How can INGOs improve their work in fragile and conflict states?

July 20, 2012

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July 20, 2012

Global Humanitarian Assistance 2012 – what are the emerging trends?

July 20, 2012
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Ed Cairns (right), Oxfam’s senior policy adviser on humanitarian advocacy, reviews the new 2012 Global Humanitarian Assistance Ed Cairns(GHA) report, released yesterday 

Like all landmark reports, the GHA’s greatest value is not really in what it says about the year under review. It’s what it reveals about the longer-term trends facing the humanitarian world.

This is particularly true with GHA 2012, which would be horribly easy to misread – and hence celebrate 2011 as the year when humanitarian crises ‘returned to normal’ after the megadisasters of the previous year. To some extent, of course, that is true. 2011 saw no Haiti earthquake, and floods in Pakistan that were less severe and very much less reported. Partly as a result, the year’s UN appeals sought $2 billion less than in 2010.

But what’s most interesting is not what’s changing from one year to the next. It’s what’s changing in the medium-term as donors cut budgets – and in the long-term as needs continue, and probably increase.

Last month the 2012 DATA report on total aid spending (not just humanitarian) showed how the crisis in the Eurozone has driven cuts in aid. When it comes to humanitarian funds, it’s no surprise to find the biggest cuts in the countries at the heart of the crisis. GHA 2012 shows the largest reductions in humanitarian spending between 2008 and 2010 from, among others, Italy, Spain, Ireland, Greece and the EU’s own institutions.

Will those cuts deepen as the Eurozone struggles on? Who knows? But they sit uncomfortably beside the humanitarian needs we already face in semi-permanent crises, and – in the long-term – the rising number of people exposed to disasters. Late last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that, even without climate change, the risk from disasters will increase in many countries as more people are exposed to extreme weather. And Oxfam’s own research shows that, where records are available, reported weather-related disasters in developing countries have already increased by 233 per cent since 1980. At the same time, few of the top recipients of humanitarian aid – like Sudan and Afghanistan – seem to have very good prospects of sustainable peace.

GHA 2012 reminds us how difficult it is to assess the scale of even current crises. And any projections into the future are fraught with uncertainty. But as one of my colleagues in Oxfam put it a couple of years ago, when pondering the impact that climate change will continue to have, “it doesn’t look good”.

The answer is not just more humanitarian aid – though that is desperately needed. And GHA 2012’s most arresting statistic is that last year saw the biggest shortfall – 38 per cent – in UN appeals for a decade.

Any solution must include far more investment in resilience than today’s still small amounts, and in the capacity of states and civil society to prepare and respond to disasters.

A greater and greater proportion of humanitarian action is likely to come from within developing countries themselves. And if the report’s most telling statistic is that 38 per cent shortfall, its most telling comment is Judith Randel’s call in the Foreword for better data on that domestic assistance.

That must be a big priority for the future. The GHA reports are already an invaluable resource for everyone involved in humanitarian action. So far, their focus has inevitably been on international aid, rather than global or total humanitarian aid, and the difficulties of collecting data on national responses are obvious. But it would be wonderful to think that the GHA of, say, 2015 will be able to say much more about that domestic action.

Till then, GHA 2012 is a vital source of data, analysis and comment – a reminder of how much has been achieved, and, most importantly, a warning of how many needs are still unmet, and how much more work is still to be done.

Ed Cairns is Senior Policy Adviser at Oxfam GB and author of Oxfam’s latest overview of their humanitarian thinking, Crises in a new world order: challenging the humanitarian project

And here’s the top 20 humanitarian aid recipients, 2001-10 (click twice to expand)

Top 20 humanitarian aid recipients 2001-10

Top 20 humanitarian aid recipients 2001-10


  1. Hear, hear! With all this talk about value for money when are we going to move the discussion from micro level interested organisational concerns to some of the bigger political VfM questions such as investment DRR and resilience. As far as I understand there is mounting evidence that this is more ‘cost effective’ in the long run so where is the rational evidence based policy?? Or is such a position too Wilsonian and consequentialist to be acceptable?

    BTW: thanks again for providing these summaries and drawing attention to new reports they are incredibly useful for those of us teaching on aid.

  2. Sorry to criticise, and for all I know it’s not even Oxfam’s work, but that graphic really isn’t very helpful in illustrating the relative amounts of humanitarian aid. The circles don’t appear to correspond to the amounts listed, either in radius or in area, and even if they did it’s not easy to compare circles and get a sense of the relative values. The colours look like they should mean something, but don’t, unless I’m missing something, and the spiral arrangement doesn’t add much. The caption and the mouseover popup disagree, too.

    Visual presentation can really add meaning to facts and figures, but when they’re like this they do as much to conceal and confuse. None of this distracts from the excellent content this blog provides daily, but graphics like the one above are frankly a waste of time at best. There’s no information there that a table or a bar chart couldn’t provide much better, in a smaller space and with the data easier to look up.

    As you can probably tell this is something of a personal bugbear and graphics like the above certainly aren’t confined to this blog!

  3. Hi Ed, and thanks for this great contribution to a great blog!

    Picking up on a point you make, and one Cathy hints at in her comment, how do we get where we are to where we need to be on resilience? Where we are is a common sense understanding that resilience and prevention save money and livelihoods, and a wealth of technical and policy guidance on how to put this into practice. Where we need to be is breaking through some of the political and institutional barriers – in large part at the level of the international community – to acting on this knowledge.

    Now there’s a challenge we can get our teeth stuck into! National governments like Niger need backing when they set out the plans for how to prevent crises and build resilience. And that means the international system needs to adapt to fit the national plans. There are Political Champions for Resilience out there: Amos, Clark, Shah, Mitchell… The top-down has to match the bottom-up.


  4. I absolutely agree with the move to build communities’ resilience and adaptive capacities…although saddened at the same time that these are moves just to protect said communities from being less vulnerable…ano not necessarily towards their greater well-being

  5. Correction:

    I absolutely agree with the move to build communities’ resilience and adaptive capacities…although saddened at the same time that these are moves just to protect said communities from being more vulnerable…and not necessarily towards their greater well-being

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