How is humanitarian aid faring since the financial crisis? Are donors tightening their belts and yanking their purse strings? Are they pandering to the doubts of cash-strapped taxpayers?
You’d think those questions would be easy to answer – just look at the numbers. But humanitarian aid flows are notoriously opaque, if only because there are countless actors with different (or non-existent) reporting procedures.
Heck, half of them can’t even agree on just what ‘humanitarian’aid is.
Happily, some folks care about decent data and are doing their darnedest to tot up global aid flows: where it comes from, where it goes and how it gets there.
In a picturesque corner of the British county of Somerset, researchers at Global Humanitarian Assistance (GHA) have been burning the midnight oil to bring us the first real snapshot of emergency relief since the fall of Lehman Brothers.
The 2010 figures are preliminary estimates, and they don’t include spending by governments and organisations in crisis-hit countries themselves. But they give a pretty good idea of where international aid is going.
The big surprise is that world spending on emergency relief has never been higher, despite all the belt-tightening. GHA puts it at a record-busting US$16.7 billion in 2010, up from US$15.7 million in 2009. That’s US$12.4 billion from governments and US$4.3 billion from private donors.
A lot of that increase is down to two catastrophic natural disasters last year: the Haiti earthquake and Pakistan floods. This is borne out by the fact that contributions to UN flash appeals for urgent funding were 17 times higher than in 2009.
But lest you think such generosity is proof donors are ring-fencing their aid budgets in the face of fiscal austerity, take a closer look at the numbers.
Most of the gains, it turns out, come courtesy of just four nations – the United States, Japan, Canada and Saudi Arabia. Collectively, they look set to have upped their contributions by just under US$900 million. We do not yet have the full final figures for 2010, but it could be that a great many others are spending less.
There may be all sorts of reasons for the declines. For some it could be part of a continuing downward trend. For others, things may be changing in the interplay between their humanitarian and development budgets – some may be spending less on humanitarian aid but more on development assistance. In only four countries (Greece, Ireland, Spain and Sweden) do both humanitarian and overall development aid look like they have declined in 2010.
Outside the traditional donor’s club, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee, 129 governments contributed to international humanitarian response in 2010 – 40 more than in 2009 and 29 more than in 2005, when more engaged than ever in response to the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami and the South Asia earthquake. Time will tell how their engagement will be harnessed in the future, especially during years where there appears to be no significant headline emergency in the news.
Humanitarian spending may be higher on paper than ever before, but the rising cost of doing aid means donors are getting far less bang for their buck.
Food prices are up more than 40 percent since 2007 and oil prices are about 36 percent higher in real terms. At the same time, contributions to long-running, “complex emergencies” fell last year – the hardest hit UN appeals were Chad, Central African Republic, Palestinian territories and Uganda.
As a result, a great many programmes were choked of funding. In 2010, 37 percent of overall needs went unmet, compared with an average of 30.2 percent for the preceding five years.
What else do the numbers show?
Despite the spike in flash funding after the Haiti and Pakistan crises, most humanitarian aid still goes to war zones, or at least countries emerging from wars. In 2009, the latest year for which GHA has figures on recipients of aid, more than 65 percent went to such places.
Sudan remained the number one benefactor of humanitarian aid for a fifth year in a row, with US$1.4 billion in 2009. Palestinian territories came second thanks to a 50 percent jump in aid to US$1.3 billion following an Israeli blockade and military offensive.
Next in line were Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan and Iraq. See a pattern? All are conflict zones.
This flies in the face of mainstream public opinion, which tends to see humanitarian aid as a helping hand after earthquakes, tsunami and other deadly acts of nature. Truth is, it’s the grinding, messy, morally complicated crises that call most consistently for emergency first aid.
The figures bear this out. Year after year, with a few subtle variations, it’s basically the same donors giving money to the same countries.
It’s too early to say what kind of long-term impact, if any, the financial crisis will have on aid. A lot may depend on the storm clouds now brooding over debt-addled nations. Will they unleash thunder or disperse in the wind?
In the meantime, humanitarian aid is looking decidedly stretched.
“I think it will be interesting to see what happens as more is being requested from humanitarian aid in different geographies,” said Lisa Walmsley, lead analyst on GHA’s latest annual report on humanitarian aid flows.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen with the Arab Spring. There’s a whole range of countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have been consistently attracting humanitarian funding of between US$300 and US$600 million each year since 2005 – so will that continue if donors tighten their belts?
“And what will happen in Asia where we have a tendency towards big natural disasters in densely populated areas with large numbers of poor people?”
At a time of economic uncertainty, government cuts and mounting scepticism from voters, donors have their work cut out in making the case for effective aid. Not surprisingly, many are starting to sound a little like financial managers. It’s all about value for money and return on investment.
In the humanitarian aid business, donors are essentially shareholders in a multi-billion-dollar global market. One hopes the decisions they make in coming months and years will yield real dividends for the people on whose behalf they are investing.
Tim Large is Editor of AlertNet, a global humanitarian news service run by Thomson Reuters Foundation.