This paper, a draft from the early stages of an ongoing UNU/WIDER research project, outlines hypotheses for the economic cause of humanitarian disasters. Complex humanitarian emergencies are considered to be man-made crises, in which large numbers of people die and suffer from war, physical violence, disease, hunger, or displacement. The study identifies four sets of economic factors responsible for emergencies: stagnation and protracted decline in incomes, unequal or immiserizing growth, rapid population growth during substantial environmental degradation and resource depletion, and large and abrupt shifts in income and wealth distribution during adjustment and liberalization programmes. The strategies of elites to maintain or expand power and benefits, in the midst of adverse economic changes and mass reaction to these changes, are instrumental in determining the potential for humanitarian disasters. A goal of the paper is to discuss, in a preliminary way, cases that fit an economic model of the causes of emergencies, setting the stage for further case studies to test how much we can generalize on the hypotheses and examples from this paper.