We review The International Red Cross 2018 World Disasters Report — which presents sobering data, incisive insights, and recommendations concerning the gap between those impacted by disasters and those who receive adequate relief.

YEAR • 2019
MONTH • 5May


On The 2018 World Disasters Report of the International Red Cross



Entity: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Report Title: International Red Cross World Disasters Report of 2018.

Date of Publication: October 2018.

Place: Geneva, Switzerland.

Synposis of Philanthropic Activity: Report assessing discrepancies between peoples in the world impacted by disasters and those who receive adequate aid; five ways in which such discrepancies are reproduced year after year; and recommendations to address them.

State of Report

The International Red Cross 2018 World Disasters Report, published in October 2018 with the subtitle Leaving No One Behind, frames its concerns by first taking up the oft-repeated world pledge — announced in 2015 as part of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development— that “no one will be left behind” at the end of 15 years of Member States’ collective advocacy, programming, and implementation. The 2018 Red Cross Report begins, therefore, by trying to assess the number of people currently left behind. And while only rough approximations are possible regardless of the method one chooses, the figures presented to us are sobering. A UN analysis in 2018 estimated that, worldwide, 134 million people would require humanitarian assistance in the form of disaster response and relief. Approximately 97.4 million of them would have needs addressed via UN-coordinated humanitarian response plans. Which leaves the rest to the attention of already overburdened and underfunded domestic authorities and philanthropic entities. Thus, one can presume that a significant portion of 36.6 million people identified as needing (just) disaster response and relief would, in fact, be left behind.

The 2018 Red Cross Report reasonably assumes this to be a repeat pattern and so asks central questions of these estimates: not just how many, but also why, how and exactly who? Its answer partially lies in naming five ways such discrepancies are reproduced each year, with the millions of unattended finding themselves to be:

  • out of sight (of those assessing need and directing resources);
  • out of reach (due to impediments that are infrastructural, economic, political, etc);
  • left out of the loop (through often unintentional exclusion e.g. minorities, disabled);
  • out of money (due to insufficient prioritization during budgeting or allocations); and
  • out of scope (with respect to those defining limits to crises or problems to be addressed).

As the Red Cross Report elaborates these five ways it becomes clearer that it intends them as challenges to current methods of identifying and responding to disasters and humanitarian need. Hence the use of the word “flaws.” Under Out of Sight, the Report focuses on ways people in need remain invisible to aid assessors, including known structural issues assessors wish to overcome (births and other demographics unregistered, people lacking identity papers, people lacking access due to poverty, neighborhoods and areas lacking mapping and therefore planning) but also known resistances to inclusion in disaster assessments. Featured prominently here are the effects of crises (or of normalized states of affairs) on ethnic, sexual and gender minorities.

Similarly, under Out of Reach, Loop and Scope the Red Cross Report highlights how agreed-upon methods of assessing cost, benefit and risk in humanitarian aid decisions systematically render those most in need (living in areas of economic and political insecurity, poor infrastructure and difficult terrain, extreme climates and natural disasters, legal and administrative complications, protracted crisis conditions, crime, urban and police violence, and little to no guaranteeable safety for humanitarian staff) as increasingly questioned or questionable investments of limited humanitarian funds, time, and personnel. In other words, it is one thing to have assessors, responders, donors, and the public recognize a crisis or need — quite another to have their donations, decisions and deliberations address needs without payoffs that are culturally, financially, politically and psychologically satisfying. One could look to the remaining flaw — people who are left Out of the Loop — as identifying a remedy, for example, a focus on transforming the groups of people typically doing the assessing, donating, deliberating, and decision-making. But we have heard and responded to calls to reform (or diversify) these bottleneck positions. And while there have certainly been improvements since the 1980s, the remaining gap — actually gaps — have become all the more apparent, and even willfully resistant to being closed or bridged.

The recommendations the Red Cross Report provides are sound, pragmatic and, perhaps most importantly, in keeping with programmatic priorities shared by reports and declarations published by UN and other humanitarian organizations. They include:

  • recognizing, supporting, developing, and partnering with local responders and communal humanitarian action;
  • integrating community participation in all areas of planning and response, before, during and after crises;
  • increased and continued support for resilience-building in vulnerable areas and communities; and
  • improved and ethical use of data and technology in disaster assessment, response, and relief.

But what stands out among these is the Report’s elaboration of its thinking under the recommendation to prioritize those “who are hardest to reach.” Here, it suggests a redefinition of “value for money” in terms rigorously aligned with that oft-repeated call to “leave no one behind” — a call that is certainly recognizable beyond the wide and intersecting institutional borders of the United Nations’ organizations, the rubric of its Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the important work of national and international philanthropies that heed such a call. To leave no one behind is a wish, desire, command, and obligation we have heard repeatedly, in myriad interpersonal, cultural, religious, social and civic settings. And it has over time presented us with sets of values (or principles) often held to be in conflict with “value,” economically interpreted. But this Red Cross World Disasters Report proposes a possible reconciliation of these notions of value — rooted in a series of inversions that are essential to charitable, humanitarian, philanthropic work: to here direct most resources toward communities where benefit has been made difficult to achieve or assess; to here dedicate attention and priorities to those furthest from or outside our daily scope of assessment and care; and to ultimately value most those otherwise least valued by our societies.

