Complex emergencies affect tens of millions of people around the world. Here’s what you need to know.

Over the past few decades, humanitarian emergencies have become more complicated, longer-lasting, and harder to address. They’re what we in the humanitarian sector call “complex emergencies.”

Emergencies are challenging by nature. But they become especially complicated when there’s little-to-no government structure to support a response. This is why the United Nations defines a complex emergency or crisis as resulting from a “total or considerable breakdown of authority.”

“These situations don’t have to be caused by conflict, but conflict is often a part of the problem,” says Kirk Prichard, Concern’s Vice President for Programs. Many of the world’s worst humanitarian crises today are at least influenced by conflict or armed violence. Whatever the cause of the breakdown, however, the result is the same: NGOs like Concern lack their most important partner, a government and its public services, which prevents people from getting the help they need to recover.

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Emergencies have generally become more complex and protracted

Over most of the 20th Century, many of the largest humanitarian crises faced were relatively short. World War I lasted for four years; World War II for six. The television show M*A*SH,* set in a mobile army hospital during the Korean War, ran for 11 years, while the actual war lasted just over three years.

People displaced by conflict, thinking they’ll be gone for a few days, weeks, or months, spend years living in a perpetual in-between state.

However, conflict has changed — especially over the last thirty years. It’s become more localized and often protracted as opposing sides face political stalemates. New factions emerge. Foreign governments may get involved. All of this means that government agencies often have to divert funds and other resources to focus on the most pressing matters, rather than day-to-day necessities like water services and public schools. People displaced by conflict, thinking they’ll be gone for a few days, weeks, or months, spend years living in a perpetual in-between state.

Meanwhile, communities face other risks, like a natural disaster or a pandemic. The effects of climate change have also created weather extremes that are more frequent and destructive, including droughts and flooding from tsunamis, cyclones, and monsoons. “The longer an emergency lasts, the more complex it can become,” says Prichard. “The more variables that are involved, the more unpredictable a situation becomes — and the harder it is to resolve.”

Displaced families collect SIM cards for emergency cash phone transfers from Concern Worldwide at a displacement camp in Mogadishu, Somalia.
Displaced families collect SIM cards for emergency cash phone transfers from Concern Worldwide at a displacement camp in Mogadishu, Somalia. People in the country have been displaced due to drought, hunger, and a decades-long protracted conflict.

Characteristics of a complex emergency

When there are more variables in place, there’s not a one-to-one way of helping people recover. Levels of need increase at higher proportions, as Prichard explains: “People use up all of their pre-emergency resources, infrastructure breaks down, and markets can’t properly function.” The UN lists several characteristics of a complex emergency that arise from this:

  • A large number of civilian victims, displaced and besieged populations, and human suffering on a major scale.
  • A need for substantial international assistance that goes beyond the mandate or capacity of any one organization.
  • Barriers to delivering humanitarian assistance.
  • High security risks for those providing humanitarian assistance, including targeting by parties to a conflict.

Prichard points to the Syrian crisis as an example of how quickly things can crumble: Prior to 2011, the country had thrived and was predominantly middle class. Just 10% of Syrians lived below the international poverty line, and 97% of school-aged children attended primary school. Now, over 80% of Syrians are living below the poverty line, and a 2019 study estimates that 40% of the country’s education infrastructure has been destroyed. These losses aren’t temporary; in some cases they can carry a lifetime of impact and be passed on to future generations.

They also can be felt in other countries. While many Syrians have left neighboring Lebanon in the last year, it was at one point home to 1.5 million refugees. One in four people living in Lebanon was a Syrian refugee. Without permanent residences established, many have lived in informal tented settlements in rural villages, placing pressure on the host community’s available resources. Lebanon is now approaching its own humanitarian crisis, one that was exacerbated in the summer of 2020 by both COVID-19 and the Beirut port explosion.

