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From PAR model to complex disasters

From PAR model to complex disasters
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0

Whilst the trend in death tolls has decreased over time, the more complex disasters can have a bigger impact over a longer period of time.

Disasters and emergencies now affect millions of people every year, triggered by environmental hazards and dynamic changes in complex political, social and economic contexts (DfID 2017). Humanitarian agencies operate in increasingly intense settings, where the magnitude and duration of the threats may be greater, the vulnerabilities of those affected extreme and the capacities of government agencies relatively low (Ashdown 2011).

Over recent decades humanitarian agencies have intervened in more situations and helped more people in need; there has been an expansion in the number, type and size of humanitarian organisations. An example of a humanitarian organisation is the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) according to there website they are:

‘part of the United Nations Secretariat responsible for bringing together humanitarian actors to ensure a coherent response to emergencies. OCHA also ensures there is a framework within which each actor can contribute to the overall response effort.’
As we build the capacity of national governments to deal with ‘normal’ disasters. The humanitarian system can struggle to keep pace with the growing demands of the most complex humanitarian crises and the increasingly protracted nature of food insecurity and conflict.
Building on from the concept of defining ‘normal’ disasters, in 2006 Storm Katrina caused devastation in New Orleans, (Leavitt and Kiefer 2006: 307) argues: that the incident was perceived as a ‘normal’ disaster:
‘involving the complex interaction of interdependent infrastructures resulting in the unanticipated failure of multiple infrastructure systems. Key characteristics of infrastructure interdependencies are explored in relation to the case of Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans. Understanding the nature of normal disasters and the tight coupling of infrastructure systems provides infrastructure managers with important lessons. These lessons involve the need for risk and vulnerability assessment; coordination, cooperation, and communication; and the need for flexible response to disasters.’
Since the publication of the first edition of At Risk (Blaikie 1994) and the PAR model, conflicts have continued to exacerbate extreme natural events and vice-versa, such as drought in conflict-affected Afghanistan and the volcanic eruption in conflict-affected the eastern Congo in 2002.
Agencies responded to six major (Level 3) emergencies in 2016, in Central African Republic, Iraq, Philippines, South Sudan, Syrian Arab Republic and Yemen. Level 3 represents the highest level of severity of an emergency. More complex pre-conditions, new players, new technologies and less money are changing the way humanitarian assistance must be organised and delivered (Bennett et al. 2016 and DfID 2017).
Whilst PAR offers a lens through which we can evaluate conditions and potential risks, we need to move beyond a somewhat linear cause and effect relationship and evaluate complex spatial and temporal social, political, economic and environmental dynamics before, during and after disasters if we are to place disaster response interventions effectively within this uncertain system.

Your task

Think about any natural disasters that have happened recently or search online for a news article on a recent natural disaster.
Save the link to the online news article and share the link with your thinking about how the humanitarian organisations and governments responded to the disaster in the comments area.
Were there any further issues on the ground that would affect the local people?
Do remember to ‘like’ and respond to other learner comments in the discussion area.


Bennett, C., Foley, M. and Pantuliano, S., (2016) Time to let go: Remaking humanitarian action for the modern era. ODI, London.

Blaikie, P., Cannon, T., Davies, I., Wisner, B. (1994) At Risk: Natural Hazards, People‘s Vulnerability & Disasters. London: Routledge

The Department for International Development (2017) Annual Report and Accounts 2016 to 2017 [online] available from: [3 May 2019]

Government Office for Science (2012) The Use of Science in Humanitarian Emergencies and Disasters [green paper] London: Department for Business, Innovation and Skills URN 12/848.[online] available from [3 May 2019]

Leavitt, W.M., Kiefer, J.J., (2006) ‘Infrastructure Interdependency and the Creation of a Normal Disaster: The Case of Hurricane Katrina and the City of New Orleans’. Public works management & policy, 10 [online] available from (4), pp.306-314 [3 May 2019]

Further reading

Ashdown (2011) Humanitarian Emergency Response Review, Chaired by Lord Ashdown [online] available from [3 May 2019]

Thomas F. Patterson George R. Thompson, III David W. Denning Jay A. Fishman Susan Hadley Raoul Herbrecht Dimitrios P. Kontoyiannis Kieren A. Marr Vicki A. Morrison M. Hong Nguyen Brahm H. Segal William J. Steinbach David A. Stevens Thomas J. Walsh John R. Wingard Jo-Anne H. Young John E. Bennett, (2016) Practice Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Aspergillosis: 2016 Update by the Infectious Diseases Society of America. Clinical Infectious Diseases, Volume 63, Issue 4, 15 August 2016, Pages e1–e60, Published: 29 June 2016 [online] Available from Accessed on [3 May 2019]

© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
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Humanitarian Action, Response and Relief

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