The war in Ukraine has put global humanitarian issues in the spotlight. Russian aggression and atrocities are brutalising the population. But the effects ripple out much further, with disruption of grain exports from the region leading to sharp increases in food prices round the world. That is affecting everyone, but it is bringing millions of starving people in countries like Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen right to death’s door.
Between 2017 and 2021 I worked as the head of humanitarian affairs at the United Nations. These were genuinely dire times for many. The number of people in need grew to never-before-seen peaks. Ukraine exacerbates all that.
Humanitarian crises have been getting worse in recent years because their causes are not being tackled. In late 2020, my office analysed the humanitarian problems the UN had been dealing with over the previous 25 years. The findings are sobering. Between 1995 and 2020, the average duration of crises requiring a UN-coordinated response increased from less than two years to nearly seven years. The number of responses also more than doubled, with more countries – like Syria, Libya, several in the Sahel, and Venezuela – being added to the list.
Funding for humanitarian relief has become ever more reliant on a small group of Western donors. The four largest donors – the United States, Germany, the European Commission and the United Kingdom – have between them in recent years accounted for 70 per cent of money raised for UN appeals. The drastic cuts in British aid announced by Boris Johnson’s government in 2020 and 2021 concentrate the burden even more on the top three. Some large countries chose to pay very little towards UN humanitarian appeals – China, Russia, and France among them. So the sharing of the burden is skewed in a way that looks increasingly unfair.
Humanitarian agencies, especially the larger, most professional, and best managed UN agencies, Red Cross organisations, and international NGOs do a good job with the money they can raise. They help more than a hundred million people a year with food, shelter, health services, education for their children and other assistance. Millions of lives are saved. Things would be much worse without that work, not just in terms of a larger death toll but also larger refugee flows and other spillovers, creating problems in the neighbourhood of countries in crisis as well as more widely.
Despite all its good work, the humanitarian sector is overwhelmed. Needs are growing faster than the capacity to handle them. It is unrealistic to expect funding to meet all the needs. How will the agencies cope with the growing strain of this fundamental challenge? How do they stretch the available resources further?
More needs to be done to tackle the causes of crises, like conflict and climate change. International development agencies need to refocus their problem-solving energy on the poorest, most fragile and conflict-affected countries rather than better-off places some findit easier to work in.
But humanitarian agencies need to change too. They could achieve more by acting faster and in anticipation of predictable problems. Using modern data technology to predict forthcoming disasters, and preparing contingency plans and allocating cash for them in advance would save many lives and much money. Agencies also need to focus more on the most vulnerable groups in any crisis – especially women and girls and disabled people.
One of the things that worried me increasingly about the humanitarian sector as my UN experience grew was how little weight all the agencies, even the most well-meaning among them, gave to the wishes and preferences of the people they were trying to help. Agencies suffer a “we know best what you need” mindset. They have their own areas of specialism. Everything looks like a nail to someone whose only tool is a hammer, and relief agencies tend to be attentive to the needs they specialise in meeting and deaf to other requirements.
The failure consistently to ask people what help they need and then track whether it is being provided has two deleterious consequences. It introduces unnecessary costs and inefficiencies: why go to the trouble of procuring and distributing goods that people then turn around and sell in order to buy something they want more? And it strips people of the ability to make choices for themselves, adding to the humiliation and disempowerment the victims of humanitarian crises suffer.
One solution would be the creation of an independent commission for voices in crisis, tasked with listening to people and then grading the aid agencies on whether they are providing what people say they want. That would subtly tilt the playing field back towards the people the agencies are trying to help. Saving lives in dire times means putting people first. Humanitarian agencies do a lot of good. But they could do so much better.
Relief Chief by Sir Mark Lowcock is out now from the Center for Global Development, available at bookstores and online
Photo: Displaced Yemenis get food aid from the Mona relief agency (Yahya Arhab/Shutterstock)
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