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What are Complex Emergencies?

Learning outcomes
o Define the term Complex Emergency and recognize its contradictions and ambiguities.
o Research information on complex emergencies as presented by Relief Web and OCHA
o Describe and contextualize the approaches of David Rieff and David Keen.
Definition
The term complex emergency emerged in Africa in the late 1980s, and gained wider currency with Gulf
War.
For the UN a complex emergency is, a major humanitarian crisis of a multi-causal nature that requires a
system-wide response. Commonly, a long term combination of poltical, conflict and peacekeeping
factors is also involved.
(UN, 1993:23, Duffield, 1994, pp.3-4)
Apart from the new peacekeeping element, other parts not a new concept. This multi-causal model has
become interchangeable with an earlier category of man-made emergency. Both emergencies are
usually defined in opposition to implicitly mono-causal natural disasters.
Complex emergencies are humanitarian crises that are linked with large scale violent conflict civil war,
ethnic cleansing and genocide. conflict-generated emergencies. They should be distinguished from
natural disasters.
(Macrae, j & Ziwi, A, War and Hunger, 1994 p.21)
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) emphasizes that complex
emergencies are linked to internal or external conflict.
The label complex emergency draws attention to complexity and embodies a useful degree of vagueness
about the nature of a violent conflict. The vagueness has also sometimes been politically useful for aid
agencies seeking not to offend host governments; no term is without its hazards.
The OCHAs definition is that a complex emergency is a humanitarian crisis in a country, region or
society where there is total or a considerable breakdown of authority resulting fron internal or external
conflict and which requires an international response that goes beyond the mandate or capacity of any
single agency and/or the ongoing UN country program.
OCHA adds that complex emergencies are typically characterized by, first, extensive violence and loss of
life; massive displacements of people; widespread damage to societies and economies. Secondly, the
need for large-scale, multi-faceted humanitarian assistance. A third is the hindrance or prevention of
humanitarian assistance by political and military constraints, and fourthly, is the existence of significant
security risks for humanitarian relief workers in some areas.
Two potential problems with OCHAs definition which are linked with continuing shortcomings in
international interventions are bringing to light.
The first difficulty arises from defining a complex emergency in terms of a break down of authority. The
problem may not so much be that authority had broken down, but rather, authority was being imposed
with ruthless and vicious efficiency, 1994 Rwandan genocide. Even in Sudan, where poverty and
geography have created major obstacles to imposing state authority, a discussion centered on the
breakdown of authority risks endorsing the dubious alibi of governments in Khartoum that have
cleverly manipulated and exacerbated ethnic tensions for more than twenty years.
A second problem arises from the statement that a complex emergency requires an international
response that goes beyond the mandate or capacity of any single agency and/or the ongoing UNDP. Is
there any emergency that can be handled by a single agency? Also defining the emergency in terms of
required response has at least the potential for muddling up problwm and solution and for serving as a
tool for bureaucratic in-fighting, between the OCHA and the UNDP (in charge of normal country
programmes).