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, <>.


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