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Humanitarian emergencies: how we respond with love

2 September 2022

Rohingya refugee camp - Bangladesh - cover

When disasters strike, we respond immediately as part the Caritas family, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and healing the wounded – and we stay for the long term, rebuilding lives and communities. Over the past five decades, thanks to your donations, we have helped support hundreds of emergencies across the world.

In this long-read, we take a look at why SCIAF is able to respond so quickly to emergencies around the world, the difference your donations make, and how we support people to rebuild their lives in the longer term.

Humanitarian emergencies

Humanitarian emergencies happen every day. Most emergency situations are small-scale and go unnoticed by the world media, but are nevertheless devastating for those caught up in them – like a landslide that hits a community, or a flood that washes away a family’s crops. Some, however, affect entire countries or regions, and have a long-term impact on society – catastrophes such as wars, major natural disasters like tsunamis, or even global health crises.

SCIAF has been responding to humanitarian emergencies like these since 1968, when the Scottish Catholic community reached out with love to those experiencing famine in Biafra (which is now part of south-eastern Nigeria) and drought in Bihar in India.

Global network, local response

We are able to respond to emergencies around the world because we are part of the global Catholic network, Caritas International. This confederation includes more than 160 organisations and operates in over 200 countries and territories. Close to home, the Caritas agency of England and Wales is called CAFOD; in Ireland it’s Trócaire.

This unique web of humanitarian organisations means that whenever an emergency happens we can respond quickly and effectively anywhere in the world – and especially in those places that are hard to reach. Straight away, fully trained staff and personnel can begin work, delivering whatever is required – whether food and water, hygiene facilities, shelter or medical care. And, in the wake of an emergency, we can immediately draw on the talents of our international colleagues to design the best possible programmes, as they know the areas affected and their specific needs.

In Ukraine, for instance, the conflict escalated rapidly – but Caritas Ukraine was able to respond immediately, communicating what support they required and when, and ensuring we didn’t duplicate the efforts of other aid agencies. We also had ready-made infrastructure which we could use – the Catholic Church in Ukraine owned buildings that were quickly converted into refuges for internally displaced people, Caritas Poland offered a warehouse to store supplies, and other neighbouring Caritas organisations provided emergency supplies and safe spaces for refugees fleeing danger.

The expertise and reach of the global Caritas network make us go-to humanitarian experts whenever a crisis hits. It’s why supporting SCIAF’s emergency work is so effective.

Emergency relief

Each emergency is uniquely distressing and complicated for those who are caught up – as well as for those who are trying to help. But what remains the same is how emergencies force those affected into extremely scary and abnormal situations. Our response must, therefore, prioritise resolving this fear and uncertainty.

Emergency response - Ukraine 2022

Often, this means we provide essential supplies and basic support first: quickly offering food, clean water, shelter, medicine, access to healthcare, and cash, so that people feel supported, comforted, and safe during their darkest hours.

But we know that thriving as a human being is more than just a question of meeting basic needs. This means that even during our emergency response we continue to follow our Integral Human Development approach, meeting the needs of the ‘whole person’.

A space for people to practise their religion may be critical; or we might organise group sessions where people can come together and share their experiences, creating a sense of solidarity and community.

Rebuilding and recovering

After disaster strikes, we work collaboratively with the communities we serve to help meet their needs and their aspirations for the future. With our local partners, we listen to what challenges they face, and work together to design projects where our support can make the biggest difference.

What really sets SCIAF, and Caritas International, apart is that we are there before, during and after an emergency – staying for the long term, not just the immediate aftermath. Side-by-side we stand in solidarity as we help people rebuild their lives. Longer term, projects may include repairing roads, schools and hospitals, or providing the skills and education that people need to work themselves out of poverty.

Prevention is better than cure

Our modern world is grappling with several major issues all at once – problems that make emergencies more likely and more extreme. We must, therefore, prepare communities for the worst in the short term, while working together to tackle the longer-term factors that make emergencies more likely.

Reducing risk for the future

In the communities we work with, we help them reduce the risks they face – the chance a person, family or community will be hurt by future crises. This might mean, for instance, encouraging the use of climate-resilient methods of growing food, so farming families can cope with extreme drought or flooding. Or helping communities to set up savings and insurance schemes, so that if the worst happens there is a safety net in place that allows them to access money. For tackling the long-term risk factors for emergencies, advocacy is one of our key strategies – and specialties. Thanks to your support, we encourage global action on climate change, and we also make sure that international development is at the top of government agendas so that more support and better opportunities can be delivered to those who are most at risk.

Landslide in DR Congo

in January 2020, a landslide ripped into a community in the city of Bukavu in DR Congo, bringing with it death and destruction. But sadly, it was an emergency waiting to happen.

Landslide DR Congo

Facing the news of a landslide in DR Congo

In DR Congo, extreme poverty – driven by global inequality – forces families to live on extremely marginal and unsafe land. Homes are perched on steep slopes, beneath unstable cliffs. At the same time, climate change is causing more regular and more intense storms to take place in this part of Africa. And, on this occasion, it was one of these extreme weather events which caused the devastating landslide. Homes were destroyed, and five children and a woman lost their lives.

Sadly, this event was predictable: the consequence of an unjust and environmentally-degraded world. So, while SCIAF will continue to be there to provide relief when emergencies like this strike, it remains the case that we must address the systemic issues that drive disasters if we are truly to build God’s Kingdom here on Earth. As Pope Francis says in his encyclical Laudauto Si’, we must respond to both “the cry of the earth, and the cry of the poor.”

Rebuilding lives in Syria

The conflict in Syria has continued for more than 11 years, bringing with it widespread suffering. At least 510,000 people have died, with 13.4 million in need of humanitarian assistance. Thanks to your repeated generosity, we have been responding to this crisis for more than a decade.

Hahmoud Al-Hassan, Aleppo, Syria

Hahmoud Al-Hassan, Aleppo, Syria

Working with our sister agency CAFOD, our support has focused on delivering essential food, shelter, clean water, sanitation, and medical services, alongside the long-term rebuilding of infrastructure, livelihoods, homes and cultural life; facilitating community peace-building and reconciliation; and advocating for a political solution to the war in Syria.

Funding from the Scottish Government

Thanks to the global reach of the Caritas network – and our proven track record of support – SCIAF is a select panel member of the Scottish Government’s Humanitarian Emergency Fund. In 2021 and 2022, this resulted in the award of more than £281,950 from the Scottish Government to provide emergency humanitarian assistance in South Sudan, Afghanistan and Ethiopia respectively.