All posts by Gregory Pellechi

Gregory Pellechi is a freelance journalist, editor and media consultant in Phnom Penh. He has a Masters in International Humanitarian Action from Uppsala University in Sweden. Like all good journalists he has that one novel he’s perpetually working on but work keeps getting in the way. He has worked in Europe, Central Asia and Southeast Asia and hopes to add the Middle East, Africa, South America and just about everywhere else to his curriculum vitae. He can be reached at greg.pellechi[at] or via his blog and Twitter.

The silent alarm sounds… again

Disasters strike all the time without warning. Their elusive and unpredictable nature is part of what makes them deadly. What makes them deadlier is our own unresponsiveness, whether it’s an act of will or simple ignorance.

Those disasters that grace the headlines of the major news networks and newspapers inevitably receive a greater response – if for no other reason than the public demands that something be done. Which is why the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) along with the European Commission for Humanitarian Aid & Civil Protection (ECHO) have just launched a new campaign on Silent Disasters – those events that incur a substantial impact on humanity yet do not receive the coverage or the response of others.

Case in point – when Hurricane Sandy struck the east coast of the US last year, it received significantly more news coverage than any other disaster in 2012. This great infographic, courtesy of ECHO and the IFRC, illustrates it wonderfully.

Silent Disasters Infographic

On the other hand, Cambodia’s floods in 2012 received a lot less coverage than the floods in 2011. When I was working at the Phnom Penh Post, during the rainy season as it was, there was scattered coverage. But the rains were just as scattered and the flooding at the time was primarily in the north near the Thai border. The perceived impact and worries within the paper were not for the floods, but finding something more front page worthy. Sitting in on the front page meetings, I can’t remember a single day when the floods were presented as a possible lead.

While the 2012 floods were not a major disaster like Hurricane Sandy, their impact was made greater by the fact that much of the country was still recovering from the 2011 floods. Depending on the flood, between 3,000 and 15,000 families were displaced and/or evacuated between September and November of 2012, with 14 of Cambodia’s 24 provinces severely affected when the rains were heaviest. Yet compared to the 170 deaths in 2011 the death toll was significantly less. While this was a good thing, it cannot be taken as the sole indicator of the impact of the disaster, as such disasters have many long term effects beyond the death toll.

As the 2012 floods weren’t as severe as those in 2011, it’s possible this was reason enough for them not to merit more media coverage. Additionally, the death of the King Father Norodom Sihanouk at the same time may have overshadowed them. At this point I was no longer with the Phnom Penh Post, so I can’t account as to why they didn’t receive greater coverage.

The media was presented with a choice – on one hand you have the death of a polarising political figure, who had the dubious honour of coining the term Khmer Rouge, and on the other a seasonal event which requires the acknowledgement of the government to allow many disaster assistance programmes to respond.

The regularity with which such an event occurs, given the lack of effective flood prevention measures or other disaster risk reduction (DRR) preparation put in place by the government, just may lead to “boy who cried wolf” syndrome amongst many.

Those tasked with implementing DRR or humanitarian response are very constrained by the requirement for the government to acknowledge that there has been a disaster and that there is a need for aid.

Both of these criteria were met in the US, where a state of emergency was declared along sections of the east coast, but no such statement was made in Cambodia. Thus international help could not be activated and brought – similar though not as catastrophic to the Burmese denial of Cyclone Nargis.

In August 2012 the Cambodian National Committee for Disaster Management only asked for 9,000 troops and 16,000 tonnes of food along with other supplies in preparation for the coming floods. They later reported that of the $30 million (USD) that was set aside for disasters they came in under budget due to less severe than expected floods.

In both cases of Hurricane Sandy and the floods in Cambodia, many people were affected by the disaster (although affected can mean different things, after all having your power cut means you’re affected, but if you never had power to begin with…).

Yet, the preparation of the Cambodian government was more robust than that of the American government, and it set aside funds and personnel to respond to the floods. In contrast, the US, as we’ve seen before with Hurricane Katrina, had little to no planning in effect. Their funds for recovery had to come from sources that require that a ‘state of emergency’ be declared. It’s an important line in much legislation and one that affects international humanitarian response, for without that call for help nothing can be done or contributed.

The difference is that Sandy hit a major urban area and presented the news with some iconic images, such as the one of lower Manhattan without power, as seen below. Sandy and its impact on the eastern seaboard of the US was such a visceral story capable of selling papers, but at the same time is a great example to those working in DRR of how important it is to be prepared for large scale urban disasters.

