Crunch time for global humanitarianism – funding can’t keep up with need, so what else is needed?

June 18, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

Ed Cairns, Oxfam’s senior policy adviser on humanitarian advocacy, reviews the latest overview of global humanitarian aid.

[Update: in response to readers’ comments, I’ve stuck up a very retrogressive humanitarian v long term aid poll to the right – please hold your nose and vote]EdCairns

This year’s Global Humanitarian Assistance report highlights some startling figures. For years these reports from the Development Initiatives stable have been the go-to guides on the numbers around humanitarian funding. But recording the sometimes small changes from year to year hasn’t always grabbed headlines. Private contributions to humanitarian aid, for instance, increased from $5.4 billion in 2013 to $5.8 billion in 2014.

But the new 2015 report comes up with some more striking numbers. 93% of people in extreme poverty (below $1.25 a day) live in countries that are either politically fragile or environmentally vulnerable, or both. That is a startling reminder of, as the authors say, ‘the need to address poverty, vulnerability, risk and crisis together’ – or to put it another way, to tackle the causes as well as the consequences of humanitarian crises.

Figure 1.6Which makes it all the more tragic that the world spent more money on humanitarian aid in 2014 than ever before – up 19% to $24.5 billion– while doing a pretty terrible job of stemming the rising tide of disasters and conflicts. OK on cure; massive fail on prevention.

A few weeks ago, a large group of NGOs condemned governments around the world for Failing Syria. But it’s worse than that really. What crisis or failed state has international diplomacy successfully resolved recently? South Sudan? Yemen? Ukraine? I don’t think so.

And Vanuatu’s President had a good point when he said that climate change had contributed to the death and destruction that Cyclone Pam wrought on his Pacific island nation in March.

In the face of that, record humanitarian aid is obviously needed; and some readers will look at the Global Humanitarian Assistance report and mildly rejoice. In the age of austerity, it is pretty amazing that the world’s humanitarian spending increased by a fifth in 2014. The OECD countries that still give the vast majority of government donations – $16.8 of the $18.7 billion – gave $2.5 billion more in 2014 than the previous year. But governments in the Gulf more than doubled their funding to reach $1.7 billion; and Turkey was the 3rd most generous government in the world if you count the $1.6 billion it spent on hosting Syrian refugees in 2013. Only the US and the UK gave more humanitarian aid.

But this new report has far less comforting figures too; 2014 was a record year also for the $7.5 billion that was not given to Figure 3.2address the highest level of unmet needs ever recorded in UN appeals. No-one pretends that UN appeals are incredibly reliable measurements of human need; but such shortfalls in funding can still have devastating consequences. At the end of last year, the World Food Programme had to suspend food aid to 1.7m Syrian refugees when it ran out of money, and was only able to reinstate its assistance after it raised millions of dollars through social media.

It was always thus, some might say, and the annual Global Humanitarian Assistance reports have always told the story of the gap between what is needed and paid for – or perhaps more fairly, how rising aid has been outpaced by increasing need.  And this year’s report tells that story pretty bluntly with this final stat: 107.3 million people were affected by disasters caused by natural hazards in 2014, which is an increase of 10.7 million people in only one year.  (Watch out for the latest figures of those fleeing conflict – from UNHCR to mark World Refugee Day this Saturday.)

The unprecedented ‘hole’ in humanitarian financing that this new report reveals should be an impetus to find new and more effective ways to fund humanitarian action, and the UN Secretary-General has a High Level Panel exploring those, to report in November. But it should also be an impetus to do more to address the causes as well as the consequences of humanitarian crises – which is a subject I’ll come back to when Oxfam publishes its paper for next year’s World Humanitarian Summit in a few weeks time.

And here’s the mind-blowing exec sum infographic. Really hope you’re not trying to read this on your phone ……

GHA Exec summary


Update: Makarand and Paul have gone head to head in the comments section on whether a bigger slice of aid should go to humanitarian response. So I thought I’d invite other readers to vote. Here’s the question:

Humanitarian aid currently accounts for 13% of total official aid from traditional (DAC) donors. In your view should it

a) increase to a greater % of overall aid

b) stay at about that level

c) be a smaller % of overall aid

d) I would like to take the wimpy way out and say that overall aid levels should increase, including both humanitarian and other forms

and yes, you can vote for more than one (but no more than 2 – that wd be weird).

(Caveat: For those like Makarand who want to overcome the unhelpful polarization of humanitarian v development aid, let’s assume that both humanitarian AND development aid should do more to reduce the risk of future disasters.)