instruct people on how they should proceed to keep themselves and their families safe.  Local departments charged with carrying out storm protocols can also take steps to minimise structural damage like raising levees or preparing storm drainage systems.  Government bodies can also use the information to prepare and/or dispatch coast guard and military forces should their services be required.

Unfortunately, early warning systems do not always result in swift and appropriate action on behalf of all parties.  Some individuals choose to stay at home to weather the storm, either because they are too afraid to leave, they do not want to leave their pets behind, they doubt the storm will be too bad or they worry their possessions will be stolen by looters.  When hurricane Sandy hit the eastern United States (classified as a tropical storm), many of the fatalities consisted of elderly people who had not left their homes to get to a safer area and as a result drowned in their homes (Hess 2012).  Of course, in cases like that you often get people who do not believe the storm will actually be such a big deal.  After all, the eastern U.S, particularly in the northern areas, is not accustomed to being hit with those kinds of storms so it can be difficult for people to take the warnings seriously.  There have also been a number of false alarms, when authorities warned of a storm that would cause a great deal of damage but ultimately changed course or deteriorated into something far less menacing.  It is therefore unsurprising that people begin to believe that the authorities are "crying storm" when there really won't be anything to worry about.  Still, New York, resilient as ever, was up and running within days while other areas took much longer to get back on their feet.  The truth is that the U.S. cannot really function unless New York is functioning.  This makes the city a top priority for a large number of stakeholders, from the many international businesses trading out of New York, to the government that benefits greatly from the revenue and tourism in the city, to the 8 million residents that call it home (United States Census Bureau 2014).  Many of these stakeholders have endless amounts of money and access to considerable resources, so it is not at all surprising that the necessary investments were made to get the city back on its feet as soon as possible.

Hurricane Katrina on the other hand, was quite a different story.  The authorities were grossly unprepared for the severity of the damage despite the early warnings and after five days, there were still people stuck in the Superdome taking refuge.  The contrast between the two different responses is stark.  The areas that suffered the most damage from hurricane Katrina had a high percentage of poor African Americans.  While New Orleans is a popular tourist location in the U.S., it would not bring in anywhere near the revenue that New York does and as far as stakeholders go, there were certainly far fewer with so much access to resources, save for federal government.  There was nowhere near the same amount of pressure applied to authorities to protect and restore New Orleans as there was to help New York, at least not from powerful people and businesses.  New Orleans just was not as important, or seemingly important at all judging by the accounts and reports of the response.  For example, the federal and state authorities were unresponsive the day the storm hit and knew very little of what was going on in New Orleans including the failed levees and the use of the Convention Centre as a shelter for thousands of people (Moynihan 2012).  Ultimately, FEMA and the state departments did help, but were quite late in doing so and appeared to have very poor coordination and leadership at times (Moynihan 2012).  For example, the uncertainty regarding which government was responsible for the collection of bodies led to human remains being left in the streets for days (Moynihan 2012).  Hundreds of other national and international volunteer organisations such as the Red Cross took part in the relief efforts as well, thus becoming stakeholders (Moynihan 2012).  The people working and living in New Orleans were undeniably the most affected stakeholders with 1,800 killed and thousands left without shelter or belongings (Moynihan 2012).  Ultimately, the situation that arose during hurricane Katrina seemed closer to what would happen during a disaster in a developing nation as opposed to what would be expected in the most powerful country in the world.

Depending on the developing nation affected by a storm, the damage could be more or less severe.  Cuba for example, has excellent storm preparedness for a number of reasons.  For starters, it sees severe storms far more regularly than many developed nations do, so adequate preparation is a necessity to minimise frequent and heavy losses.  It is also important to consider the emphasis and investment made by the communities, authorities and government on disaster planning, preparation and awareness.  Other developing nations are not so fortunate.  Those without functioning or willing governments are unlikely to have efficient and resilient systems or plans in place.

The stakeholders in a developing country would be much the same as those in a developed country with the exception of a few differences.  A developing country without a government or overseeing body would be lacking that very important stakeholder.  The nation may also have a high presence of NGOs and other aid organisations, which could be very different to the circumstances in a developed nation.  Finally, the locals residing in the area would probably have very limited resources at their disposal.

