One Question Quiz
Oxfam humanitarian staff deliver water to shelters in Aleppo, Syria.
Oxfam humanitarian staff deliver water to shelters in Aleppo, Syria. (Image: Islam Mardini/ Oxfam, additional design by Archi Banal)

SocietyFebruary 23, 2023

How international charities are responding to the Turkey-Syria earthquake

Oxfam humanitarian staff deliver water to shelters in Aleppo, Syria.
Oxfam humanitarian staff deliver water to shelters in Aleppo, Syria. (Image: Islam Mardini/ Oxfam, additional design by Archi Banal)

The devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria means millions of people need help now, but will also be rebuilding for years to come. What’s the role of New Zealand charities in both the short and long term?

“We were shaking and we were so scared. I thought this was my last day. When I looked at the walls, I felt like they were moving towards me,” Ali, a father of four from Gaziantep in Turkey, told Oxfam, following the February 6 earthquake. “”It was such a bitter day. I hope we never experience this ever again.” The initial earthquake, a magnitude of 7.8, was followed by strong, deadly aftershocks; there are nearly 50,000 confirmed deaths in Turkey and Syria. 

Turkey and Syria are thousands of kilometres from New Zealand. But money is one way to bridge this distance: already, donations are flowing through international humanitarian charities like Oxfam and the Red Cross to provide assistance to people who have been affected. How do these organisations decide what kinds of help to offer? And how do the actions of charities and media in disasters shape perceptions of other parts of the world?

The earthquake was so deadly, in part, because some of the buildings in Turkey, where strong earthquakes are common, were not constructed to building codes; amid the grief and chaos, arrest warrants have already been granted related to building construction. In Syria, following a decade of civil war, infrastructure is weak, and the country is already dealing with millions of internally displaced people and refugees. There are only a few border crossings between Turkey and Syria, which makes the logistics of delivering aid particularly hard. “People are resorting to living in tents or cars in sub-zero temperatures – it’s a really, really difficult situation,” says Viv Euini, director of international operations at the New Zealand Red Cross. 

“In a humanitarian situation, the needs are different,” says Carlos Calderon, a humanitarian specialist who works for Oxfam New Zealand. “Some people might have lost their cattle, some people have lost a roof, someone else can no longer afford to send their kids to a school. By giving cash, you ensure that these families can get what they need.” Sometimes though, if infrastructure and systems have been so damaged that local shops aren’t open, providing other kinds of help, like food, water, and shelter, is the best way to support people who have lost their homes and loved ones. 

A local man carries water bottles as he passes by a collapsed building on February 7, 2023 in Elbistan Turkey. (Photo: Mehmet Kacmaz/Getty Images)

“There are 5,000 staff and volunteers working on the ground in ten provinces of Turkey,” says Euini. As an international movement, the International Committee of the Red Cross coordinates sending delegates from Red Cross and Red Crescent groups around the world to the site of a disaster; New Zealand’s first delegate left last week. Already, Red Crescent members in Turkey and Syria have distributed millions of hot meals and bottles of water. 

It’s through these local networks of aid workers that the Red Cross decides what kinds of help to give. “They tell us what’s needed, and the rest of us are in collaboration to meet that need,” Euini says. It’s an enormous logistics effort. Because the Red Cross is operating in an area where it’s hard for communication to get through, they run a Missing Family Links service that can help connect whānau members in New Zealand who want to contact their loved ones.  

To Oxfam, building relationships with local NGOs is the best way to prepare for disaster. They particularly focus on working with women, Calderon says, because “at the household level, women are the drivers of change.” This means that people who know a place well are able to respond to a disaster, rather than sending foreigners without the ability to speak the local language or know the context. Working to strengthen our social connections is a huge asset which helps us respond to a disaster,” Calderon says. “What we’re good at is where we have a longstanding presence.” 

sunlight and the ends of two beds with a grey blue skky and bedding between two pillars, covered with plastic sheets and marked with Arabic writing
Families from Aleppo, escaped their homes when their buildings cracked by the 7.7 magnitude earthquake that hit Syria on 6 February, and are now staying in a cemetery in Al-Salheen of Aleppo. (Image: Islam Mardini/ Oxfam)

For international humanitarian organisations a disaster usually sparks an influx of cash. Phil Fountain, a lecturer in religious studies at Te Herenga Waka who researches international humanitarian charities, says that a large portion of charity’s money from the public is given in the days immediately following a disaster. 

Public donations come with an expectation “that [the charity] will provide an immediate response that will be worthwhile and effective,” Fountain says, but figuring out how to translate financial resources into something useful is different in every situation. 