Concern’s Kirk Prichard unloads carpets for a distribution in Talamarang, a village in Sindhupalchok district.
Concern’s Kirk Prichard unloads carpets for a distribution in Talamarang, a village in Sindhupalchok district, one of the hardest hit areas by the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal on April 25, 2015.

Band-aids and sutures: What makes complex crises different

Prichard, who was part of Concern’s response team to the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, uses that response as an example of a “regular” humanitarian emergency. The country was in fairly stable condition prior to the earthquake, and had systems in place to support its residents. That made the needs “very visible,” as Prichard puts it. “In natural disasters, there is a defined sense of who is in power and you can craft a solution in partnership with the government.” We saw this happen on a global scale in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the needs in a complex emergency are not as obvious. “In complex emergencies, you need to dig deeper to find what and where the needs are,” Prichard adds. Some may be obvious, but others may not be apparent. Missing them, however, can undo an organization’s entire response.

Also difficult — if not impossible — to find in a complex crisis are lasting solutions.  “Sometimes the government isn’t there, or it isn’t willing to engage with you,” Prichard says. “And the NGO community 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.”

Team members of Concern distribute soap at an informal tented settlement in north Lebanon.
Team members of Concern distribute soap at an informal tented settlement in north Lebanon. (Photo: Dalia Khamissy)

Types of complex emergencies

Most of the emergencies Concern is responding to at the moment are complex.

In Afghanistan, decades of insecurity have combined with climate change and recurring natural disasters to create endemic poverty. Concern began working in the country in 1998, following two devastating earthquakes in the country. Relief efforts for this soon became complicated. This was in part due to the ongoing 1996-2001 civil war. But other factors created additional challenges, including the remote location of the region (which lacked internet or phone service), harmful gender norms that kept women from receiving timely assistance, and literal road blocks. Providing relief in these contexts can become a game of infinite regression with no winners.

Likewise, the Democratic Republic of Congo has been the site of a crisis for more than 60 years as the country has continually struggled to maintain political stability and build infrastructure to support its population of more than 90 million people since gaining independence from Belgium. Part of the reason the situation remains so dire and so complex is that the DRC neighbors several other countries that have, and in many cases continue to, face similar post-colonial instability. This has also left the country one of the world’s largest host communities to refugees from neighboring nations.

In Somalia, decades of conflict have made it difficult for many to keep a steady life and livelihood. This has combined with a decade-long drought in the country, floods, and one of the most devastating locust crises on record, leaving the majority-agrarian population facing additional economic and food insecurity. These needs often become the basis for additional conflict.

How to solve a complex emergency

NGOs can’t solve complex crises on their own. However, Prichard says, they play a vital role: “NGOs see what’s happening on the ground, and they can bring attention to important issues and campaign for solutions.” The only lasting solutions are political solutions, but that makes advocacy “especially necessary when it comes to addressing the underlying causes of complex crises as, in the end, the only lasting solutions are political solutions.”

Those solutions, however, take time. This is why organizations like Concern continue to do the work we do, while maintaining neutrality. If a government can’t or won’t meet its people’s needs alone, humanitarian organizations step in to assist.

“What’s needed most are durable and sustainable solutions,” Prichard says. “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.”

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

The other challenge of a complex emergency

While all of this seems straightforward, it’s more difficult in practice. Complex emergencies are very difficult and expensive for humanitarian agencies to operate in. What’s more, 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. Flexible donor funding is a key solution here, as it allows humanitarians to spend money where the needs are greatest.

Concern’s emergency response (complex and otherwise)

Concern was born out of an emergency response, when conflict over the region of Biafra led to a devastating famine. Since then, we continue to deliver rapid response, keeping focus on the affected communities and working in tandem with them — as well as local NGOs and partners — to ensure that our response is appropriate to the situation.

One of the things we also do is work closely with local partners to build up their skills and capacities. As Prichard notes, “it’s more efficient, more sustainable, and better for communities.”

That, at the end of the day, is what we’re after.

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