We generally classify the needs of people into two categories: acute and chronic. While there is a lot of gray area between the two, these two categories help us think in a way that leads us to apply appropriate solutions/strategies to appropriate situations.
Acute needs are centered around saving lives (e.g. search and recovery) right after a catastrophic event (think of emergency response after a major earthquake) as well as establishing basic lifeline needs in the following weeks to months (food, water, shelter, etc.)
In general, acute needs:
- Are those resulting from catastrophic events, such as natural or man-made disasters.
- Are usually time critical (for effective response) and are relatively short-term.
- Require relief strategies (such as food distribution, water, shelter, medical/health care, etc.) to help stabilize people and save lives.
Chronic needs are more of the long-term, deeply ingrained needs within a population. In general, chronic needs:
- Are the result of chronic problems such as poverty, hunger, social injustice, etc.
- Generally require well thought out, long-term strategies.
Whereas a food distribution after a major earthquake is appropriate and helpful, it really doesn’t do much for a community that has lived with generational hunger and poverty. It is nice for that particular day to have food, but the food distribution doesn’t do anything to solve the problems brought about by their chronic situation.
It is a bit simplistic, but we try and evaluate whether a need is acute or chronic when determining what kind of response is appropriate. For instance, the day after a catastrophic disaster, we would be scrambling to supply lifeline needs. We wouldn’t enter a disaster zone and apply a community development process to those injured, dying, or trying to find food and shelter. Conversely, in a community experiencing chronic, generational poverty, we would resist simple hand-out programs that would maybe help a person/community for 24 hours but do nothing to solve the root causes of their problems. It’s not that people in these situations don’t need food. It’s that we need to go deeper and address the issues that are keeping them impoverished and hunger. If we simply “give” things to those in chronic need, it might help make us feel better and might help them today, but it does nothing to change their situation.
A common mistake in the development world is applying “good” solutions and strategies to the wrong type of need. It is true that in many situations, the break between acute and chronic needs are not that clear. Also, we know for a fact that poverty and existing chronic conditions are complicated and compounded by disaster events (and vice-versa). So, how do we know what is the appropriate response in the particular situation.
I have adapted a chart from When Helping Hurts (Corbett and Fikkert) that illustrates what I’m talking about. This shows that we should choose our relief/development approaches according to the target group with whom we are aiming to work.