The media profile of Darfur shot up enormously once the label ‘the world’s worst humanitarian crisis’ was applied, although technically the phrase used was the “world’s greatest humanitarian and human rights catastrophe.” This is commonly standardised to ‘world’s worst…’
In a press conference in Nairobi on 19 March 2004, with the 10-year anniversary of Rwanda approaching, Mukesh Kapila, the then-United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan, applied the label to Darfur, and added:
“The only difference between Rwanda and Darfur is the numbers involved of dead, tortured and raped.”
Dr Kapila had been part of one of the first British government medical teams into Rwanda in 1994.
This is strong language, which USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios was to describe the following month as “very apocalyptic” in a special State Department Briefing (27 April 2004), but it had the desired effect: to gain the media attention that was needed to counteract the lack of diplomatic interest Kapila felt he was getting in publicising Darfur.
One explanation for this points towards the fact that the situation in Darfur conflicted unhelpfully with the more upbeat direction that the North-South was heading in.
Around four months earlier, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland described Darfur as “one of the worst in the world” (5 December 2003), but this assessment failed to register particularly deeply.
In an interview a few years ago, Kapila described the difficulties he faced in 2003 in bringing the situation to the attention of the wider international community, and reported the resistance he met within the UN itself. According to him, “senior people in the Department of Political Affairs in the United Nations Secretariat accused [him] of being unstable and hysterical.” His stance on Darfur effectively ended his career in the mainstream of the UN, he suggests.
Nonetheless, Kapila describes the media response as “electrifying” – but added, referring to the subsequent diplomatic response:
“I consider that a failure because of course the job had been done…A mass murder was more or less over.”
Egeland suggests in his memoir, A Billion Lives, how Pakistan’s presidency of the UN Security Council kept Darfur off the agenda, as Sudan was an ally. He also criticises the unsustainability of the wait-and-see approach in Western capitals.
However, Egeland reports that while political pressure was still weak and ineffective, the “only positive development” was the generous funding that had been unlocked.
On 15 September 2003, the Greater Darfur Special Initiative was launched, which requested a comparatively modest $23 million; on 9 April 2004, the UN launched the Revised Appeal for the Sudan Assistance Programme (ASAP 2004) that requested in excess of $115 million, which included programmes to provide food aid, health care, agricultural assistance, relief supplies including shelter, water and sanitation, education, protection and coordination. The US was by far the largest donor.
Egeland describes how the “nothing less than heroic” efforts of almost 14,000 Sudanese and international aid workers have resulted in substantial improvements in malnutrition levels and mortality rates. Over half a million tonnes of food were delivered in 2006 alone.
Despite the undoubted success in unlocking significant funding, one observation is that such formulae in the media are quite resistant to change – the media tend simply to lower their voices rather than introduce a more complicated and nuanced view – giving the impression that unchanging situations exist in perpetuity, thereby ignoring successes which are a vital part of the evaluation process.
With Darfur being described as ‘the world’s worst’ as recently as last month, legitimate questions can be asked as to what does a descriptive, and sensationalist, formula such as this create in greater proportions: heat or light? Or at the very least, one can question whether the ratio of heat to light is balanced enough to promote the most effective response.
The inevitable requirement for triage in responding to natural disasters or complex emergencies means that the process is influenced by a number of factors other than need alone, such as media attention and pressure, resulting in the neglect of those upon whom only a weak spotlight is shone, if at all.
Darfur is not the first time that the label ‘the world’s worst’ has been applied. Below is a list of the last two decades’ hotspots, using examples taken from the British media, though none can seriously challenge Darfur for prominence. Notably, Somalia was described as ‘world’s worst’ as far back as 1992, and reappears now, almost 18 years later.
2005/ 06: Congo (less popular choice than Darfur, but UN said it all the same)
2009: Somalia / East Africa (Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and Uganda).
Occasionally, non-African countries such as Tajikistan and Colombia are mentioned in connection with the ‘world’s worst’, but such a statement is normally qualified by a regional specification: “world’s worst…in Asia,” or “world’s worst…in the Americas.” Only Afghanistan in 2001 has been able to wrench the title of outright “world’s worst…” from the African continent.
One interesting caveat to mention is the tsunami that rose off the west coast of Sumatra on 26 December 2004. In the media, the description ‘the world’s worst humanitarian crisis’ was very uncommonly applied, which in a sense is counterintuitive, given the sheer scale of the disaster.
Egeland describes the global response to the tsunami in his memoir. At the first OCHA press conference at midday on 27 December 2004, the room was full beyond the usual UN accredited journalists – a “remarkable” turnout – with many approaching him at the end and urging him to conduct daily press conferences, which he did for the next 30 or so days. The story was automatically huge.
In terms of generosity of response, Egeland recalls “fund raising [was] setting new records each day,” such that they had “a hard time recording the rapid increase in relief funds.” This amounted to a total of $13.5 billion, meaning $7,100 for every affected person. By comparison, $3 dollars were spent on each person affect during the 2004 floods in Bangladesh.
Although there were plenty of lessons that could be learnt from the response, The Tsunami Evaluation Coalition reported that “palpable evidence of recovery” was visible within a few months thanks to the efforts of all those involved. In addition, following the immediate period of the aftermath, former US president Bill Clinton became UN special envoy for tsunami recovery, a very high profile figure that could keep the longer-term recovery and reconstruction in the world’s attention.
What this suggests is that the label ‘the world’s worst’ has as much to do with salesmanship, publicity-seeking (not in any negative sense) and advocacy as it does cold, objective statement of fact. Congo advocates (among many other candidates) have always wondered why the comparative silence on their cause.
The tsunami was not described as ‘the world’s worst’ because the magnitude of the disaster was painstakingly obvious, with no triage required for it to top agendas. On this occasion there was no obstructive hierarchy of sceptical diplomats, politicians, journalists, editors or readers in need of convincing of its newsworthiness. The world swung into action in a way it doesn’t to other, more complicated situations which, as Darfur has shown, really take some effort to publicise.