Big Problems, Small Print: A Guide to the Complexity of Humanitarian Emergencies and the Media
IF HUMANITARIAN emergencies were ever simple, their complexity has grown enormously over the past five years. Even the jargon of relief professionals recognizes this reality. Man-made emergencies (typically a civil war combined with refugee flows), where natural factors may or may not be present, are now classified as "complex emergencies." Natural disasters, caused by floods, droughts, earthquakes, typhoons, and volcanic eruptions, are simple emergencies.
There is reality to the rhetoric. There have always been humanitarian emergencies caused by conflict (indeed, many natural phenomena only become emergencies because of man-made causes), but the prevalence of complex emergencies has been increasing since the end of the Cold War. Over the past several years, both the United Nations and the U.S. government's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) have been responding primarily to complex rather than natural disasters. "Complexity" goes beyond the multiple factors that cause emergencies and extends to the international response apparatus seeking to provide relief and to the interplay of political, military, and relief institutions that seek to prevent and mitigate humanitarian emergencies.
The media have always been essential in shaping public opinion about and mobilizing public support for humanitarian crises. The role of tele-