Report Guide


The introduction begins with a concise summary of debates in the field regarding calls to either expand or constrict the scope of the humanitarian sector. Such calls would and do impact the mandate and actual work of international and national organizations, actors, modes of needs assessment, and forms as well as levels of humanitarian response, aid and assistance. The tension here is between the longstanding benefits of specialization in humanitarianism (including limiting its responsibilities) and the comparatively newer impacts of coordination, integration, and more holistic approaches to reducing suffering due to disasters and crises.

There is, here, a clarifying review of an attendant debate — on the use, definitions, and connotations of common terms in the field, particularly ‘humanitarian action,’ ‘humanitarian sector,’ ‘humanitarian system,’ and ‘humanitarian ecosystem.’ Briefly:

  • the humanitarian sector often comes with an implied or explicit limitation to international humanitarian organizations and donors, both actors conventionally understood to be have a primary focus on disaster and crisis response and relief; this is the usage of the 2018 Red Cross Report;
  • the humanitarian system often accounts for not just the above organizations but also the varied forms and means of international financing underwriting the work of said organizations, an important inclusion in description and analysis, though it is still limited, since it encourages the image of a global and globalizing top-down aid machine;
  • the humanitarian ecosystem has been more recently and increasingly used, often to encourage a fuller vision and analysis of humanitarian work and operations, with varied entities coordinating and interacting among themselves in distinct though complementary ways, including local, national and international organizations, practitioners and actors, donors and forms of financing, mechanisms and practices of identification, response, implementation and assessment;

And, almost separately, the Report notes that humanitarian action has long been used without a single, settled definition, in part because that definition is evolving. Traditionally, one thinks of (and funds) such action in the form of a response or project that is focused on saving lives and alleviating suffering in times of acute crisis, conflict, or disaster, action that is therefore also limited in time, space, mode of activity, and number and expertise of organizations and actors. Meanwhile, recent analysis and advocates have increasingly moved our understanding of humanitarian action to include preventing crises in need; remaining long after acute periods to assist in rebuilding communities; and taking on work traditionally ascribed to the development sector or to national and local public governance.

This Red Cross Report, heeding the above debate regarding the scope of humanitarianism, uses the terms ‘sector’ and ‘action’ in more traditional, focused, or limited senses while understanding that their evolution is occurring, and in certain places that evolution in meaning is essential for more effectively reducing the incidence of and suffering from disasters and crises.

Five of the remaining six sections of the Report are dedicated to elaborating the main ways it identifies (its out of series) for how discrepancies between humanitarian need and response are perennially reproduced as a global pattern.

OUT OF SIGHT (pp29-54)

The opening, framing concern for this section is as follows: while it is widely agreed humanitarian action should alleviate suffering without discrimination, peoples and places as well as their problems must first be seen, recognized, identified and made eligible for such humanitarian assistance. The Report therefore examines how those in emergency situations become systematically overlooked or considered ineligible for aid, focusing on what it names as ‘hidden people,’ ‘hidden problems,’ and ‘hidden places.’ Briefly:

  • hidden people are those who become invisible or partially obscured to needs assessments and responses, due to lack of documentation (for birth, identity, residency, aid eligibility, proof of land, home and property ownership), poverty, precarious mobility, environmental or political vulnerability;
  • hidden problems are those needs often unrecognized or underestimated due to explicit and implicit biases in needs assessment processes, such as needs associated with societal taboos and stigmas; with sexual, gender and ethnic minorities; with legal precarity due to state vigilance and regulation of undocumented migration; and with the non-enjoyment of human rights recognized by national, international and UN agreements and treaties; and
  • hidden places are those areas with significant numbers and effects of hidden peoples and hidden problems, often leading to less adequate data, mapping of needs, and humanitarian response.

Throughout this section, the Report offers a number of possibly effective remedies, with the below warranting repeat mention and discussion:

  • alternative forms of identification, such as UN-coordinated and provided identity numbers, papers, biometrics, blockchain implementations, and negotiations with governments, aids programs, and merchants (such as mobile service providers) to accept such alternative forms of identification for transactions, access to services, and the distribution of aid (including money, housing, shelter, and programs of land and property reclamation); and
  • means of prolonging time for research and data collection in crisis areas (databases, mapping) with two goals in mind: reaching a greater portion of hidden peoples and places, and including more of such peoples, places, and local actors in the processes of research, data collection, needs assessment and future response.

