The Blog

Not Many Dead - But Millions Are In Need

Cyclone Phailin was the biggest storm to hit India in 14 years. It affected 14 million people and left more than one million homeless, causing destruction on the scale of Hurricane Katrina. Yet because few were killed, the story quickly lost the attention of the UK media. So how can charities communicate that there is still a desperate need for funds to help survivors?

Cyclone Phailin was seen coming. There were frequent references to the 10,000 people who died in the cyclone which hit the same area, Orissa, now known as Odisha, in 1999.

The Indian government's mass evacuations before Phailin hit were also well reported - but the risk to life it presented meant media coverage was assured. In fact, a remarkably small number of people were killed - fewer than 50.

Yet the storm wreaked devastation on some 16,000 villages - slightly more than were affected by the 1999 Orissa cyclone - destroying homes, crops and small businesses. That, in turn, has caused human suffering on a vast scale that is now going largely unnoticed internationally.

More than one million poor people are currently homeless in Odisha. Some 300,000 hectares of land have been ruined, so the crops that people should have been harvesting over the next month or so, to eat and to sell, are gone. Many people were petty traders and they will have lost their stock. They have nothing left to rely on in the future.

But if you measure a storm by the number of people it kills, not the number of survivors who need help, then all this is easy to ignore.

Christian Aid started planning for Phailin two days before the cyclone struck. We decided to launch an appeal for donations as it made landfall. Even though many people were protected in storm shelters, we anticipated significant damage to their homes and means of survival.

Christian Aid has partner organisations working in the areas affected, and decided to release £100,000 of immediate funds to them, while we tried to raise more. Our regional emergency manager in India has said we need one million pounds now, simply for the immediate response - food and very temporary shelter.

The morning after the cyclone struck, it was clear that disaster and shelter planning, by the Indian government, and by non-governmental organisations like our local partner organisations CASA, Vicalp and SEEDS, had saved thousands of lives.

But early information about damage to homes and crops confirmed that the communities where our partners work would need further help, so we sent an emergency message to a significant proportion of the Christian Aid supporters on our email database. The email recognised the low death toll in Odisha, yet also highlighted the damage to homes and livelihoods.

News reports over the course of the day continued to focus on the low death toll; they gave a sense of disaster averted. And, while in terms of deaths this was true, there was little attention to what had become of people's homes and their ability to cope without outside support.

The Indian government understandably wanted to take credit for its work on cyclone shelters and evacuations. BBC Radio 4's lunchtime news programme included an interview with a spokesman for one international non-governmental organisation, which was celebratory in tone and did not discuss damage to people's homes and livelihoods.

This tone prevailed elsewhere in the media too, so it was hardly surprising that the subsequent response to Christian Aid's emergency email was low. A few hundred donations were received, all very generous, but with the story off the airwaves, our webpage carrying the Cyclone Phailin appeal did not see a huge amount of traffic.

We are, of course, deeply grateful to those of our supporters who did respond. Nonetheless, we have to ask ourselves what lessons we should learn. Were we right to launch an appeal so early?

And in deciding whether to launch an appeal, should we be driven by what we think the response might be, a factor seemingly irretrievably linked to media interest? Or should our decision be based on our appreciation of the anticipated scale of people's need and suffering, as it was in this case?

Appealing early means we have little concrete information - just expectations -based on our experience of how disasters play out. It means acting before we have personal case studies or photos to illustrate what has happened.

But if we wait for those to come in from an area where infrastructure and communications have been wiped out, then it may be too late to convey people's urgent need for help, a factor exacerbated in the case of Cyclone Phailin by the speed with which media disinterest set in.

So we have told our supporters about the families who returned to their villages to see their homes destroyed, their belongings washed away and their harvest-ready crops lost. People now face incurring impossible debts in order to buy stock and to rebuild their lives.

Cyclone Phailin exemplifies only some of the questions facing fundraisers for organisations tackling global poverty. We know there are no simple solutions and that we must respond both to immediate need, as well as to the underlying causes of poverty, such as inequality, climate change and tax and trade rules that are skewed in favour of the powerful.

When communicating with our supporters, and the wider public, we want to tell the whole story and not treat poverty as something that can be solved with a charitable gift.

In the case of a natural disaster affecting millions, but which has led to few fatalities, of course the saving of lives should be celebrated, but not to the extent of masking the real and continuing problems for poor and devastated communities.