Episodes of mass political violence, conflict or terrorism, ‘natural’ disasters like floods or earthquakes, public health emergencies like epidemics and pandemics, catastrophic accidents like air crashes or chemical leaks are the kinds of events that often invoke the interrelated terms crisis, disaster, emergency or catastrophe. In humanitarian management discourse, these terms are often used interchangeably to mark their difference from ordinary events of disruption, where the difference is often measured in the scale and size of the event. For example, a common way of defining what disasters are is to highlight the scale and magnitude of human, environmental, material loss and societal disruption, which demands management and assistance from a variety of agencies and sources. Similarly, even if their precise definitions can be debated, the terms, emergency or catastrophe tend to indicate a level of episodic magnitude and scale. While all these terms do share some common definitional ground, the term crisis is underlined in this Expertise Note.
Specifically, I focus on another level of implied meaning in the concept of crisis, broadly drawing from its etymological roots that include Krisis - decision, from the Greek root Krinen – to decide. In common lexical archives, this term is associated with medical situations where any condition may have reached a turning point, and a critical judgment and decision is needed to make an intervention. This interpretation of the term crisis can be extended to other areas as well, especially humanitarian contexts, for example, a humanitarian situation can be recognised to have reached a turning point or a threshold of change, where the current mode of action is judged to be irrelevant, and a decision to undertake new response modalities is undertaken. That turning point then is the crisis in that humanitarian context.
Crisis: The term in history
Reinhart Koselleck’s (2006) magisterial historiography of 'Crisis' is a conceptual genealogy of the term since antiquity and an immense archive in which to historically trace the various semantic spheres it has come to occupy in contemporary times. His work provides a range of parameters that applies well to this brief note on the concept of crisis in humanitarian contexts. Briefly, starting from the Greek usage in law, theology, and medicine, Krisis, as mentioned above, was a critical turning point, a moment to decide between “right or wrong, salvation or damnation, life or death” (Koselleck, 2007: 358). These are decisions taken in situations where other differing opinions, arguments or strategies might exist. These juridical, theological, or medical meanings coalesce to produce a distinct sense for the term which has been in use historically and continues to be commonly used in a range of human affairs, including economics or politics.
In these domains, the three terms that capture a core sense of crisis as a concept are “recognition”, “judgment”, and “decision”. In addition to these three, the other parameter important in narrowing down the notion of crisis is time – a point of reference also emphasised by Koselleck. Time, or temporality, would play a role in framing a crisis either as chronic – a critical situation unfolding over a long duration, or, it might refer to a critical moment when a transition from an earlier state of affairs has been recognised, judged or decided. In Koselleck’s terms, an appropriate example of a crisis perhaps could be the September 11, 2001 events in the US. After that event, terrorism was decidedly recognised and judged as a global threat, and no longer considered a matter of local management. Correspondingly, decisions regarding anti-terrorism strategies were adopted across the globe.
If disasters, catastrophes, and emergencies are all complex events that call for formal, organised humanitarian action, the question of what constitutes a humanitarian crisis as different from ‘ordinary’ events of disruption becomes important. The double-sided paradigm drawn from Koselleck’s work, recognition-judgment-decision on one hand and on the other, temporality or time, suggests that in current usage the concept of a humanitarian crisis is not based on any definitive criteria with which to declare any humanitarian event as crisis, as against other ‘routine’ disasters, but rather that such criteria do not exist. The point that is emphasised here is that this lack of any determinate criteria leads to instability and ambiguity of the term crisis in humanitarian contexts and in effect, this lack is related to political motivation and financial intentions that might prevail at any geopolitical juncture.
Considering a humanitarian event as a crisis, through the interpretation outlined here, would imply that the need for a decision and commensurate intervention is recognised and judged. For example, a complex emergency or disaster is recognised and judged as having reached a critical juncture where a decision must be made, stating the situation to be so, such that action can be taken to change the prior program of management. However, in current humanitarian parlance, the meaning ensemble that dominates the concept of crises is not about such thresholds of decision making, but rather long running conditions of need, vulnerability, and risk, which do not have any clear, demarcated temporal points of beginning or ending. These are chronic conditions affecting large populations around the globe in various geopolitical contexts of continuing conflict, material want and poverty, medical vulnerabilities, environmental degradation and so on. These chronic conditions are in fact often exacerbated by other emergencies brought on by further disastrous events of mass disruption.
The current COVID-19 pandemic affecting already existing chronic conditions of vulnerability and need in conflict zones is an example of chronic conditions overlapping with emergency situations. The overlapping conditions that result in such contexts imply human suffering at multiple levels, that cannot be addressed with any single short term emergency measure. Rather, these episodic emergency occurrences bring into focus the long-standing chronic crisis conditions of risk and vulnerability.
What seems to run common through these overlapping classifications in humanitarian discourse is that ongoing events, long term or episodic, occurring in various regions and with differing histories, find human lives in conditions of need and vulnerability that are unacceptable according to normative universal standards. These unacceptable conditions are manifest in arenas of both private and public realms, state practices, legal universes, institutional structures, community responses and individual subjectivities – none of which can be resolved with any single decisive action.
Yet, although these are contexts that occupy separate domains of cause and effect, of accountability and responsibility, there appears to be a common theme that runs through them – they are all variations of crisis contexts. Thus, the term crisis and the historical sense it is meant to carry of a decisive moment which follows recognition and judgment, is now blurred in the humanitarian realm. And instead, crisis is the recognition, the judgment, and the decisive calling of a chronic state of affairs. Given this basic current assumption, any transformative decision-making or action befitting a crisis response will depend not so much on the labelling of a crisis, but on the political will and potential as well as governance, funding and management capacity of responsible agents, local or global.
A brief survey of humanitarian agencies around the globe will show a list of protracted events that are called crisis, for instance – the Democratic Republic of the Congo crisis, the Syrian crisis and of course, the current global medical and public health crisis associated with the COVID-19 virus. Some will list localised overlapping crises depending on their area of jurisdiction. Worldwide media reports too will echo such classifications. In many ways, the term crisis seems to have become normalised and has lost its decisive impact of a turning point and now, it is more about a protracted situation, or a protracted situation overlapping a more immediate or recent one.
In conclusion, to underline the point of political will and motivation, most of these headline crises have not occurred for want of preventive or prognostic knowledge or techniques to minimise risk, vulnerability, and loss. Rather, they occur because of the mismanagement or willful neglect of that knowledge or those techniques. The neglect again is not always a matter of human folly, ineptitude, or systemic failure - it is a result of a particular political economy of discourse and practice that allows certain kinds of events to turn into protracted crises because the kind of recognition, judgment, and decision that a situation demands is not implemented at the right time. And in the ultimate analysis, decisions and strategies of response are less about the nature of the event, and more a consequence of what political motivations exist in any context. Needless to say, there are situations developing around the world which should be labelled a crisis, in any connotation of the term, but they remain invisible, once again, because there is no motivation to call them so. To return to Koselleck’s framing of the concept, crisis now is the crisis of decision making itself.
- Koselleck, Reinhart, 2006. Crisis. Translated by Michaela W. Richter. Journal of the History of Ideas. Vol. 67(2):357- 400
 For example, the Agenda for Humanity aims to address need, risk and vulnerability https://www.unocha.org/about-us/agenda-humanity
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