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Complex risks

We are beginning to see that disasters do not have a clear and consistent cause. In almost all disaster contexts, socio-economic and environmental conditions intersect and result in disaster.

Traditionally, the term ‘disaster’ has been used to describe those events where a natural hazard has impacted a vulnerable population. This led to the use of the phrase ‘complex emergency’ to distinguish those events that were not triggered by a natural hazard.

The term ‘complex emergency’ or ‘complex humanitarian emergency’ appears to have emerged in relation to war in African nations during the 1980s (Duffield 1994).

Duffield states that:

Complex emergencies are essentially political in nature […] resulting from responses to socio-economic stress and marginalisation. Unlike natural disasters, complex emergencies have the ability to erode or destroy cultural civil political and economic integrity of society.

(Duffield 1994: 38)

Traditionally, complex emergencies have been synonymous with war and conflict. This remains the case but analysis has increasingly turned to underlying political, social and economic factors that cause inequalities, marginalisation and underdevelopment, and in turn result in simmering tensions, separatist movements, social unrest, institutional failure, economic shortages and complex social risks (Albala-Bertrand 2000).

In many cases, the negative influences come from far beyond the state’s political boundaries, with roots in colonial history and independence. External intervention (or lack of it) in complex emergencies can also be highly politicised. There are numerous cases where interventions have been deemed insufficient or indeed adding fuel to the conflict rather than solving it; Kosovo, Rwanda and Yemen.

The consequences of complex emergencies are also transboundary resulting in far-reaching issues such as displacement and economic and political instability. The term has also been used in reference to food insecurity, famine and disease. In fact, in contexts such as Sudan, the long-lasting civil wars have resulted in extensive food insecurity and famine.

Furthermore, it is hard to say when a complex emergency starts and ends as they are characterised by cycles of relative stability and security and instability and insecurity over decades.

As a result of the complex political and security challenges, complex emergencies are also characterised by the hindrance or prevention of humanitarian assistance by political and military actors and significant risks for response workers. Yet increasingly, response to complex emergencies dominates the portfolio of relief workers.

Since 2006, the number of political conflicts worldwide has increased: in 2016, 402 conflicts were ongoing, compared with 278 in 2006.

The number of people forcibly displaced also increased to 65.6 million in 2016, the majority of refugees from Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Syria. Those internally displaced number some 40.3 million.

97% of humanitarian action, people in need and allocated resources this decade have been in complex emergencies (UNOCHA 2016).

Your task

Read the Crisis Overview of Yemen by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA).

To what degree is it necessary to understand the root causes and impacts in order to reduce risk in countries prone to complex emergencies?


Duffield (1994) Complex Emergencies and the Crisis of Developmentalism [online] available from https://www.ids.ac.uk/files/dmfile/duffield254.pdf [10 December 2019]

Albala-Bertrand J.M. (2000) ‘Complex Emergencies versus Natural Disasters: An Analytical Comparison of Causes and Effects’, Oxford Development Studies, 28 (2), 187-204

UNOCHA (2016) World Humanitarian Data and Trends [online] available from http://interactive.unocha.org/publication/datatrends2017/resources/WHDT2017_Final_Singles.pdf [10 December 2019]

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This article is from the free online course:

Disaster Risk Reduction: An Introduction

Coventry University