Some time ago, the American comic Josh Billings said: ‘It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you think you know that just ain’t so’. For this reason I am delighted to see the publication of the GHA Report 2013, not only for what it tells us about what we know about key global data on aid flows, but also because it reminds us of what we still don’t know.
The report tells us that a there is a small but steady increase in humanitarian financing that ‘ratchets up’ after big mega disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami and the Haiti earthquake. The data shows that Haiti was the ‘donor darling’ for one year only, but many new individual donors who gave money for the first time are likely to have become regular givers afterwards.
We also know that the majority of funds are channeled to long-term protracted emergencies like Sudan. This has always been the case and requires more efforts to be made to ensure that longer-term planning horizons are put in place. However, it is not possible to track monies down the chain of organisational transactions to the beneficiary so, consequently we have an incomplete understanding who is delivering at the front line. Much of this work is probably undertaken by local implementers, but reporting systems only credit the first implementing agency as the ‘channel of delivery’.
The data confirms that donors’ decisions about humanitarian aid tend not be made on the basis of humanitarian need alone. Many other considerations appear to influence decisions, including historical ties; proximity; political and human rights issues; and capacity to deliver. The evidence suggests that the Gulf States, in particular, channel funds to crises that are linked regionally and culturally. New initiatives to help allocate funding more rationally (the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil protection department’s (ECHO) Forgotten Crises Assessment tool, for example) have potential to create more equitable global coverage and should be encouraged.
Importantly, the report reminds us that the system still lacks a mechanism for assessing the scale and severity of humanitarian need. Needs are currently calculated on the basis of emergency appeals only – which inevitably underestimate ‘true need’– and even on this basis, funds fall well short what is asked for. So, we know that the global system is resource-light – but we still don’t know by how much.
We also lack a full picture of global humanitarian spend and, whilst there is good reporting from most Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC) donors, financial reporting from many non-DAC donors, private donors and foundations is incomplete. Data on domestic response (which includes prevention and disaster risk reduction) is particularly weak – with China, India and Japan representing signification gaps. Moreover, we still have little idea of the level of funding flows from diasporas.
The report also shows that the human impact of natural disasters is under-reported, especially information on affected people and economic damage. Data on droughts and famine are particularly poor partly due to no universal definition of drought and, although excess mortality figures from the Somalia between 2010-12 are reported, it is worth noting that it is not straightforward to accurately link the effects of famine to excess mortality.
Development Initiatives’ GHA report deserves much credit for improving our understanding of aid flows and for reminding us there is still some way to go to establish a comprehensive knowledge bank. Of high importance is the need to find a comprehensive method for assessing global needs; rationalising coverage according to need and to keep improving methodologies, data bases and reporting on aid flows. Without this additional knowledge the humanitarian system can never truly call itself professional and will remain prone to ‘thinking it knows things that just ain’t so’.