Lower Manhattan Comparison Photos from Business Week
Lower Manhattan Comparison Photos from Business Week

That leaves us with two clear culprits when it comes to silent disasters – the media and the government. The media seeks to cover the more visceral story, the one with the ‘greatest impact’ and the one that will sell more copies.

While governments, donors and humanitarian responders, regardless of whether they are prepared to respond or not, are constrained more often than not by legislation that requires the declaration of a ‘state of emergency.’  If they’ve got the funds and personnel in place, as Cambodia did, they don’t need to declare an emergency and instead can go it alone.

But is there a third culprit? Where do we as consumers of media, responders to humanitarian needs and the general populace fit into this framework of determining needs?


The MDGs: human rights in small doses?

Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of editing the previous two posts (here and here) regarding the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). It’s clear now that not many if any will be met. Those that have been or are being met are not being welcomed with the cheers of a rousing success, but the pursed lips and raised eyebrows of concern. And rightly so – there is much still yet to be done.

A little late to the game but relevant to this matter nonetheless is a podcast I was listening to. The Guardian Global Development podcast episode from March 27, 2012. On it the panel members were discussing the MDGs and what was to be done next, whether they are a success and what needs to change for the next go round. It was at roughly at the 32:30 mark that an audience member asked about human rights and human development.

Global development podcast

The audience member asks about human rights in regards to the MDGs, which have no explicit element to them. Rather, they focus on more tangible and ‘acceptable’ development goals that any government can accept. Listening in, the panel sounds like they’ve immediately dismissed the question, never harkening back to it or specifically speaking about human rights. Rather, they address the MDGs relevant to their particular area of expertise.

The big one mentioned was maternal health and the right to it, which Mike Miesen discussed in his post ‘MDG 5a: An Update On Maternal Mortality‘. Mike writes about the need for the world to re-evaluate and ramp up its work on reducing the mateernal mortality rate, as at the moment we’re failing to reach that 75% reduction rate. Scott Weathers also contributed a post about the MDGs, ‘Goals are good, but do the MDGs need to be simplified?‘ Soctt asks the equal vital question of how to make the goals manageable and understandable. This though may have an adverse effect on any human rights aspects, if they exists, included in the MDGs as they could be left out entirely or watered down to such a degree that few would recongise them as human rights.

In discussion with a friend, who initially told me about this very episode, we came to wonder – have human rights in fact been included in the MDGs? She like me, not so much waffles between opinions, but remains unsure – and for the following reasons.

1. One argument is that the MDGs been broken down into their relevant sectors reflected and thus made manageable for governments, without the obvious tropes commonly associated with human rights – no direct calls for votes, democracy, representation or judiciary measures. Supporting evidence would be the focus on women’s health, equality and education for all, both implicitly grounded in human rights.

Good Ol' Gurban Berdimuhamedov aka Berdy aka Big Berdy aka Big Bird
Good Ol’ Gurban Berdimuhamedov doesn’t want to swallow something so difficult as human rights.

Those human rights that certain countries, like Turkmenistan, argue as a right such as ‘the right to food’ are included – even as the debate, albeit small, remains as to whether this in fact a right. The argument here often falls on the definition of ‘the right to life’, given that food is a necessity for life but there is no guarantee that anyone should have access to/receive it. Hence, countries such as Turkmenistan will provide bread, rice, salt and other rations as part of the state’s ensuring the ‘right to life’ of its citizens, while arguing that the US does not as they do not provide such staples.

2. The contrary argument being the fact that there is no clear language in any of the MDGs calling for human rights as a whole, especially those that extend to housing, governance and rule of law. Instead there is talk of trade, debt relief and aid coordination – all worthy in their own rights and not to be dismissed, but not directly connected to human rights either. Many of the matters associated with everyone, not just women, are not included in the MDGs.

Leaving certain rights out, one can argue that human rights are being dismissed entirely – as its a one for all and all for one deal. Piecemeal implementation allows for privileged application, creating the inequality that the MDGs seek to eradicate. But, given the UN’s perennial inability to implement anything beyond its obligation to annual pay raises for its employees, how are they are expected provide for and guarantee rights for all?

The line between human rights and development, in my opinion, is never an easy one to walk. It’s why there are so many organisations with a range of operating procedures. It’s the impetus for MSF’s creation. To say their entirely separate is if anything to deny the very reason that we’re in this business to begin with – to help people – because not everyone needs the same sort of help.

My questions for the readers of WhyDev are these:

  • Are human rights included in the MDGs? If not should they be?
  • If they are, then have they been blunted or reframed to be more acceptable?
  • Do human rights have a place in development, particularly on the global scale?