Protracted emergencies vs rapid onset

Sudden-onset crises are what most people associate with the word emergency. They are usually characterised by a large-scale loss of or threat to life, injury, or damage to assets and property. The emergency situation is usually caused by a single sudden shock, for example, an outbreak of violence which prompts large-scale displacement or a natural disaster such as an earthquake or cyclone.

slow-onset crisis, however, does not arise from a distinct event but rather emerges gradually over months, or even years, often resulting from a confluence of different factors or events. A good example of a slow-onset crisis is drought. Lack of rainfall does not create an emergency overnight but over time and without intervention it leads to inadequate harvests, death of livestock and water shortages, which in turn can cause a loss of livelihoods and income, hunger, malnutrition and the spread of communicable diseases.

Although an emergency response is intended to be a time-bound life-saving intervention, in reality, in many contexts, emergency humanitarian assistance is being provided year after year. Protracted emergencies are situations where a significant part of the population is acutely vulnerable and dependent on humanitarian assistance over a prolonged period of time. In many cases, this period becomes so long that the emergency has become the normal situation.

Typically slow-onset and protracted crises – while no less devastating to those affected than rapid onset crises – are harder to communicate on and raise global media attention and awareness to.

As a result protracted and slow onset crises require different and more nuanced communications tactics in order to gain media interest and raise public awareness.

For example in a protracted crisis we can look at the following hooks and angles to help try and raise media awareness:

  • Key anniversaries: You could plan follow-up stories to coincide with key anniversaries such as six months on, one year on, etc. The Lead Member should get updated communications materials, as well as issuing an update. You could approach journalists who visited first time round to see if they’d be interested to revisit the affected communities to see how recovery has progressed and our response has moved on.
  • Donor conferences can provide a much-needed spotlight on the recovery phase that follows an emergency. Policy-makers, donors and the media consider the longer-term issues, offering an excellent opportunity to highlight development issues, or pressing humanitarian issues that are being overlooked. You could issue a press release highlighting an area that needs additional funding, or prepare a briefing to distribute at the conference.
  • Focus on reproductive health: CARE has a crisis calculator for the number of pregnant and breastfeeding women in a given emergency that can help provide impactful stats. Generally the issue of women’s access to maternal health services, safe delivery and post-natal care are issues that people can generally relate to and make for compelling stories.
  • Monitoring financial commitments: In the immediate aftermath of an emergency, donors are quick to make commitments to fundraising appeals. Often, weeks and months later these commitments have not been disbursed. Monitoring disbursements can throw up stories of donors failing to honour their commitments; consider whether you want to highlight this privately with donors, or more publicly through the media.
  • New information: Reports that contain new information are a very useful way of getting donors and policy-makers’ attention after the media spotlight has moved on. You should consider issuing a report on some of the most serious issues still affecting women and girls. CARE Rapid Gender Analyses (RGAs) can be useful sources of this kind of women and girls’ specific information.
  • Trends: Staff working directly on the recovery phase of an emergency response should keep a look-out for trends. For example, it is relatively common for early marriages and child labour to increase in the aftermath of an emergency. Trends such as these may require some additional programming and can also attract renewed media interest.
  • Disaster risk reduction: Is there a story about how we have helped communities prepare for this emergency? Is there evidence to show that this work has saved more lives?

CARE International guidelines for communicating in slow onset and chronic emergencies can be found here:

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