A few days ago Justin Forsyth, CEO of Save the Children, wrote a blog lamenting the failure of the international humanitarian system to prevent the food security crisis in the Horn of Africa. He argued that our humanitarian system is ‘broken’ and is wrongly focused on responding to disasters rather than preventing them.
And when one reads the excellent GHA Report 2011, it is pretty clear that the financial data backs up his observations. The most recent figures show that 70% of official humanitarian spend in 2009 went to chronic long-term emergencies, most of which are in conflict and drought-affected sub-Saharan Africa.
And, as Mr. Forsyth notes, humanitarian aid is not providing any long-term benefit. Only two of the top 20 recipients of international humanitarian aid have clearly moved out of the emergency phase in the past five years. On this basis, it is not surprising to read that total expenditure on disaster risk reduction (DRR) reached just US$835 million in 2009, a mere 0.5% of total ODA. Of the US$150 billion spent on the biggest humanitarian recipients over the past five years, only 1% of that has been reported as DRR.
Finding meaningful patterns in financial data is not a straightforward exercise but, on reading the GHA report, it is hard not to draw the conclusion that the international aid system is increasingly taking on the job of providing welfare in a relatively small number of countries that are deeply entrenched in crisis. All of them require radical political and economic solutions outside of the remit of humanitarian aid.
But this is far from the whole picture as the data also reveals that ‘traditional humanitarian actors’, i.e. western aid agencies and OECD DAC donors, no longer dominate the delivery of humanitarian aid, especially in response to sudden onset natural disasters in countries with growing economies. One of the most eye-catching statistics in the GHA Report is that contributions from non-OECD DAC member governments to humanitarian pooled funds increased from US$4 million in 2009 to US$98 million in 2010. Equally significant is what the report recognises it cannot capture, namely the huge efforts and cash flows from individuals, organisations and governments within crisis-affected countries themselves.
It would appear that many middle-income countries are increasingly confident of their own internal capacities to respond to natural disasters within their borders, and have increasing access to funding from non OECD-DAC sources. And this raises questions for the international system. How should it engage with emerging national disaster management authorities and how important is DRR?
We know that DRR works best in situations where national disaster management authorities are strong and when it is approached as a multi-sectorial activity. Indeed, governments that we in ALNAP have spoken to, particularly from middle-income nations, consider DRR and resilience to be central to their plans for disaster management. If the humanitarian system is to remain relevant in those contexts, DRR is going to be an important area to focus support.
John Mitchell is the Director of ALNAP.