Covering Protracted Emergencies: Fighting Fatigue as a Crisis Continues

6 min readApr 7, 2023
Newly arrived IDPs sit at a WFP nutrition centre in, Nigeria. Photo: World Food Programme / Arete

The one-year anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine brought the crisis back to the forefront of public attention. But even in the case of Europe’s worst war since 1945, levels of public interest are limited.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, many feared a swift and decisive Russian victory. Instead, the protracted brutality that has unfolded has meant that many people around the world experience ‘compassion fatigue’, and the emergency falls down the news agenda. This is a familiar pattern for prolonged emergencies, and one that particularly applies to regions that have histories of conflict, poverty, and hunger.

Arete, the expert storytelling agency for NGOs, charities, and UN bodies, has built a reputation for going into places that others avoid. This doesn’t just mean entering the fold when a crisis explodes and attention is at its peak; our work is just as important when creative solutions are required to maintain interest. Arete’s consultants are experts in finding innovative ways to reengage people, reframing protracted emergencies with new angles — capturing and presenting high quality content that helps keep vital attention and life-saving funds and services flowing to the places that need it most.

With a protracted global hunger crisis, and multiple long-term conflicts, compassion fatigue is a major concern for charities and NGOs. There is no better time to look at some of the methods we have employed to fight fatigue and generate attention.

Reframing The Story

“If we are compassion fatigued, reconnecting with ourselves and others can help us to heal.”

Vidette Todaro-Franceschi, PhD

Farah Bare Aboko, Head of Projects, poses for a photograph in Somaliland. Through Dutch government funding, FAO is helping rural communities in conflict-affected regions to build resilient livelihoods and food systems through a multi-year livelihood and resilience-based approach. To enhance inclusive access and management of natural resources, FAO is working with local community leaders and local and regional authorities to establish peacebuilding and conflict resolution mechanisms.
Photo: FAO / Arete

From the World Food Programme:

‘Somalia faces catastrophic hunger, with the country devastated by the extreme drought in the Horn of Africa. A total of 6.5 million people face acute food insecurity amid the driest conditions in 40 years, following five consecutive failed rainy seasons…

In the face of this crisis, WFP expanded its emergency food and nutrition response to reach a record number of over 4 million people by the end of February. However, a funding of US$407 million for life-saving programmes means that WFP will struggle to sustain this scale-up. The gap between hunger and the humanitarian response is widening. Immediate action is needed to avert a humanitarian catastrophe’.

For many onlookers, the devastating hunger crisis that grips the region lacks the newness and urgency required to feel like an emergency.

“The main reason why there’s a donor fatigue is because, as you can imagine, Somalia has been receiving humanitarian assistance for over three decades now and the situation has not been changing.”

Mohamed Abdi, Country Director for the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Arete has been working in the region with both the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. One way we have worked to combat fatigue is by returning stories to the level of the individual and the family unit to appeal to a sense of universal humanity among audiences. While large-scale statistics are powerful, particularly as crises emerge, they cannot convey a full sense of the human cost. And as compassion fatigue sets in, highlighting issues in a more relatable way, on an individual level, can spark a process of “reconnecting with ourselves and others”.

Personal success stories change the conversation and reshape perceptions around beneficiaries.

Focusing on long-term solutions and self-sustainability is especially important for protracted emergencies — demonstrating to supporters that their donations can make real progress towards a brighter future. Success stories present an opportunity to counter the sense of hopelessness that can lead to compassion fatigue.

Creative Storytelling

The emotive power of some more traditional methods of humanitarian content creation can lose its potency over time, especially if content is not varied in its presentation. Arete utilizes a diverse network of photographers, journalists, videographers, animators, and other creators to blend methods of storytelling, making content highly engaging and effective at communicating key information.

Nigeria is another of the worst-affected countries currently stricken by widespread hunger. The video above was created by Arete for the World Food Programme. Using the metaphor of slices (of food), conveyed through animation, it provides a visual representation of contributing factors, emphasising the complexity and uniqueness of the current situation in an unusual and memorable way.

Drawing Parallels

“You need to think outside the box. It may be the best way is to juxtapose or make parallels between the forgotten crisis with the ‘more current’ crisis to point towards the people in the world that have been forgotten.”

Jonathan Clayton, Arete journalist and veteran foreign correspondent.

At a time like this, when there are countless concurrent crises, appealing to a sense of global citizenship can be highly effective. While the war Ukraine has attracted a huge amount of global aid, sometimes at the expense of other emergencies, it has also been used to draw attention to them by drawing parallels or making thematic links.

“For instance… ‘what is it like when your neighbours turn on you’ (like Russia and Ukraine) — along with applicable stories where tribalism is a key driver of violence.”

Jonathan Clayton

Parallels like this have been used to bring attention back to other war-torn nations such as Yemen and Afghanistan. And, as the war in Ukraine is a central factor in the global hunger crisis, harnessing widespread opposition to the conflict is another way to draw attention to a unifying truth — that the world’s crises are intrinsically linked and equally important.

Expanding The Audience

As a crisis is prolonged, it often becomes more complex, and a broader picture of its effects can emerge. This can present opportunities to tell more varied and interesting stories. Emergencies are always multifaceted, and there are almost limitless angles for content to take.

Relating an emergency to a wider theme can draw wider support. For example, Arete created content for multiple clients for International Women’s Day:

Strategically engaging different demographics with timely content can provide access to a more diverse audience of supporters.

Even without a specific demographic in mind, zooming in on different aspects of a crisis will naturally capture the imagination of different people. Arete has consistently covered the Ukrainian crisis since the escalation last year, moving from top level communications for the immediate Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) Appeal, to more detailed stories about DEC member charities and volunteers:

Since the release of this video 9 months ago, Arete content has been used in multiple mainstream news publications featuring Father Vitaly Novak and his work for DEC member charity Depaul. Telling the stories of inspirational figures like Father Vitaly recaptures the imagination and motivates supporters to rally behind those who lead by example.

Similarly, reaching people who are not regularly exposed to humanitarian campaigns can provide a fresh audience, free from fatigue — encouraging a new set of people sit up and listen.

One way to do this is by using celebrity ambassadors, exemplified by the above video featuring actor Dominic West, which Arete produced in collaboration with the World Food Programme.

A holistic and varied approach to content creation can secure continued exposure for a protracted emergency. This requires a stream of fresh ideas and the flexibility to adapt to compassion fatigue, along with the ability to move quickly to react to opportunities and changing situations. During the decade that we have been active, Arete has been involved in every kind of humanitarian campaign. And while we always hope that emergencies will find swift resolutions, we are fully prepared to stand by the people affected for as long as we are needed — dedicating our experience and creativity to finding new ways to tell their stories and make a difference.

Our award-winning journalists, photographers and content providers are eager to help you make a difference.

Contact us to find out how we can tailor our expertise to meet your needs.




Arete is the expert storytelling and training agency for NGOs, UN bodies and foundations.