17/07/2013 08:30 BST | Updated 15/09/2013 06:12 BST

The Humanitarian Blind Spot

The concept of the diversity of a population seems obvious when we think about it. The diversity of our own society is well recognised by policy makers and service delivers alike, and the public debate recognises that men and women of different ages have different needs, and are affected by events and changes in society differently. However, the evidence suggests that within humanitarian policy and programmes diversity is not well understood or applied.

Our research into emergencies in the developed and developing world shows that older people are particularly affected by a system-wide "blind spot" when it comes to identifying and addressing their needs in emergencies. For example, in Japan where older people account for 23% of the population, 128 older people were found in a hospital near Futaba, just 10km from Fukushima power plant, having been abandoned by medical staff. While in the wake of hurricane Katrina in the United States, older people who were unable to leave their homes faced grave risks as their carers fled the city. In both emergencies older people accounted for a disproportionate number of those killed: 64.4% and 40% respectively.

Humanitarian actors are committed to a set of principles designed to ensure that lifesaving assistance reaches those who need it most. The humanitarian principle of impartiality demands that assistance is provided to all regardless of their gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion or political affiliation. However, a growing body of evidence shows that in many cases humanitarian actors do not understand the demographic make-up of affected populations, and are unable to design responses which address those most in need. In fact, many of today's responses appear almost as automatic reflexes, producing a standardised set of activities, paying little heed to the needs of the population.

The current response to the Syrian Refugee crisis clearly illustrates these challenges. While access to data from Syria is majorly restricted due to the on-going conflict, two years into the response we know very little about the demographic make-up of the refugee population. In Jordan, for example, whilst data on the gender and age of the affected population is available for registered refugees (it tells us that currently approximately 3% of the refugee population is aged 60 or over), and some limited health data can be found for refugees living in camps, almost nothing is known about the number or needs of the majority of refugees who do not live in camps.

A new study by HelpAge International on the financing of humanitarian operations, published today, contributes further evidence to this picture of a system struggling to address the diversity of populations affected by disaster. The research analysed 2,803 project submitted to UN managed Consolidated Appeals in 20 countries to assess the degree to which the projects considered and addressed the needs of two age groups - older people and children under 5. The two groups combined are likely to constitute around a third of a population, both have specific needs in emergencies related to their age, and both are potentially highly vulnerable.

In 2012, only 60 projects (2.1 per cent) included at least one activity targeting older people, and 30 of these (1 per cent) were funded. Similarly, and against expectation, the findings for children under five are equally poor. 111 projects (3.9 per cent of all projects analysed in 2012) included at least one activity targeting children under five, and 65 were funded (2.3 per cent). Given traditional media interest in the fate of children caught up in emergencies, the prominence of child rights organisations within the humanitarian community and what were thought to be well established humanitarian practices it's surprising to see that responses to children under five are not better represented.

While the overall findings are stark and eye-opening, the country level analysis highlights a yet further layer of neglect of the diversity of populations needs. In 2012, eight country appeals did not include any project in any sectors targeting older people - and four of them failed to reflect the specific needs of older people for the second year in a row. While in the case of children under five no projects were submitted in just two countries, Yemen or Haiti.

Overall, the finding contribute to a growing body of evidence which paints a picture of a humanitarian response system as one that, in breach of the humanitarian principle of impartiality, is incapable of delivering assistance solely according to the diverse needs of the affected population.