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The complexities of disasters

In our everyday language, we use the word ‘disaster’ to describe an adverse event with negative impacts on us.
Children playing on an abandoned tank
© Deakin University

Disaster situations by their very nature are chaotic.

When planning and managing humanitarian responses, you are working with a range of overlapping factors:

  • people in shock and trauma
  • complex systems and processes
  • the high levels of displacement
  • global politics
  • information overload.

Let’s look at each of these factors in a little more detail.

People in shock and trauma

Dealing with a range of people in normal circumstance is complex enough, but how do you deal with people who are in chaos? For instance people who went into the impacted communities, post Hurricane Matthew, were dealing with people who may have lost family, friends, their homes and their livelihood. But they are also the people who in turn are trying to help their broader community. If you are coming in from the outside you have to work with a vast range of emotional responses and people going through grief and trauma.

Complex systems and processes

You are also dealing with a very complex system, with different players, stakeholders and power plays within it. Whether working within local, state or international requirements, they will impact on the decisions you need to make. How do you make sense within that system? There are a great many things that can make a disaster or a conflict very complex, and these days there are few responses that are not complex responses.

The high levels of displacement

When you look at the migration situation, especially across Europe, you see a great many people coming out of conflict from states such as Libya and Syria.

They’re crossing the oceans and going into Europe and even though Europe is relatively well off, with high development and strong economies in many areas, it’s still about people. It’s about dealing with people who are displaced and situations that are not normal.

It’s an unprecedented situation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reporting in 2016 that global forced displacement has hit a record high. Over 60 million people are displaced around the world, as reported in this article from the UNHCR website.

Global politics

In the global political situation, there has been a shift away from engagement. We only have to look at the current situation in the United States where there has been a move towards more protectionism. Look at what has happened in Europe with Brexit and other elections.

As the world becomes more complex it appears that we want to set up more rules and regulations to protect ourselves, whether by protecting borders or claiming we are a people of a particular nation and our rights come first. We are becoming more inward-looking than outward-looking.

Information overload

While politics and the sheer numbers of people involved compound the complexity of the situation, we are also being bombarded with information daily. Some is accurate, some is wildly inaccurate, and there is a fair share of propaganda from most viewpoints.

Many people are finding out more information in different ways in our increasingly interconnected world and the information is getting out faster. As we become more informed and situations become more complex, people deal with this in a great many ways.

At one end it can drive people to greater engagement and the desire to get involved, while others feel it is overwhelming and want to withdraw. There is no one way that people are going to react, which adds to the complexity.

Your task

Reflect on the role of information and how the media and internet can either support or inflame situations. Discuss how you make sense of all the information you receive about our complex global situation.

© Deakin University
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Introduction to Humanitarian Aid

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