“There’s this question in the background – will your intervention be of help? And how can you be sure of that?” he says. People who work in humanitarian organisations must turn a tragedy into an effort of logistics, trying to use their resources in the most helpful way possible. 

While an earthquake is an acute natural event, Fountain says, the impact is shaped by human factors. Realities like poverty, lack of healthcare, and poor infrastructure inevitably exacerbate natural disasters, too; an earthquake in Syria, decimated by civil war, is inevitably more deadly and more difficult to recover from, than an earthquake in New Zealand, where the government and infrastructure are much more resilient.

Part of the reason that it’s harder to understand something that is always happening as a disaster is to do with how it looks. “An earthquake, a cyclone – you’re left with visual material that compels interest,” Fountain says. “The sharper the event, the more precisely located the event, it transmits powerfully.” 

Less impactful, he says, are the  “everyday disasters: the disaster of malaria, which kills millions of people, the disaster of malnourishment. But these are slow-burning disasters that tend not to rise to the top of a news cycle.”

Shaping how disasters are portrayed to the world

That background disasters are literally harder to see is something that Oxfam’s Calderon has thought hard about. “We want to show people with dignity, show people thriving,” he says, excoriating imagery of “kids showing their ribs” which some charities use to solicit donations. Following the Turkey-Syria earthquake, Oxfam has used images of collapsed buildings, but is careful not to show images of suffering victims, broadcasting someone’s worst moments to the world. Instead, on social media and in communications with donors, they’ve shown people delivering water, showing how help happens. 

The imagery is important, because it helps to imagine people in distant places with empathy and responsibility. “Syria has been enormously present in our media cycle, so New Zealanders have a view about what Syria is, what its problems and its crisis are.” After seeing images of bombed buildings and distraught people in Syria for years, the images of the earthquake slot easily into pre-existing ideas of what kind of place Syria is; a place of distress and disaster. Turkey is a bit different, Fountain says; it’s the kind of place where people you know might go on holiday, but still foreign enough that a disaster there isn’t unexpected. 

“With each disaster, there’s a script that rolls out,” says Fountain. Some of the set pieces in the Turkey-Syria earthquake are already clear: Syria’s compound disasters of war and earthquakes and cholera, Turkey’s unenforced building code and slow government response. Other aspects are ignored; Fountain notes that the role of religion in Turkey and Syria as predominantly Muslim countries has been largely bypassed by English language media. 

How these narratives are formed – how people in Aotearoa experience a sense of responsibility or empathy towards victims of this faraway disaster – has a direct impact on the finances received by charities. “I want our supporters to understand that the people we’re helping are not just recipients, extending their hands to receive,” Calderon says. Earthquake victims are not abstract, suffering others; they’re active members of their own community, they are doing what they can, and resources from elsewhere can help them to rebuild the place they belong to. 

A man searches the collapsed building to hear a sound from his loved ones in Hatay, Turkey. The quakes caused widespread destruction in southern Turkey and northern Syria and were felt in nearby countries. (Photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images)

When the world’s attention falters

Eventually, the headlines creep lower down the website front pages, and the cameras and journalists go home. But after destruction of this scale, fading novelty doesn’t diminish the long term work of rebuilding and repairing. “This is going to take years,” says Euini. While the Red Cross focuses on disaster response, they also want to develop long term reliance. 

Oxfam wants to strengthen communities to respond to problems around them. Just like working to economically empower groups of women can create long-term change for families, Oxfam sees the Turkey-Syria earthquake as a moment to support better infrastructure. In Turkey, for instance, Calderon hopes that Oxfam’s partners can work with municipalities to fix water pumps, ensuring that everyone has access to clean water. In Syria, where conditions are more difficult, they want to bring in tankers for whole communities to use, not just offer plastic bottles of water. 

This focus on the long term is why Oxfam is so focused on the causes of poverty, a huge determinant of recovery after disaster. Oxfam’s Davos report, released each year to coincide with the World Economic Forum meeting in Switzerland, emphasises the enormous wealth inequality that allows the global rich to buy superyachts and avoid taxes. This year’s report, titled “Survival of the Richest”, noted that 63% of all new wealth created since the start of 2021 went to the 1% of richest people in the world, with relatively little of that taxed. 

Poverty makes it hard to prepare for disaster, Calderon points out. “When you don’t have enough income to know if you’ll have enough nutrients tomorrow or not, how to build your home safely is really the second order of priority.” 

And while it’s worth thinking about structural questions of the reality of global inequality and the role charities have to play in supporting places in need, there’s the simple reality that the Turkey-Syria earthquake is an enormous tragedy. “It’s death and destruction at a mass scale,” says Fountain. “There’s a huge amount of work to be done under impossible conditions.”

Keep going!