Acute on chronic squared: more on the future of humanitarian aid

Posted on: March 24, 2016 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: Aid Worker Voices book

“Unfortunately the world is going to see more disasters in the future, particularly natural disasters related to climate change.”

Acute on chronic squared:  more on the future of humanitarian aid

[Note:  I am working on a long post (chapter) on this topic, but I wanted to get this out separately.]

Below I continue presenting and commenting on the 311 comments make by our survey respondents in answer to Q60 about the “future of humanitarian aid.”  See here for my previous post.


In Haiti After the Earthquake Paul Farmer describes this 2010 event as “acute on chronic.”  Certainly this description could be used to describe other natural disasters in areas that have a history of marginalization including the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, numerous Afghanistan-Pakistan earthquakes in the last 20 years,  and the 2013 Typhoon Haiyan that hit the Philippines. The list goes on.

A contrasting example of acute not-on-chronic would be the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan.

That climate change is impacting the world in significant ways is not in question, and all predictions point to increased weather related events that are both more frequent and intense.  Here is how one of our respondents put it.

“While I think there are positive responses to the world’s humanitarian crisis, the bigger choices will negate much of work (ie – failure to sign climate treaties; reduce emissions; etc). There will be positive gains at moderate levels, but unless the inequity of the world and the depletion of it’s resources is typhoonaddressed seriously, the problems will only continue to grow.”

Another voice here, though I would argue that the line between ‘humanitarian work’ and development is unclear at best.

“Humanitarian work, more than development, will always have an important place in the world. Climate change will ensure a lot of difficult times ahead, making large-scale humanitarian deployment a necessity.”

The reality of climate change means job security for those who work humanitarian aid, especially those who respond to disasters like typhoons, floods and blizzards.  But what this also means is that there will be increased need for responses to the slow motion natural disasters like chronic, prolonged or unusually extreme drought.  Food insecurity will be more common in places where previously it may have never been an issue.

The perfect storm will be when there is acute on chronic squared, that is, when for example an earthquake hits a nation where there is chronic poverty exasperated by food insecurity brought on by increasingly inconsistent or ineffectual rains.

That development work can or should be done to help nations prepare for the likelihood of increased weather-related disasters is an open question according to some aid workers.  Here is one comment that touches on this challenge.

“I think humanitarian aid will have a positive impact on more people because disasters will become more frequent. I think humanitarian aid needs to become much more focussed and effective to cope with this, and there are serious obstacles to overcome, but I think humanity will continue to support those in need and humanitarian interventions will keep gradually improving.” 

Simply put, the aid industry -relief or development focused- cannot and will not ‘work itself out of a job.’  From my perspective and based on listening to the aid workers voices, in order to minimize the impact of ‘acute on chronic squared’ events development work will need to be increasingly proactive and thus inevitably contribute even further to the blur between aid and development work.

The ‘what’ in terms of the future may be getting clearer,  but the ‘how’ of addressing this future most definitely is not.

Contact me if you have comments, snarky or otherwise. @tarcaro on Twitter.


Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022.

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