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

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.)  



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9 Responses to “Crunch time for global humanitarianism – funding can’t keep up with need, so what else is needed?”
  1. Paul Harvey

    There’s lots of uncertainties in all of these figures but however you cut them it’s striking how few $ per person you end up with. With 59 million displaced, 100 million affected by natural disasters, 87 million people targeted in UN appeals – you get a ballpark figure of somewhere between 100 and 200 million people as the target global humanitarian population. There was $25 billion of money available and my (bad) maths makes that between $125 and $250 per person. It’s just not very much to cope with the consequences of conflict and disaster particularly once you take out the cost of delivering it.

    So yes we need to deal with causes and consequences. But given the lack of political will to tackle causes I also think you need a much larger amount to alleviate consequences – 50 billion not 25 for starters. And in the absence of a more generous world there’s a need for humanitarian spending to be a larger % of overall development aid.

    • Makarand

      I disagree.

      >>>But given the lack of political will to tackle causes I also think you need a much larger amount to alleviate consequences – 50 billion not 25 for starters.>>>

      No arguments for an increased humanitarian spend but it is precisely because there is little political will, I would invest more funds on programmes addressing the causes and the advocacy to change that political will or lack thereof.

      >>> And in the absence of a more generous world there’s a need for humanitarian spending to be a larger % of overall development aid. >>>

      If you run with the assumption that the world is not generous and is not likely to get more, my thinking dictates that we should be careful of how much we spend on humanitarian aid and which crises do we spend on. To be fair, the world is a bit tired of crises that do not go away at all. I do not speak of all crises, just a few that are cyclical enough to merit being called “this is normal” rather than calling it an abnormal crisis. Let us look at the repeated food crises in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel. As I argue here,, it is perhaps humanitarian aid that is exacerbating issues in some cases.

      As it were, funds available for development of the more stable areas is reducing by the day. This merely results in a ridiculous situation where the poor in stable areas are constantly denied support because the poor in unstable areas absorb it all. I remember a situation in Afghanistan in 2008-10 when the provinces affected by Taliban insurgency (Helmund, Kandahar etc) attracted many times the funds of the more stable (Badakshan, Kunduz etc) provinces leading the Governors in the stable provinces to wonder if they would not be better off with some insurgency in their midst.

      Also when funds available are reducing, one may want to think of where they are likely to make the most lasting impact on a larger number of people. Not always a pleasant choice to make but alas, one that most development actors make all the time anyway. Would you therefore spend US $ 100,000 digging a borewell in South Sudan for 5000 households knowing that there was no way anyone was going to be able to maintain it in a warlike situation or use that $100,000 to dig 5 borewells in Tanzania where many more households would benefit for longer?

      It is not my case that humanitarian programming has no value. Saving lives is always valuable but I would not like it to come at the expense of making a long term, sustainable impact across generations somewhere else.

  2. Carsten

    In light of ODA being less than a tenth of Global security spending, it seems rather obvious that the overall ODA needs to be increased.
    In light of development spending outstripping humanitarian spending about eight times, its seems advisable that also the humanitarian (life saving) spending part of ODA should be increased. More importantly the still minuscule % of ODA spent on risk reduction needs to be increased to have a meaningful impact on reducing future humanitarian case loads.
    But is there a chance to mobilise enough political will to do so?

  3. Luc Lapointe

    I guess this is the topic of the day …. but the questions should be:

    1) Does Humanitarian Relief activities need more money?
    2) or is the money being used wisely, and
    3) can things be more efficient in the way that it is being delivered?

    The second set questions would be around the words of Kristina Georgieva “We feel it is always easier to raise money for a crisis that is on the front page, that is on the 6 o’clock news, but it is difficult to raise money for those that are unseen, that are invisibly suffering.”

    1) People don’t care if it’s not on the 6 O clock news?
    2) or there is a donor fatigue?
    3) organizations are bad in communicating their needs and showing impact?

    Maybe it’s time to think about innovative ways of funding the needs associated with Humanitarian Assistance…now it’s becoming fashionable to think that loans or military spending can count as ODA …maybe countries will find a new models to lend for Humanitarian Assistance and meet their ODA commitment that way.

  4. Sandrine

    Interesting post, but I think we should be questioning the way ‘need’ is measured. And it’s clear we are going through an unprecedented time in terms of refugee numbers, but are these needs really rising exponentially? Is it not that the definition of humanitarian response is growing, to include risk reduction, recovery. My colleague Monica and I put these questions in a blog post of our own:

    We don’t have the answers, but we think it’s worth putting the questions out.

  5. Ben Garbutt

    I’m glad you mentioned the High Level Panel, Ed. I’m intrigued to find out what a group of experts outside the humanitarian community (and Kristelina Georgieva) will come up with as potential solutions to this humanitarian funding gap that the GHA highlights. That’s not supposed to sound as suspicious as it could be read; they’ve got the opportunity to ask some outsider questions which could be genuinely insightful.

    I know these blog posts are meant to create questions as much as answers. Here’s mine: does the humanitarian funding that we currently have go to the right place? There are significant barriers to national and regional actors accessing humanitarian finance. At the moment I couldn’t answer the question of whether the system prioritises the best placed actors to respond. Complex due diligence processes and partner capacity assessments can be an important part of accountability to the taxpayer (and are often borne of a low risk appetite from donors), but can come at the cost of ensuring the integration of local, national, in response funding.

    And apart from that – spot on, Carsten. I can’t remember arguing that assistance after a crisis is more effective than risk reduction before it. When will this system-wide consensus translate into financial recognition?

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