OUT OF REACH (pp55-84)

In this section, the opening, framing concern is as follows: while is has long been known that the principled provision of humanitarian action (specifically, without discrimination, based solely on the most need) is hindered by issues of access, those issues of access persist in myriad ways, warranting more analysis, insight, and remedy. The Report therefore focuses here on how access is affected in three primary ways:

  • physical impediments: where access is hindered due to distance, isolation, or remoteness (from humanitarian actors); difficult terrain (for typically employed means of transport and delivery); climate and epidemiology; and especially inadequate infrastructure;
  • conflict and insecurity: where access (especially movement and safety) is negatively impacted by hostilities; military and other operations; explosive devices and other means of impediment and obstruction; and violence specifically targeting humanitarian actors and delivery; and
  • restricting administrative and governmental laws and practices: where access is significantly hampered by legal and bureaucratic processes that may deny the existence of humanitarian need; interfere with response, delivery and assessment; restrict or limit movement and response; or impose impractical operational and legal requirements;

And the Report offers a number of tested and prospective remedies, with the below being noteworthy:

  • improving the resilience and relative self-sufficiency of areas with physical constraints on access;
  • coordinating risk-sharing and reduction in areas of conflict and security among local, national and international actors; and
  • ensuring that the crafting and implementation of laws and requirements facilitate rather than impede humanitarian response and needs assessment (for instance, the incorporation and careful, ethical use of “humanitarian exemptions” language in regulations meant to target terrorism and found to produce unintended impediments to aid).

OUT OF LOOP (pp85-110)

Here, the opening, framing concern for this section is as follows: that the provision of humanitarian action without discrimination is negatively impacted by needs assessment and response practices that explicitly or inadvertently exclude groups of peoples. This framing assertion is infinitely stimulating fr those who have long followed and studied historical and present patterns of inequality and inequity. Perhaps for the sake of space, depth of insight, and emphasis, the Report focuses primarily on two primary examples of systematically marginalized groups gaining increased recognition in the field of humanitarianism: the elderly and those with disabilities.

And quite logically, the Report recommendations involve including the elderly, disabled and members of other systematically marginalized groups in processes of needs assessment, decision-making, aid and assistance delivery, coordination and evaluation; as well as an increase in focused donations and investments for the specified needs of said marginalized groups.

OUT OF MONEY (pp111-140)

The opening, framing concern for this section is as follows: how to revisit and reconsider (even reduce) a perennial gap between humanitarian need and available resources in light of the UN goal to ‘leave no one behind’ by 2030. The primary mode of this section is to provide clearer insight concerning the repeat wheres, whys and hows of this perennial gap. It must be noted (by the writer of this Publiks Reports review) that the humanitarian sector has rarely, if ever, had sufficient funds for addressing identified need. So these wheres, whys and hows must be more specifically asked about those who get told that the sector is out of money. And what stands out here is the association of ‘out of money’ conclusions (or responses) with the following situations:

  • out of the headlines: where the level and nature of media coverage lead to diminished urgency, public attention or concern regarding a set of humanitarian needs, with such crises becoming or remaining ‘forgotten’;
  • out of favor: where longstanding (or changing) interests, priorities, political and interpersonal relationships of and with donors and other financing sources lead rather directly to the repeat underfunding of certain crises, emergencies and humanitarian needs;
  • out of information: where decision-making and allotment of resources — increasingly reliant and influenced by the level and quality of information, needs assessment, and response analysis — leads to preferred pathways for the delivery of humanitarian assistance and thus the underfunding of crises, emergencies and needs without comparable information, analysis, and research;
  • out of sync: where the absence of a proposed global forum for information-, risk-, research- and funding-sharing and coordination allows for decision-making to often increase global inequities, in that they do not inadequately align with ongoing and shifting loci and levels of humanitarian need;

As an almost distinct matter, the section goes on to examine how the above ‘out of’ situations unfold in three different types of crises and emergencies, namely: crises that are rapid onset yet off the radar; crises that are slow onset and thus recipients of slow or deeply inadequate responses; and crises that are both chronic and complex in their existence and causes and thus subject to nonrecognition as crises, as well as donor or attention fatigue.

The recommendations here focus on alternative ways of motivating, raising, mobilizing, and allocating financial and other resources, including models for pre- or preemptiveresponse and post- or rehabilitative financing that are human-centered, cooperative and collective.

OUT OF SCOPE (pp141-166)

The framing concern for this section are the ways traditional notions and ways to operationalize humanitarian need, humanitarian action and the humanitarian sector, more generally, explicitly exclude peoples, places, and problems of clear, known need. Note that these peoples, problems and places are not hidden. Nor is this a matter of hampered access or discrepancies between identified need and funding. The Report wishes to discuss tendencies in the humanitarian sector to openly describe recognized needs, crises, emergencies, and urgencies as ‘not our problem.’ And the Report uses this section to focus — incisively one must add — on irregular migration and urban violence as examples challenging historical, now wished-for limitations to the scope and responsibilities of the humanitarian sector. Many readers of this Publiks Reports review can likely think of more.

Likewise, each of the remedies offered in this section implicitly or explicitly rely upon a continued openness to evolving notions, definitions and ways of operationalizing, assessing and responding to humanitarian need, humanitarian action, the sector, its systems, and ecosystems. The Red Cross Report thus comes full circle with its introduction — and underscores the vital importance of careful, productive revisions of traditional ideas of giving and providing humanitarian assistance.


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