The inequality of crises

Conflict, Disasters, Humanitarian, Inequality

Whether it is hidden or visible, it is through crises that inequality can become the most apparent. As a part of Blog Action Day, Ed Cairns looks at how disasters hit the marginalised the hardest and how there is a strong relationship between inequality and conflict.  

Inequality is hard-wired into humanitarian crises. When disasters strike, it is almost always the poor who are hit hardest. That is the fundamental conclusion of Oxfam’s experience of poor people struggling to survive, and become more resilient to the next crisis.

Four out of five people who die from disasters do so in low-income or low-middle income countries

Droughts and disasters will happen – and we can thank climate change in part for that. But almost anyone who is marginalised – because of their caste, colour, class, age, ability or gender – will probably suffer more than anyone else when they do. 

This inequality of crises is true within and between different countries. Four out of five people who die from disasters do so in low-income or low-middle income countries. When the Indian Ocean tsunami struck Banda Aceh in Indonesia, seven out of ten of those killed were women. And while the tsunami was a natural event, inequality makes some crises more
likely in the first place. 

Nothing causes wars by itself, but extreme inequality tends to make societies more likely to suffer violence and conflict. Murder rates are four times higher in very unequal societies compared to more equal ones.  And when inequalities overlap with religious or ethnic groups they can increase violent conflict as well.
 Before 2011, the forces that drove Syria towards conflict included – among many others – rising inequality, as falling subsidies and job losses affected some groups more than others. It should hardly be a surprise, as Oxfam’s research found in 2013, that rising levels of income inequality correlate with rising insecurity too

Extreme inequality tends to make societies more likely to suffer violence and conflict

In short, extreme inequalities are not just morally offensive, they are dangerous too. To an alarming extent, they decide who suffers most when disaster strikes, and who does not. It would be nice then to think that the world would at least respond to humanitarian crises in an equal manner – with the aid to save lives and relieve suffering in an impartial way. But it does not. 

International humanitarian aid is not provided in proportion to people’s needs, but too often in proportion to media coverage, political interest, or a whole host of reasons that tend to highlight some crises and neglect many others. Watch this space for a report by one of my Oxfam colleagues on that subject this December. For now, just remember that for every $1 spent on a person affected by Haiti’s terrible earthquake in 2010, 4 cents was spent in the Central African Republic when violence engulfed that
country in 2013.

It’s sometimes said that in humanitarian crises, we see human suffering at its most acute.  From Oxfam’s experience, we certainly see inequality.

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Author: Ed Cairns
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.