12/29/2014 06:14 EST | Updated 02/28/2015 05:59 EST

Small Glimpses of Humanity In a Year of Large and Daunting Crises

The number of major crises taking place around the globe this past year has been unparalleled in recent history. In fact, 2014 often seemed filled with intractable emergencies that were simply too big, too complex and too daunting to fathom, let alone solve. This felt particularly true when it came to humanitarian action.

Photograph © Martin Zinggl/MSF

The number of major crises taking place around the globe this past year has been unparalleled in recent history. In fact, 2014 often seemed filled with intractable emergencies that were simply too big, too complex and too daunting to fathom, let alone solve.

This felt particularly true when it came to humanitarian action. Many of the places where Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) works to provide medical care were affected by wide-scale trauma and seemingly unending suffering this year, and MSF's teams were often pushed to the limit in their efforts to respond. But thanks to the perseverance of our people on the ground, and their dedication to the task of saving one life at a time, challenges were overcome, stubbornly small successes were won and glimpses of humanity shone through where hope seemed to have been lost.

Unfortunately, many of 2014's worst crises were made more deadly by the international community's frequent dithering and its willingness at times to silently look the other way. From civil conflicts in Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan to the ongoing catastrophe in Syria to the disastrous Ebola epidemic in West Africa, some of the most grievous emergencies we faced were marked by delayed and insufficient international response -- and were made more unmanageable as a result.

Violence made worse by inaction

In CAR, for example, 2014 is ending much as it began: beset by ongoing cycles of bloodshed that have killed thousands, uprooted a quarter of the population and largely emptied the country of its once-numerous Muslim population, pushing the nation to the brink of collapse. CAR continues to teeter on the knife-edge of full-scale humanitarian disaster, overcome by ongoing inter-communal violence that has so far resisted all efforts to be contained. With every passing day, the situation seems more irreversible, if only because the country is a humanitarian desert: While CAR's tragedy has played out in full view, few international actors have established a significant presence on the ground to try to alleviate the worst of the crisis, and much of the world's response has been a series of half measures rather than full commitments. As a result, the situation is growing dire, and time is running short to try to put the broken pieces back together.

Photograph © Jacob Zocherman

A similar dynamic has played itself out in South Sudan. There, too, a bleak one-year anniversary is taking place, and to look back at the severe violence, displacement and human suffering that followed last December's explosion of sectarian conflict is to see the price the disenfranchised must pay for the world's ineffective response to difficult emergencies. While it cannot be said that the international community stood idly by while South Sudan spiralled into greater chaos throughout 2014 -- many aid organizations have been present and able to save lives, though only in those areas they can actually reach -- the needs remain almost incomprehensibly enormous, and the scale of the misery faced by the people of South Sudan continues to grow.

Without sustained attention from the international community and a willingness to begin the work of ending the country's ruinous stalemate by the South Sudanese belligerents themselves, the year ahead is unlikely to bring the misery to an end. Increased resolve is urgently required, but there is a foreboding wind of donor and political fatigue setting in, and a hardening of the protagonists' positions. Yet efforts to mitigate the dreadful human impact of the South Sudanese crisis is an essential act, one that despite the bleak portrait above must be maintained and sustained -- because failure to do so will only propagate misery and make the task of responding to the suffering even harder.

Nowhere are the effects of inaction more glaringly obvious or deeply worrisome than in Syria. After four years of bloody conflict and an equal amount of international equivocation in response, the embattled remains of that country will almost certainly remain host to the world's largest humanitarian disaster next year. Hundreds of thousands have been killed thus far, and intense trauma has been inflicted on countless more; waves of people have been displaced by violence, and the entire region has been destabilized as conflict and chaos have spread to Iraq, Lebanon and beyond. Even some of the few sustained aid efforts to address the human fallout of the Syrian crisis have at times seemed destined to fail: Not long ago, the United Nations' World Food Program announced that funding shortfalls would force it to cancel food assistance for some two million refugees of the Syrian conflict, just as winter was set to begin.

Photograph © Alessandro Penso/Magnum Foundation

Signs of hope and humanity

But while this last item could have been treated as simply another sad demonstration of the futility of trying to do anything about something as complex as Syria, something in fact a little bit different happened: A fundraising call was launched and citizens and private donors answered, unwilling to let the food assistance fail. The shortfall was addressed and the WFP's distributions have now resumed. That means nearly two million people are less at risk this winter -- and shows that just because a crisis is daunting in size and scope, with empathy, determination and action, steps can always be taken to address it.

That same truth comes to light when we consider one of the most defining humanitarian crises of 2014, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. In many ways, of course, Ebola represents an outrageous example of inaction in the face of human catastrophe: As the disease claimed ever more lives through the spring and summer, the world for the most part looked the other way or even abandoned the region altogether. It wasn't until people in more developed countries suddenly saw themselves as possibly being at risk that international attention really turned to the disease, and the response at that point was still slow and inadequate. Even now, after many governments have finally started to treat the crisis seriously and begun sharing their expertise and resources, we are still facing a staggering number of Ebola cases in West Africa -- but we are also barely beginning to see how we can bend the curve of epidemic transmission.

Photograph © Ton Koene

Remembering Our Compassion and Our Ability to Make a Difference

In 2015, we will need to redouble international efforts against Ebola in order to face the remaining challenges, but make no mistake: Differences are beginning to be made. Case numbers have gone down in some places -- most notably in Liberia, where there has been a significant increase in international presence in recent weeks -- and some care centres have been able to close altogether. There is some light at the end of the tunnel for the Ebola crisis, and while getting there will not be easy nor even guaranteed, we at least know that with a determined and collective response -- with willingness and compassion -- we as members of the international community are capable of responding to the world's epic crises and to make a critical difference when we decide to do so.

The world in 2015 will not immediately look that much different than it did in the preceding year. The crises listed above will still loom over us, as will the many others that continue to vie for our attention -- from instability in the Ukraine and brutal conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo to wider unrest in Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond.

But no matter how daunting and overwhelming this seemingly endless array of crises may be, allowing ourselves to be paralyzed by inaction is not the answer.

Because whatever large-scale emergencies we face, the differences we make will always be measured first on the smaller scale of individual human lives. We may not be able to solve the myriad complex issues we hear about every day, but we can address the challenges faced by those people who suffer under their impact. Through empathy and a commitment to struggle together with those affected by crisis, the seeds of large solutions can begin to bud, holding promise of solutions and resolutions that otherwise could not have been foreseen.

As we look back at the difficult year that has just passed, and turn to face the challenges of the year to come, it's important not to lose our resolve; we must continue to work at saving one life at a time -- and to see the value in doing so. If we allow ourselves to be guided by our compassion and humanity ahead of our fear and despair, we can continue making lifesaving differences the world over.