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Living in Emergency

by Pierluigi Musarò, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Bologna at Forli, and a visiting scholar at NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge

A few months ago I organized a conference in Bologna on the topic of humanitarian emergencies and communication. I invited the communication manager of one of Italy’s most famous and most influential NGOs, called Emergency. He accepted but told me, “You should know that we do not deal with emergency, but rather than with development and health.”

According to their website, Emergency is “an independent NGO, founded in Italy to provide high quality and free of charge health care to war and poverty victims.”

As they admitted, their concern is not emergency. So why did they name their NGO Emergency?

I believe their choice (consciously or not) reflects the way discourse in the humanitarian space has increasingly come to describe global problems as “emergencies.”

A hallmark of mainstream economic and political thought in the West is the optimistic belief in Development as a more or less steady, linear progress towards a clear goal.  But a combination of factors in the post-Cold War era has made the deviations from this narrative increasingly visible. For one, the media’s increasing ability to confront us with shocking images of suffering from places previously too remote to be imagined have created a demand that “something be done” urgently in the face of that suffering. For another, shifting international norms and commitments have generated an obligation to help distant strangers. At the same time, charities and NGOs have grown and proliferated, professionalizing their fundraising and marketing efforts.

As a result, we find ourselves living in a world of constant emergencies.

Nowadays, issues of human rights, governance, gender inequality, conflict, and poverty are all packaged and sold to us as humanitarian emergencies! Don’t agree? Watch this video from the UK’s umbrella organization for funding NGO appeals. As sirens wail, the compelling voice recites: “It is not about the right and wrong of the conflict. This people simply need your help.” But under what definition of the word is the 60-year Israeli-Palestinian conflict rightly called an emergency? In Algeria, 200,000 Sahrawis are waiting out a 36-year stalemate in refugee camps. Is it an emergency or a long-term political problem? Does the concept of “emergency” help us to grasp or solve these problems?

The title of this blog post is also the name of a new documentary about the NGO Doctors Without Borders.

Emergencies by definition are sudden, unexpected exceptions to the natural order of things. They are an aberration, a tear in the fabric of normalcy, a disease in an otherwise healthy body. As such they demand urgent action, a quick cure. As NYU social sciences professor Craig Calhoun has written, “The term emergency became a sort of counterpoint to the idea of global order. Things usually worked well, it was implied, but occasionally went wrong….Where there is a discontinuity, there must be intervention to restore linearity and predictable functioning.”

With your donation, NGOs and aid agencies will rush in to set things right.

What is at stake? The rhetoric of emergencies creates a powerful illusion that shapes both perception and action. Intractable problems that reveal the contradictions and limits of development are framed as emergencies, and NGOs as low cost managers that can intervene to solve these “exceptions” to the global order and put things right again.

If only it were so simple.

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  1. Adam Baker wrote:

    This seems to me just to be a fundraising gimmick and not a basic conceptual matter. It’s hard to motivate people to deal with a problem that’s been ongoing for hundreds or thousands of years.

    Posted November 19, 2010 at 2:12 am | Permalink
  2. Dan Kyba wrote:

    What you are discussing here is the marketing of development assistance. ‘Emergency’ appears to be the current hot word. As it wears out through overuse another hot term will take its place.

    The purpose of such a word is not to initiate dialogue but to generate a desired response. We can see this at work with the pairings: is it ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’; ‘death taxes’ or succession duties’; Alberta ‘oil sands’ or ‘tar sands’? In the NGO world we have ‘brain drain’ or ‘labour mobility’.

    Posted November 19, 2010 at 10:25 am | Permalink
  3. David Zetland wrote:

    Brilliant. I come from the water sector, where “crisis” is the word for marketeers. That word tends to get politicians’ attention, but it does nothing to improve cost-benefit analysis of actions. After all, emergencies need action FIRST and analysis later. That’s why water policies are screwed up.

    See a pattern?

    Posted November 19, 2010 at 2:14 pm | Permalink
  4. Paul wrote:


    Your post reveals something profound about the way well-intentioned people look at the big problems of aid in general: “this one problem we’ll fix and forget about.”

    But as a sociologically-inclined lefty type, I’m inclined to see structural factors and think, “No. NGOs and humanitarians aren’t just band-aids to fix small wounds. There are deep-seated social problems (‘wounds,’ if you will) that will continue to fester until and unless non-humanitarian interest groups begin to Do Something about it.”

