THE BLOG
04/12/2013 03:41 GMT | Updated 02/02/2014 05:59 GMT

A Tale of Two Catastrophes

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Dickens' famous opening seems to fit these last three weeks with the joys and woes of working in a humanitarian organisation responding to catastrophes.

The world is currently at the grip of two devastating crises. Disasters that have claimed lives, scarred populations and left millions homeless, jobless and destitute. Yet one has instantly spurred the world into action where the other has not - a pattern that we frequently see in the aid world.

The tragedy and loss brought on by the devastating Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines has triggered an overflow of generosity from the British public along with acres of media coverage. We've seen communities, schools, churches, workplaces all provide offers of support across the country. Thank God for it, their help is urgently needed.

However quietly fading away from the daily headlines, Syria is also watching its children's futures cruelly slip away from them as they're increasingly cut off from education, forced to work to survive and suffer unthinkable abuse. While diplomats try to broker talks that could bring a glimmer of hope for peace, aid agencies like World Vision struggle to raise the funds needed to reach those in need.

Both are devastating emergencies. Both desperately need international support. However it begs to ask the question - why does a sudden natural disaster incite public sympathy and generate widespread media awareness, when the shocking long-running conflicts in places like Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo do not?

The answer lies in the nature of the disaster itself. The public know that in complex political emergencies simply giving cash isn't always the answer.

Natural disasters like Typhoon Haiyan are easier for us all to get our head around. They instantly swell the hearts and minds of people in the UK to generously giving. Donations to the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) for Filipinos are already at more than £69 for Typhoon Haiyan - a truly stunning feat. Similarly, in 2004, the DEC raised an incredible £392 for Boxing Day Tsunami survivors - unquestionably saving millions of lives.

However conflict-related emergencies - where it's unclear who are the perpetrators and without a clear tipping point that 'hooks' public interest - are recurrently difficult to generate funds for. By comparison the DEC raised just £20million this year in their Syria Crisis Appeal and £10.5m for those affected by conflict in eastern DRC in 2008.

Yet for the people caught up in them these complex wars create grand scale destruction that often far eclipses the damage of a typhoon or tsunami.

The UN warned that Syria is creating a 'generation of damaged children' - as many as 300,000 could be without schooling by the end of 2013, with children as young as seven being forced to work long and hard days to support the family.

Children like Tasnim, eight, who I met in September. A Syrian refugee living in Lebanon, her words still haunt me. "Death. That night I saw death", as she described the horrors of surviving the 21 August chemical massacre in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. Her mother Rawda told me that for her two older sons and thousands of other children still besieged there, hunger was a bigger disaster than the chemical attack.

Or nine-year-old, Abdurahman, trapped in Syria and in fear for his life: "If you hear the sound of helicopter, you have to run for your life. But, if you hear a plane, that means you are still alive, because it is very fast and you only hear it after it hits; but that also means that other people have died."

And then there are little boys like Abduraham, three, who knows nothing but conflict and declares: "I want to be in the war, with guns."

For him childhood is an imaginary concept.

But it is up to agencies like ours to try and ensure he has an education and food in his belly. If we don't children like Hamza risk becoming a lost generation.

It is for this reason that World Vision is urgently calling for an end to violence against children in Syria in its new report, 'Stand with Me'. The report highlights how children are increasingly being targeted by the violence or forcibly recruited into armed groups. It is estimated some 11,000 children have been killed in the conflict with over three million displaced from their homes and living in terrible conditions as refugees.

Tasnim and the countless others like her desperately need the world's media not to forget them and for the global community to act - NOW.

But there is hope. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon, has announced a date for the start of Syrian peace talks in Geneva. 22 January 2014. This follows many months of intense diplomatic efforts and campaigning. For too long the complex politics have obscured the face that millions of ordinary Syrian families and children have had their lives utterly torn apart.

The peace talks are the best hope of shining a light on their agonies.

Let us hope that in the case of Syria, Dicken's words so that "it was the winter of despair" truly becomes "it was the spring of hope."