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Opinion | Let’s end this competition of misery

(Bill Koplitz/FEMA)

Reader, answer me this: what is the world’s worst crisis? Yemen? Syria? The Democratic Republic of Congo? South Sudan?


That question may not be any easier to answer even if there are accompanying descriptors: the worst famine since the Second World War;  the worst refugee crisis since Rwanda; the worst humanitarian crisis in 50 years.


If you had been in Geneva the week of 2-9 April, you might have plumped for Yemen, a recent contender for the title of the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis” or, as the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, announced in its pitch to donors, “the worst man-made humanitarian crisis in the world”. The donor conference on 3 April received pledges of more than $2 billion, which UN Secretary-General António Guterres called a ‘remarkable success’.


In invoking searing historical moments such as the Rwandan genocide or even the Second World War (and, implicitly, Nazi atrocities), UN agencies, humanitarian NGOs, donor governments, and the media aim to shock when they make public announcements. They attempt to convey urgency and significance, to make crises relatable, to provide a frame of reference. By doing so, they hope to galvanise their audiences to action, to unlock both financial and political capital to be applied to desperate situations.


But this sort of language, these reductive statements, also simplify complex, difficult crises. They turn them into contests of superlatives, into a competition of misery. Ultimately, we are reduced to compiling a hierarchy of priorities, one that is determined by outsiders. Which situation is more deserving of the attention of the rich and privileged than another? Put more starkly: which set of humans is more deserving of our finite attention and goodwill?


We are all guilty of such comparative shorthand every day, in every walk of life. Messi is the greatest football player since Pele. The MRI is the greatest advance in medicine since the invention of penicillin. The discovery of the Higgs Boson particle is the most significant advance in physics since Einstein’s general theory of relativity. This is the worst flu season since 2008. Last week saw the worst winter snowstorm since 1993. That car crash is the worst I’ve ever seen.


Superlatives in knowledge, in theory, in science, in sport serve to commend and congratulate. In practice they are, at worst, lazy and uncreative figures of speech. In the abstract, in an attempt to objectively evaluate knowledge, comparatives may help illuminate and articulate an arc of progression.


For weather and traffic, the fatuousness of inappropriate comparisons don’t matter much. But as human as it may be to compare, when it comes to comparing human crises of such scale and profundity, relative placements only dehumanise and legitimise the competition of suffering. Consider the words of US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley to an audience at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in November 2017, commenting on a recent trip to Gambella, Ethiopia: “I had been to refugee camps before, for Syrian refugees in Jordan and Turkey. But the South Sudanese refugees live in conditions that make the camps in Jordan and Turkey look like luxury resorts.”


Surely Haley didn’t mean to suggest that the millions of Syrian refugees are actually living in luxury, or that any sort of competitive assessment of refugee camps in vastly different circumstances is appropriate. To be charitable, it is the sort of throwaway statement that looks worse in the sober light of a second reading, long after the speech was given.


Sometimes, though, such language has a more insidious – if not always intentional – effect. It can suggest that today’s crises are, to some extent, beyond politics. By recalling humanity’s periods of greatest horror, we can imply that today’s problems are too immense to be solved, that they can only be soothed or mollified. Yet how can that be, when in every crisis, diplomats and analysts agree that the only solutions are political? As Guterres said last week about Yemen: “There was never a humanitarian solution for any humanitarian crisis…The solution has always been political.”


Yet in those same remarks, Guterres said: “We all know who the parties [are] to the war but the two things [humanitarian commitments and military actions] need to be seen separately, independently of the fact that there is a war.” Certainly, the secretary-general is intelligent enough to see the contradictions in his own statements, the cognitive dissonance that is required to maintain political capital with important countries that won’t change policy just because they are asked.


I don’t have a satisfactory solution to our limitations of language, other than to return to the singularity of a crisis, the importance of valuing and humanising suffering and conflict for what it is; not what it might best resemble or compete with. If our interventions, positive or otherwise, are always political, and the solutions are necessarily political, let us do more than continually evaluate and re-order the hierarchy of suffering. Let’s end the competition of misery.

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