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Funding fails to keep pace with record number of people in need of aid

Children receive the first humanitarian aid in eastern Aleppo In December 2016. (Credit: Sputnik via AP)

Humanitarian needs are growing worldwide and international donors are not keeping up.

The United Nations says it needs $23.5 billion to help some 141 million people across 37 countries in need of humanitarian assistance. It is $1.3 billion more than what the organization pleaded for only six months ago.

So far, only one-quarter of the money requested for 2017 is available to respond to crises ranging from Syrian refugees to the more than 20 million people at risk of famine. More money is needed due to deteriorating conditions in conflict regions and the recent rapid growth of violence in the Kasai province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The odds that all the humanitarian financing will materialize are low. Funding fell billions of dollars short every year over the past decade. The trend will continue this year because humanitarian spending slowed significantly last year, according to the Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2017.

The $27.3 billion spent on humanitarian assistance in 2016 is just 6 percent more than spending in 2015. It is half the rate of growth compared to the previous year and one-third as much as 2014 and 2013, according to the new report done by Development Initiatives, an organization that advocates for better data to support ending poverty.

The slowdown is the result of reduced spending by Middle Eastern and Northern African countries. Kuwait and Qatar cut humanitarian assistance by more than 50 percent after successive years of spending more. Private donors also pumped the breaks on spending. Foundations, corporations and individuals gave 6 percent more in 2016. A year earlier, private spending grew by 26 percent, says the report.

Development Initiatives used data from the U.N. and the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation to estimate how much money is spent on humanitarian assistance each year.

Humanitarian assistance is the money spent responding to natural disasters and crises. The funds help provide food, shelter and other services in emergency settings. That is why more than half of humanitarian money last year went to Syria, Yemen, Iraq, South Sudan and Ethiopia. Humanitarian needs are high in the five countries because of conflict and drought.

It is a fraction of the $143 billion spent on official development assistance each year. That total includes humanitarian spending as well as money that goes to infrastructure projects, government loans and support for institution building. The report looks at spending as a way to understand broader humanitarian trends.

It exposes some significant funding gaps. Most of the money goes to medium- or long-term recipients. Those are people facing long term crises, like Syrian refugees. That leaves multi-year humanitarian funds and programs that help prevent crises underfunded, says the report.

“We need a holistic set of financing tools and sustained investments to deal with the causes and long-term consequences of crises,” Harpinder Collacott, executive director at Development Initiatives said.

“Understanding the resources that are available is an important first step. Greater transparency of humanitarian financing mechanisms is vital to maximize the effectiveness of assistance at a time when so many people across the globe are in need.”

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is the group that launches the country-level appeals and tracks spending for the U.N. But many of the details about how the money is spent are trapped in reports by U.N. agencies and humanitarian groups.

Leaders gathered in Istanbul at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016 to come up with solutions to deal with how the industry operates. The lack of multi-year funding was identified as one of the major challenges to enacting the reforms needed to improve humanitarian aid.

“We must engage our collective strengths and mobilize new partnerships to prevent and end conflicts, reduce vulnerability to natural hazards and address the root causes of fragility,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said while reflecting on the summit in late May. “We must bring humanitarian and development actors to work together closely from the beginning of a crisis to support affected communities.”

Local NGOs are still left out. Just 0.3 percent of humanitarian funding went to local groups, shows the Development Initiatives report. Local governments fared barely better, taking in only 2 percent of the total.

Aid groups and countries signed on to the Grand Bargain document pledging to publish funding using the International Aid Transparency Initiative standard. Most have yet to follow through on their promises, meaning the money directed towards humanitarian assistance remains difficult to track and analyze.


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]