This week, the UN announced that $22.2 billion would be required to meet the needs of an estimated 92.8 million people affected by conflicts and natural disasters in 2017. It’s the largest humanitarian appeal ever launched, but current funding trends suggest that aid agencies will be lucky to raise half the amount they’re asking for.
Given this ever-widening chasm, some aid experts believe it’s time to prioritise, to focus humanitarian efforts on the most urgent life-saving endeavours and ensure at least they are fully funded.
“Today’s appeals are much more ambitious and sophisticated and want to do all sorts of things ranging from tackling root causes to building resilience,” said Mukesh Kapila, a professor of global health and humanitarian affairs at the University of Manchester. “While those are all highly desirable, whether one would call them humanitarian in the traditional sense is a question.
“I think the humanitarian sector needs to revert to basic, fundamental life-saving interventions only,” he told IRIN. “If you start getting into cash-for-food programmes and vulnerability reduction – extremely worthy things to do – those are huge, huge tasks, and by definition the humanitarian approach is a very limited one.”
In a recent commentary for IRIN, Antonio Donini, an analyst with the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University, also suggested that the best response to the crisis in multilateralism signalled by the election of Donald Trump and the jettisoning of humanitarian principles from Syria to South Sudan could be “a more narrowly focused ‘back to basics’ humanitarian enterprise”.
Not that simple
UN-led humanitarian appeals don’t represent the needs of all people affected by crises worldwide (they exclude emergency appeals and aid flows that bypass the UN system), but they suggest the need for international emergency aid is outpacing donor governments’ willingness to increase contributions. In 2016, for example, donors gave $11.4 billion towards UN-coordinated appeals – a record amount, but still barely half the $20.1 billion requested. Ten years ago, when the annual appeal was a mere $5 billion, it was almost 70 percent funded.
The massive aid and relief superstructure that has sprung up over the last 25 years is already under pressure to reform, to become more accountable, more transparent, to spread its power and financial base from Western capitals to the Global South.
Speaking at the launch of this week’s appeal in Geneva, the UN’s top relief official, Stephen O’Brien, said the growing funding gap was the result of neither donor fatigue nor aid sector failure: “it’s that the demand out there – primarily because of unresolved, protracted conflicts – is getting greater”.
The price tag for responding to just three of the protracted conflicts covered in the appeal – Syria, Yemen and Iraq – amounts to $10.5 billion, nearly half of the total.
Many in the sector believe that the “back-to-basics” approach ignores the reality of more complex and drawn-out crises that demand more complex responses – that it’s not enough to just keep people alive, particularly if one of the goals is to reduce the likelihood of future crises that would only create more need.
“In an ideal world, humanitarians would be focusing on the strict humanitarian work, and others would be focusing on making sure these populations have access to the infrastructure and livelihoods that are going to enable them to live in dignity. But in reality it’s not happening, and very often it’s not possible,” said Kate Halff, executive secretary of the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response, an umbrella organisation for nine large international NGOs that partner with the UN.
“It’s about building broader partnerships for longer-term action,” she said, adding that debates about when development agencies should take over were beside the point. “It doesn’t really matter who does it, provided it’s done in a sustainable way.”
Halff pointed out that development actors such as the World Bank are already starting to partner with the emergency sector to develop strategies to respond to long-term crises.
One of the major outcomes of the inaugural World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul earlier this year was a commitment to strengthen collaboration between humanitarian and development actors with the aim of shrinking needs over the long term, for example through an increased focus on mitigation and preparedness for natural disasters and peace-building to avoid conflicts.
Jemilah Mahmood, who led preparations for the summit and is under secretary general for partnerships at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), told IRIN needs had to be reduced or they would become a “bottomless pit” but recognised the bind the humanitarian sector is in.
“On the one hand you need the life-saving interventions, but you also need the longer-term, peace-building initiatives,” she said.
This shift beyond the traditional parameters of humanitarian work has many “purists” worried. They argue that getting involved in peace-building, stabilisation and recovery work endangers basic principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence, and could lead to aid being instrumentalised or politicised, compromising trust in humanitarian agencies.
Another challenge is the need for long-term programmes to have multi-year, predictable funding instead of the 12-month cycle that is the current norm. Several countries covered by the 2017 humanitarian appeal – including Chad, Cameroon, and Somalia – are hoping to secure funding for multi-year humanitarian response plans.
“Money is limited,” said Annett Gunther, deputy director general of humanitarian assistance at Germany’s foreign office. “We need to move from ad hoc financing to smarter, longer-term financing of programmes.”
The UN is urging donors to reduce earmarking for specific projects and countries and to instead contribute to pooled funds like the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), which can be allocated quickly and according to need. More unearmarked funding could help address what Kapila calls the aid “lottery” in which some country response plans are 80 percent funded while others languish below 20 percent.
Gunther said Germany’s contributions to pooled funding are increasing and that they are encouraging other donors to do the same.
“Germany has been pushing for a while for a paradigm shift towards more forward-looking humanitarian funding such as disaster preparedness,” she told IRIN.
Addressing the funding gap will also mean looking beyond traditional donors to new sources of financing such as the private sector, philanthropists and emerging economies like China and the Gulf countries.
“More and more now we have to look for funds in different places,” said Mahmood, adding that traditional donors are reluctant to fund ostensibly less urgent programmes such as education to promote peace-building that the Red Cross runs in several countries.
While humanitarian appeals have grown in recent years, Halff pointed out that $22 billion represents “less than the annual revenue of the chewing gum industry”.
She also said the onus on plugging the funding gap really fell on politicians as much as humanitarians, whose emergency relief work only acts as a band aid for these spiralling, protracted crises.
“I really think as humanitarians, we have to push back a bit against the narrative that you’re asking for a lot of money and you’re not doing that much. The fundamental problem is a political one and until that’s addressed, we’re left trying to cover a gap that’s uncoverable.
“We really have to get this right and it’s a collective responsibility, it’s not a responsibility just for the humanitarian sector.”