My final thoughts are that while surveillance is crucial to disaster management, it serves no purpose without appropriate action.


Hess, WG 2012, The People Who Were Killed By Hurricane Sandy, Wordpress, viewed 19 December 2014, <>.

Moynihan, DP 2012, 'Case Study: The Response to Hurricane Katrina', in International Risk Governance Council (IRGC), Risk Governance Deficits: An analysis and illustration of the most common deficits in risk governance, IRGC, Geneva.

United States Census Bureau 2014, New York (city) New York, viewed 19 December 2014, <>


Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Few More Disaster-Related Definitions

The second part of the introductory pre-course material involved defining a few more disaster-related terms.  Once again, the first set of definitions represents my initial understanding of the terminology, while the second set is the result of more thorough investigation.

Humanitarianism: the philosophy of providing aid to other human beings in need.

Humanitarian assistance:  the action of providing help to individuals and/or communities who are unable to meet the basic necessities of life.

Complex emergency: an emergency that has more than one primary cause and/or complication.  For example, a situation that involves both a physical emergency (such as an earthquake) and a biological emergency (such as an outbreak of an infectious disease like cholera) occurring at the same time.

Refugee: an individual forced to flee his or her country to escape a dangerous situation that they believe is likely to endanger their life.   Political refugees seek asylum outside of their country for reasons including religious, ethnic and/or political persecution, which could lead to abuses of their human rights, enslavement or even death.  Refugees may also leave their country due to economic instability or a natural disaster that has made environmental conditions in their country unlivable.

Internally displaced person: an individual who must leave his or her home and the area in which they live for their own safety, but remains within their country, likely in a safer area.  This could occur as a result of violence in the area or a natural disaster (for example, the evacuation of people from an area impacted by a volcanic eruption to a safer locale within the same nation).

After further reading and research, here are my revised definitions:

Humanitarianism: the principles and practices associated with the provision of assistance from human beings to other human beings when they are unable to meet their own basic needs and/or those of their families.  The ideas and activities related to helping individuals, families and populations return to a state of self-sufficiency.

Another definition that I found at The Sphere Project website which I quite liked was: 
"The Humanitarian Imperative: that action should be taken to prevent or alleviate human suffering arising out of disaster or conflict, and that nothing should override this principle (The Sphere Project, n.d.)."

Found at:

The study guide also touched on the fact that humanitarianism is about the moral imperative to not only save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain people's dignity, but also to bear witness to people's lives and stories and advocate for their rights, all of which I found poignant.

Humanitarian assistance:  the impartial provision of aid to human beings in order to ease suffering, prevent unnecessary death, protect human rights and restore autonomy to individuals and communities over the course of a disaster as well as afterwards. 

More information about humanitarian assistance is available at:

Complex emergency: particularly referring to an emergency situation that is complicated by violent conflict, warfare and/or political insecurity endangering civilian populations as well as relief workers.

Refugee: a person who is forced or driven to seek refuge outside his or her country of residence and/or nationality due to genuine and legitimate fear of religious, political or ethnic persecution and/or violence from which their government is unable or unwilling to protect them.   This applies in cases where the person’s entire country or part of the country is under foreign control, subjected to hostility and/or occupation.  It may also apply to people escaping the hazardous aftermath of a natural disaster.  Once granted refugee status, these individuals are afforded a number of rights, including the right against refoulement (expulsion from the nation in which they have refugee status).

Internally displaced person: refugees that have fled the area in which they live due to conflict, violence, violations of their human rights or a natural disaster but who have not crossed the border into another country.   

More information about internally displaced persons is available at:

My initial definitions were not that far from reality, especially considering how little I knew about disasters to begin with.  However, they did require a bit of fine-tuning and some more than others.  For example, I was unaware that a complex emergency referred mostly to a situation complicated by violence and not another kind of obstacle (for example, the outbreak of an infectious disease).  It was also interesting to discover that some of the official definitions have actually changed over time as the international community's views have evolved (for example, the definition of a refugee has been expanded by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) to encompass a broader range of potential life-threatening circumstances).

Another important definition that was mentioned but not included in the activity list was:

Asylum Seeker: a person who has fled their country and who has applied to a government for refugee status but has not yet been granted or denied that status.


The Sphere Project, n.d., The Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response, viewed 17 December 2014, <>.