THE BLOG

Why the Disasters in Nepal and Burundi Matter

20/05/2015 16:04 BST | Updated 20/05/2016 10:59 BST

In 2013 a prescient article was written in a humanitarian news letter called Irin, Imagining a major earthquake in Kathmandu, almost exactly two years to the day it happened. It predicted in chilling detail what would happen when a massive earthquake struck Nepal's densely populated Kathmandu Valley. Reading the article again now in the light of the earthquakes which have devastated the area, it raises some serious questions about whether more could have been done to prevent the huge loss of life.

As so often is the case when disasters on this scale happen, the British government and public have responded magnificently. DFID has contributed over £23m and the Nepal earthquake appeal launched by the DEC has now raised over £50m.

Of course in the case of Nepal no one could have predicted when an earthquake of that magnitude would hit. However, the international community did know that as Kathmandu is in one of the most seismically active areas in the world, it was not a case of if, but when. But in the case of the unfolding disaster in Burundi, the failed coup there and the resulting loss of life and flood of refugees is entirely man made. Here emerge poverty free has a project working with street children in the town of Gitega. Thankfully the 40 boys and girls which we care for are all safe but our project manager has still not been able to return to the country.

In the case of the disaster in Nepal it is obvious why this matters to all of us as we have strong links with the Nepalese community but it is less so in the case of Burundi. The Observer tried to answer exactly this question in a thought provoking editorial. They concluded "Every time a coup like that in Burundi is attempted, it threatens us all. Every time a president subverts a lawful constitution or outstays his welcome, the hazards are shared. Every time democracy is diminished or usurped, we are all diminished too".

The dilemma facing lots of international development charities like us is whether to respond to disasters after they have happened or whether to help people become more resilient so when disaster strikes they are better prepared. Some years ago emerge poverty free decided to move away from doing emergency relief work and instead concentrate on helping people lift themselves out of poverty. At the time we were called World Emergency Relief but as a result we took the decision to rebrand ourselves as emerge poverty free since we thought this better encompassed what we wanted to achieve. The decision to change was difficult because there is a clear need for both types of work, but as a small charity we knew that we could achieve depth of change doing development work. Our work helps people start on their journey out of poverty and become more resilient to disasters, and so has a longer term impact.

In east Africa the more common disasters are man made, such as the fall out from conflict or even the effects of climate change. In these cases, development builds resilience in the form of education, agriculture and healthier lives. The dilemma we face is that it is a lot easier to act on the back of disasters than it is to strengthen people against them. By its very nature there is urgency during a disaster; act now and save a life. This isn't the case for development. So children will die quietly of diarrhoea, day after day, which is treatable and totally avoidable but installing a clean water pump doesn't have the same urgency. If these day to day deaths happened in the UK we'd be outraged and I think a time is coming, as we get more globally connected, when we'll feel the urgency, as we see those like us struggling to survive. Extreme poverty really is the daily emergency of our times.