UN swamped by a ‘Perfect Storm’ of humanitarian disasters

John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Faced with the ongoing civil war in Syria, the natural disaster in the Philippines, and a spreading civil conflict in the Central African Republic, the UN humanitarian agencies are confronting a near perfect storm of political and natural disasters.

Add the continuing needs from earlier trouble spots such as South Sudan, Somalia and Haiti, and it appears that the system and donor states are facing near overload.

The UN Humanitarian coordinator Valerie Amos has launched the largest ever appeal for $13 billion in funding to reach 52 million people in 17 countries with essential life-saving aid. According to Ms. Amos, $6.5 billion is slated for operations in Syria and neighboring countries. This becomes the largest appeal ever for a single crisis.

Aftermath of Typhoon Washi in the Philippines in 2011.
Aftermath of Typhoon Washi in the Philippines in 2011.

According to the UN umbrella coordination unit the Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), there are plans for additional help to millions of Filipinos in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, and aid for the Central African Republic “where conflict and displacement have affected the entire population of 4.7 million people.”

Equally there are significant and ongoing programs in Afghanistan, Sudan, Yemen and Haiti.

Syria remains the eye of the storm. After nearly three years of conflict and over 100,000 killed, there are 2.3 million refugees spread round the region and an additional 6 million displaced internally inside the country. Given that Syria’s pre-conflict population was 21 million, this is a dangerously large percentage, basically one in three people inside the country is uprooted from their homes.

The largest refugee outflow has poured into neighboring Lebanon. There are approximately 830,000 Syrians in Lebanon and with the onset of winter the challenges have increased for the vulnerable communities, especially the children. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) noted that unlike other neighboring states, Lebanon does not have formal refugee camps; rather the refugees are dispersed to 1,600 different locations.

Given that Lebanon’s pre-conflict population was 4.3 million, this refugee influx poses a massive burden on a small country which remains divided along fragile Christian/Muslim ethnic lines.

Naturally the Humanitarian Response plans for 2014 need specific aid from donor countries. The European Commission has slated $200 million for various UN agencies to assist in the Syrian crisis. President Jose Manuel Barroso stated, “The conflict in Syria has consumed tens of thousands of lives, uprooted millions from their homes, destabilized the region and consigned an entire generation of the young to an uncertain future.”

He added, “It is right we stand up for the victims of this catastrophe.” Since the start of the crisis the European Union has been the largest humanitarian donor to Syria with approximately $3 billion given.

Beyond government donors, in fact the majority of aid given comes via private charities such as Catholic Relief Services, CARE, Americares, and Catholic Near East Assistance among so many others such as the French Doctors Without Borders. Americans can proudly be described as a nation of givers; large sums are donated to private charities and much of this help goes to places like the Philippines, Haiti and the Middle East.

Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the Philippines, killing at least 6,000 but causing a swath of destruction affecting millions. OCHA is focused on helping three million people with aid projects slated at $791 million. Here too massive assistance from the USA, Australia, Canada, Japan among others has tried to bring some semblance of normalcy in central Leyte and the surrounding islands.

The UN’s humanitarian relief is doing an exemplary job of providing emergency aid. Yet in cases like Syria and Afghanistan, the humanitarian community is treating the symptoms of far deeper political problems. Also, in the Philippines or Haiti, the relief community is responding to the wrath of nature be it a typhoon or an earthquake.

While civil wars, political turbulence and natural disasters have sadly become commonplace, a looming danger remains that donor fatigue, namely being overwhelmed and unable to process individual tragedy, allows the world to tune out the most recent crisis. Sadly we may be nearing that point.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for WorldTribune.com. He is the author of Transatlantic Divide ; USA/Euroland Rift (University Press, 2010).

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