Disaster Apartheid

According to the 2006 edition of the World Disasters Report, published annually by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) since 1993, disasters during 2005 killed 99,425 people, affected 161 million people, and imposed an economic cost of $160 billion. Emergency aid made available during 2005 was the most generous ever, reaching at least $17 billion (of which $12 billion was provided by governments in bilateral humanitarian aid).

But this good news hides a bevy of bad news. Arguably, the record flow of aid is due to a handful of massive, yet also over-reported disasters—the December 2004 Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and the Pakistan-Kashmir earthquake of October 2005. But the Report points out that millions of disaster victims “missed out on vital, potentially life-saving aid because funds were directed at high-profile disasters, while countless other crises were neglected.”

Post-tsunami aid amounted to at least $1,241 per beneficiary—a whopping 50 times as much as was provided for the worst-funded crises in Chad, Guyana, Cóte d'Ivoire, Malawi, and Niger, with an average of less than $27 per person in need. (An especially bitter irony is that even where large sums of money are made available, resources are not always well spent, due to corruption, turf wars among aid agencies, and other reasons. Thus, hundreds of thousands of tsunami, earthquake, and hurricane survivors are still struggling to put their lives together again 1-2 years after the respective disasters occurred.)

All too often, disaster aid is skewed for political, security, or media reasons. The International Federation deplores highly uneven media coverage and asks: “Why did Hurricane Katrina, which killed about 1,300 people, generate 40 times more media coverage than Hurricane Stan, which killed 1,600 people in Guatemala shortly afterwards?”