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Humanitarian aid hits record high in 2013, despite major funding shortfall

A Somali refugee stands inside a tent with her baby in Dollo Ado, Ethiopia. (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

Only two-thirds of the money the UN says was needed to respond to global humanitarian crises in 2013 was raised. Despite that, a record high $22 billion was spent to respond to various global challenges last year. The findings are a part of the annual Global Humanitarian Assistance (GHA) report launched today by the UK-based research group Development Initiatives.

The UN’s coordinated appeals for 2013 totaled $13.2 billion in needed funding. Development Initiatives found that only 65% of the appeals were met, despite the fact that total spending exceeded the appeal. That may have to do with the attention garnered by the civil war in Syria. A total of $1.5 billion was spent in Syria, nearly twice as much as the $865 million spent in South Sudan. Despite both getting the most money, the two countries were among a group of countries experiencing a conflict-related crisis where funds were slow to materialize.

The data-driven report points to the need for thinking to shift in regards to the connection between poverty and humanitarian emergencies. Such a reality should change the way that humanitarian funding is provided by donors.

“The evidence is clear: chronic and extreme poverty is inextricably linked with vulnerability to crisis,” said Judith Randel, Executive Director of Development Initiatives.

Much of the shift is a reflection of the lessons learned from the 2011 famine and drought in the Horn of Africa, explained Sophia Swithern the Global Humanitarian Assistance Program Leader to Humanosphere. Donors such as the United States have been thinking about ways to build resilience through development programs and humanitarian spending. The idea is to support initiatives that will help people better deal with sudden hardship, like a natural disaster, spiking food prices or drought.


“Donors are now thinking about multi-year funding approaches,” said Swithern. “There are now 13 countries have active multi-year funding appeals, up from only one the year before.”

Traditional funding was based on a yearly basis. This was despite the fact that the majority of humanitarian spending occurred over multiple years. Nearly five years have passed since an earthquake devastated Haiti and the country is still dealing with the repercussions of the natural disaster. It will take even longer for the country to recover. Multi-year funding appeals recognize that recovery from emergencies takes time and requires longer term investments.

“Emergency aid is a misnomer, it is not like emergency services where a fire truck shows up, puts out the fire and leaves. Humanitarian assistance is a long term endevor,” said Swithern. “It is not a short-term truck and chuck approach.”

One of the key trends from last year was the emergence of non-traditional donors. There are 29 member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC). These are the traditional donors like Canada, Germany, Switzerland and the US. They account for the majority of humanitarian spending, but things are changing. Non-DAC countries, led by Turkey, increased their humanitarian spending by 58% from 2012 to 2013.

Syria has been a big draw for regional countries, including Kuwait and Turkey, to significantly increase their humanitarian spending. However, this is not to be seen as a one-off happenstance, said Swithern. Turkey has made significant contributions to humanitarian problems in other parts of the world, such as Somalia. The 14% of total humanitarian assistance that is represented by non-DAC countries is a growing number and an important shift.

While the big numbers are relatively available, getting more information on how the money is spent remains difficult. One reason is that reporting is not transparent nor systematized. An organization that gets grants from multiple donors to do relief work must file a different report with unique requirements for each funder. The emergence of the International Aid Transparency Initiative seeks to change that by creating a single reporting system used by all involved. Countries and organizations are slowly joining.

“If you could trace beyond the first-level recipient all the way through to the household, then you can get to impacts of humanitarian spending,” said Swithern. Which is why we make the case of the availability of better data and geocoding.”

The possibility of better data is near, thanks to the International Aid Transparency Initiative. For now, reports like the GHA will have to rely on high level inputs. Soon we will know where and how money is being spent in humanitarian and aid programs. It may help better understand the aid flows that are harder to trace, like remittances sent from abroad, private funding and in-kind donations.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]