Learning and Relearning the Lessons of Effective Humanitarian Aid

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June 18, 2015; Global Humanitarian Assistance

In light of the Giving USA 2015 finding that charitable giving for international affairs was the only category of charitable giving to decline between 2013 and 2014, this report from the Global Humanitarian Assistance project carries some significance. While international humanitarian giving from both government and private sources increased from $20.5 billion to $24.5 billion between 2013 and 2014, the unmet funding gap, basically in response to United Nations appeals, increased from $4.7 billion to $7.5 billion. The top five recipients of humanitarian assistance in 2013, at least according to the report, were Syria, the occupied Palestinian territory, Sudan, South Sudan, and Jordan; the report indicates that South Sudan suffered the largest decrease of the five while the Sahrawi crisis in Algeria and the Kachin and other conflicts in Myanmar have largely fallen off the global humanitarian radar screen. Worth noting is that multilateral organizations distribute 63 percent of the aid, governments five percent, the Red Cross and Red Crescent movements eight percent, and other NGOs 19 percent.

The areas of unmet funding are indicative of the biases of governmental and private donors. According to the report, in 2014, 97 percent of the UN-coordinated appeals for humanitarian aid to Ukraine were met (though the amount was relatively small), 90 percent for South Sudan, 81 percent for the Ebola crisis, and 75 percent for Iraq, but for Syria, where the humanitarian crisis is massive and growing, the UN-coordinated appeal for Syria refugees only received 63 percent of its target and the request for overall humanitarian assistance in Syria reached only 49 percent of its total—and these were the two largest appeals issued by the UN in 2014.

The full report is very detailed and worthwhile for understanding the flows and blockages in humanitarian assistance worldwide, but particularly interesting is a companion document generated from a June 18th dialogue about the report with specific recommendations for improving the financing and delivery of humanitarian aid. A few of the recommendations included:

  • Donors and wider actors should organize funding investments to create incentives for humanitarian, development, climate change and other concerned actors to work in complementarity to address longer-term needs of vulnerable and crisis-affected populations. This in practice means shifting from assessments to joint analysis, from planning to programming, and from funding to financing.
  • Clarify the remit of humanitarian actors, recognizing that they must work better with national governments and development actors where appropriate. At the same time, development actors must prioritize risk management, preparedness and resilience in order to “leave no one behind.”
  • Recognizing that the current system perpetuates competition over resources, we need to strengthen understanding of donor preferences and behavior, as well incentives for coordinated decision-making between donors. Underpinning this, the development of a shared understanding of global needs is vital to prioritizing funding to particular crises.
  • Move towards results-based funding through multi-year funding and collaboration with development actors. The measurement of outcomes should be undertaken on the basis of beneficiary feedback in addition to donor perspectives.

Fundamentally, the recommendations highlight what seems to be a fractured system for raising and distributing humanitarian aid. Much like what we have learned from the problems of humanitarian aid in Haiti after the Port-au-Prince earthquake, the GHA report notes that only 0.2 percent of humanitarian aid went to local and national NGOs in the target countries and only 3.1 percent went to their governments. Countries that have been more successful in humanitarian aid terms—the report cites Mexico and Turkey—are those that have developed NGOs and government capacity to manage, direct, and deploy the humanitarian aid they are receiving. But the tiny percentage going to local or national NGOs in those countries and their governments demonstrates that the aid community still has yet to fully absorb this lesson.—Rick Cohen