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Photograph of a man pushing a trolley amidst rubble in Homs
Man amidst destruction in Homs, Syria.

Characteristics of humanitarian crises

Humanitarian crises can emerge from a range of events, spanning conflicts, natural disasters, and even infectious disease outbreaks. Here we will provide an overview of the basic terminology and definitions used when discussing humanitarian crises, thinking about the different types of crises and the difference between humanitarian aid and development.

What is a humanitarian crisis?

There are no universally recognised definitions for humanitarian crises, and the terms ‘humanitarian crises’ and ‘humanitarian emergency’ are often used interchangeably. In this course we will define a humanitarian crisis as:

‘an event or series of events that represents a critical threat to the health, safety, security, or wellbeing of a community or other large group of people, usually over a wide area.’

Types of humanitarian crisis

Conventionally there are three types of humanitarian crisis:

  1. Man-made crises: including armed conflict and train and plane crashes
  2. Natural disasters: including geophysical (e.g. earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions), hydrological (e.g. floods, avalanches), climatological (e.g. droughts), meteorological (e.g. storms, cyclones), or biological (e.g. epidemics, plagues)
  3. Complex emergencies: generally a combination of both man-made crises and natural disasters.

The inter-agency standing committee (IASC) defines a complex emergency as:

“a humanitarian crisis in a country, region or society where there is total or considerable breakdown of authority resulting from internal or external conflict, which requires an international response that goes beyond the mandate or capacity of any single agency, and which has been assessed to require intensive and extensive political and management coordination.”

Complex emergencies are typically characterised by:

  • Extensive violence and loss of life
  • Displaced populations
  • Widespread damage to societies and economies
  • A need for large-scale, multi-faceted humanitarian assistance
  • The hindrance or prevention of humanitarian assistance by political and military constraints
  • Significant security risks for humanitarian workers in some areas.

Direct and indirect impacts

Each type of humanitarian crisis inflicts both direct and indirect impacts on the societies where they occur. Impacts for each type of crisis can be seen in table 1.

Type of crisis Direct impacts Indirect impacts
Man-made crises:
- Death, human rights abuses, psychological disorders and injury
- Direct attack on health workers or health facilities
- Forcible displacement of non-combatants, including health professionals
- Barriers to care (e.g. blocking patients, ambulances and service vehicles).
- Displacement, infrastructure destruction, lack of food or healthcare and environmental degradation
- Reproductive health problems, malnutrition, increased intimate partner violence, diarrheal diseases
- Can hamper implementation of humanitarian interventions
Natural disasters - Infrastructure damage (e.g. houses, roads, bridges, health facilities, schools).
- Mortality and morbidity
- Agriculture loss
- Stunted economic growth (e.g. lost production, output loss, reduced demand)
- Weakened health system (e.g. supply chain interruptions, lack of human resources)
Complex emergencies - Population displacement
- Excess mortality and morbidity due to violence or natural disaster
- Poor security
- Excess mortality and morbidity due to preventable communicable diseases or food shortages
- Economic instability
- Weakened health system
- Logistical challenges

As you can see, humanitarian crises can impact all levels of society, from individuals and families to economic and structural components. The consequences of humanitarian crises are vast and far-reaching, often remaining long after humanitarian assistance has been withdrawn.

The differences between humanitarian aid and development

Humanitarian assistance is aid that is provided to a population or society that has experienced a humanitarian crisis, whether natural or man-made. On the other hand, development is aid that responds to long-standing structural issues within developing countries. Humanitarian and development aid are related and often overlap as many humanitarian crises take place in developing countries. However, the integration of humanitarian aid with development has been a long-discussed issue.

Table 2 highlights the main differences between humanitarian and development aid.

Humanitarian aid Development
- Short-term response
- In countries with humanitarian crises
- Focuses on a particular incident or event
- Attempts to save lives and reduce human suffering
- Long-term assistance
- In developing countries
- Focuses on ongoing structural issues
- Addresses systemic issues in economic, social and political development

Thinking about recent world events, how would you classify specific crises? Can you identify some of the potential direct and indirect impacts of these crises, even if they are ongoing?

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This article is from the free online course:

Health in Humanitarian Crises

London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine