What is a “complex emergency”?

July 7, 2017
Photo by Crystal Wells

Over the past couple of decades, humanitarian emergencies have become more complicated, longer-lasting, and harder to address. In the humanitarian world, we refer to these as “complex emergencies” and they’re affecting millions worldwide. But do you know what makes an emergency truly “complex”? Or how that affects humanitarian responses? We sat down with our Director of Humanitarian Programs, Kirk Prichard, to learn more.

Q: So what makes an emergency “complex”?

A complex emergency is an emergency situation where government services have broken down. These situations don’t have to be caused by conflict, but conflict is often a part of the problem.

Emergencies are challenging by nature, but  become especially complicated when there’s no (or very little) government structure. That means NGOs [non-governmental organizations] are missing their most important partner, and people often can’t access the help they need to recover. Over the last few decades, emergencies have generally become more complex and longer-lasting.

Paul Odhiambo from Concern at a general food distribution

Paul Odhiambo, Concern’s Emergency Coordinator, at a general food distribution carried out by Concern and the World Food Programme in Northern Bahr el Ghazal, South Sudan. Concern has been supplying 37,000 households per quarter with sorghum, vegetable oil, and beans. Photo: Kieran McConville

Complex emergencies can create vast disruption in the world as they often produce refugees or cause large population movements within countries. Take the Syrian conflict for example: it’s going into its seventh year and millions have fled the country, heading to neighboring nations and Europe.

The longer an emergency lasts, the more complex it can become. If it’s a conflict, new factions often emerge, or foreign governments might enter the fray. The more variables that are involved, the more unpredictable a situation becomes — and the harder it is to resolve. The levels of need can also increase, as people use up all their pre-emergency resources, infrastructure breaks down, and markets can’t properly function.

Displaced Syrian families wait in line to redeem Concern food vouchers

Displaced families inside Syria wait to enter a Concern vetted market to redeem food vouchers. Wiped out industries, limited supplies, and dwindling money in circulation contribute to the complex emergency unfolding in the war-torn country. Photo: Concern Worldwide

Complex emergencies are very difficult and expensive for humanitarian agencies to operate in, and as a crisis drags on it often gets harder to find willing funders. But without that funding and those agencies, the situation only deteriorates, creating a vicious cycle of increased need and reduced resources.

In complex emergencies, you need to dig deeper to find what and where the needs are.

Q: How are complex emergencies different from other emergencies?

With a natural disaster like the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, the needs are often very visible. In complex emergencies, you need to dig deeper to find what and where the needs are. Most importantly, however, in complex emergencies it’s difficult or impossible to come up with lasting solutions. In natural disasters, there is a defined sense of who is in power and you can craft a solution in partnership with the government. But that isn’t true in a complex emergency. Sometimes the government isn’t there or isn’t willing to engage with you. And the NGO community just can’t solve a problem like the Syrian conflict by itself. We can only tackle the immediate humanitarian needs. In complex emergencies, NGOs are unfortunately more of a band-aid than they are a suture.

Nepal Earthquake Distribution

Concern’s Regine Kopplow helps distribute emergency relief supplies to the people of Bhirkot, a village that was at the epicenter of a 7.3-magnitude aftershock that hit Nepal on May 12, 2015. Photo: Crystal Wells

Q: So how can NGOs help move a complex emergency towards a solution?

That’s where advocacy comes in. NGOs see what’s happening on the ground and they can bring attention to important issues and campaign for solutions. Advocacy is especially necessary when it comes to addressing the underlying causes of complex crises as, in the end, the only lasting solutions are political solutions.

“If the government can’t or won’t meet its people’s needs alone, it’s the role of humanitarian organizations to assist”

It is important to note that most humanitarian NGOs — such as Concern — strive to remain neutral at all times. We don’t pick sides; we simply try to assist and amplify the voice of those in need.

Q: So if humanitarian relief alone can’t solve the underlying problems, why do we do it?

This is what it comes down to: saving lives. We believe that people affected by disaster and conflict deserve help. And if the government can’t or won’t meet its people’s needs alone, it’s the role of humanitarian organizations to assist.

Just because an emergency isn’t making the news on a daily basis doesn’t mean that the people affected are any less deserving of assistance.

People wait in line for food.

People wait in line to check into a food distribution in a protection of civilian (PoC) site on a UN base near Juba. Conflict has deterred farmers from harvesting, and late last year, South Sudan’s inflation rate was up 800%, making it nearly impossible to buy food. The Photo: Crystal Wells

Q: What is needed most in a complex emergency?

Durable and sustainable solutions. And if that isn’t possible, then all participants at least need to agree to allow NGOs to access civilians (and vice versa) so people can receive assistance. Flexible donor funding is also important as it allows humanitarians to apply money where the needs are greatest.

Q: Why is learning about complex emergencies so necessary in this day and age?

Well, sadly, they seem to be becoming more common. So it’s important for the NGO community to know how to respond to them. That’s why we added the new Complex Humanitarian Emergencies unit to our existing Building a Better Response (BBR) e-learning. The course is completely free and you receive a certificate on completion.

BBR is a capacity building program for humanitarians, giving them the skills they need to coordinate more effectively when responding to natural disasters or man-made crises.

Q: How can humanitarians respond to complex emergencies better?

There are a lot of areas where we could be doing better. We need to keep the focus on the affected populations, constantly seeking feedback and consulting with them so we can be sure our response is appropriate and necessary. We also need to work with local partners (e.g. local NGOs) wherever possible, and invest in building up their skills and abilities. It’s more efficient, more sustainable, and better for communities.

Displaced family in Somalia

A family displaced by drought in Somalia. Recurring political turmoil combined with frequent drought complicates the humanitarian response to crises in Somalia. Photo: Abdulkadir Moallim

Q: Tell me more about the BBR program and what participants can expect to learn in this new module — and in the program as a whole.

BBR is a capacity building program for humanitarians, giving them the skills they need to coordinate more effectively when responding to natural disasters or man-made crises. It was developed in 2012 by a consortium of partners — including Concern, International Medical Corps, and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative — and funded by the USAID Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA). So far we’ve reached over 34,000 people through the e-learning and in-person training workshops.

In this new unit — the sixth, and biggest — we talk about the basics of complex emergencies, such as who the typical actors are, the challenges NGOs face in responding in these situations, and how a complex emergency differs from other emergencies.

Want to learn more about complex emergencies and how humanitarians can work together to help people in greatest need? Check out BBR’s newest unit on complex emergencies.

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