    Posted November 19, 2010 at 5:47 pm | Permalink
  5. Don Stoll wrote:

    Very instructive: characterizing, e.g., the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the Sahrawis’ stalemate as an emergency looks like the aid world’s equivalent of the boy crying wolf—and a way of bringing comparable harm to the victim.

    Posted November 19, 2010 at 6:51 pm | Permalink
  6. Robert Myers wrote:

    In doing a World Bank desk evaluation of an SAL to Gabon (circa 1990), we constructed a most likely (pretty optimistic) Govt. revenue trend line – based on oil exports. Using this and actual data we defined a positive followed by a negative revenue shock. The World Bank rushed a large loan through the Board to offset the “crisis” negative shock, even though the decline in Govt. revenue never even took the level below the trend line. It seemed to me that this was a prescription for continual additional crises.

    Posted November 19, 2010 at 10:49 pm | Permalink
  7. Pierluigi Musarò wrote:

    My aim is not to condemn humanitarianism, but rather to enter into the heart of some contradictions of the humanitarian project, analyzing the consequences of choices made and practices implemented, specifically, by marketing practitioners of the main humanitarian organizations.
    Investigating most of the “compelling stories” used by fundraisers to impact the attention of donors, to convince us to give a donation to end poverty and fight injustice, or simply to sponsor a child, as well as on the weight that marketing departments have for the same life of NGOs, sometime I see the humanitarian marketing practitioners as political actors. Don’t you think so? In my view, the semantic field of the so-called humanitarian space is determinant, language is determinant, because it shapes a political discourse that has profound consequences for the production of social reality, in our rich countries as well as in the so-called Thirld World.
    What is it intriguing to me is that the reduction of resources is forcing NGOs to adopt aggressive marketing strategies to persuade potential donors. It develops a sort of philantrocapitalism, with NGOs adopting tools and methods of the corporations.

    Thanks to the fundraising effort, which often focuses all problems as emergencies, in the last ten years private donations to humanitarian NGOs have increased twice as fast as money from the U.S. or U.E. Governments. At the same time, it is interesting to note that he growth rate of the total private donations to NGOs that deal with emergency relief or refugees is nearly identical to the growth of total private money reported by NGOs whose top concern is coded as development or health. So, why we have the perception of a humanitarian wave?
    An answer can be simplified by the italian Ngo Emergency, whose concern is not coded as emergency, rather as development and health. As I wrote, the imaginary they shape with their communication, starting with their logo, is an Emergency Imaginary!
    In the book Aid and Influence, S. Browne (p. 12) writes: aid is developmental, but the term is imprecise. ODA actually includes resources provided to developing countries for relief, emergency and humanitarian (including refugee) purposes. In practice, the distinction between development and relief aid are often unclear.
    I think we can define this normalization of the emergencies a sort of postdevelopmental strategy that reflects “the unmaking of the Thirld World”, that is, the failure of development project, driven by the major international institutions of the so called Washington Consensus. Moreover, considering the high percentage of private donations in within the total budget of many NGOs, we can describe humanitarianism as a “citizens’ response to political failure”, as Orbinski stressed during the speech for the Nobel Peace Prize received by MSF.

    Posted November 21, 2010 at 12:30 pm | Permalink
  8. Barbara wrote:

    Thanks Pierluigi. I work in the development sector and it is incredible the amount of work you end up labelling as ‘humanitarian’ in order to get it funded! But indeed it must be recognised that the development enterprise has not delivered what it had promised since the 1960s, in spite of changes in conceptual and strategic approach and people have become disillusioned and cynic (including myself I would say…). The heart of the matter, however, is what you refer to as the role of humanitarian actors as ‘political actors’ and the sense they instill in the private citizen to whom they appeal for funding. This gets ’empowered’ to take decisions, instead of his/her government and the international community, on where funds should be channelled compelled not by a strategic overview of global power imbalances, but leveraging on the emotional deep-seated guilt complex of the so-called western world (or North of the world) vis-a-vis ‘poorer’ countries who are just not able to provide for their citizens, possibly because too corrupt and inefficient. So better bypass them, provide immediate relief and feel good about ourselves…just to start all over again at the next emergency. Sorry a bit on the cynical side…..

    Posted November 29, 2010 at 1:15 am | Permalink

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