Humanitarians need to do less to do more

12 January 2017 Mukesh Kapila

It’s time to end this cruel roulette over the life and death of people in need and tighten our definition of humanitarianism.

Are humanitarians demanding too much? The latest catalogue of human misery seeks $22.2bn for 92.8 million people in 33 countries. This consolidated humanitarian appeal for 2017 is the largest-ever issued by the UN (although on recent trends, it will be lucky to get half funded, as the gap between what is sought and what is provided continues to widen each year).

In fact, what they ask for is less than the annual spend on chewing gum and equal to just 3% of global military expenditure (US$1.7tn).

However, the deeper problem is that, of all good endeavours, humanitarian financing must be among the most primitive, based as it is on little rationality and even less fairness. The result is that the life chances of millions of people trapped by disasters and conflicts depend on a lottery. Not even an ordinary lottery where the natural laws of chance prevail. Instead, the humanitarian dice spins in strangely whimsical directions, depending on who you are and where you live.

The UN appeal acknowledges 128.6 million people in need but only seeks to help 92.8 million. Presumably, the rest are to fend for themselves. Bear in mind that these numbers only apply to situations considered worthy for appeals. Uncounted others suffer or die without the consolation of becoming an official statistic. Moreover, not all suffering is equally compelling. In 2016, 78% of South Sudan’s enormous $1bn humanitarian needs were funded, while only 24% of the modest $1.2m sought for the Sahel was covered. As the Syria crisis demands a record-breaking $8.1bn in 2017, do we still remember the 4 million people still stuck in the bloodied sands of Darfur where we left them when humanitarian aid started petering out?

Meanwhile, half of all government-donated largesse goes to six UN organisations. A third of all NGO funding is shared by just ten of them. A derisory 0.2% of humanitarian funds are directly channelled through local actors. The same humanitarian agencies are judge and jury on the adequacy of both needs assessments and responses, while remaining remarkably coy on their own transaction costs. Such unfairness, and a lack of transparency and accountability undermines trust in the humanitarian system. Only 27% of surveyed respondents considered the aid they received to be relevant.

Arguably, the humanitarian system is both broken and broke. If so, what should be fixed first? Should we continue to expand the range of what qualifies as humanitarian action? After all, we have already expanded from the original mission of simply saving lives to rebuilding livelihoods, from providing disaster relief to reducing disaster risk, from helping people with sudden shocks to building their resilience to prolonged crises, from mitigating the effects of conflicts to tackling their root causes, from protecting human survival to bringing wider human security.

The truth is that while creating the conditions for sustainable peace and development is obviously important, we need to question whether that should be the priority for humanitarians struggling to make their scarce resources go further. Covering-up for the failures of politicians is a moral hazard from an expansive humanitarianism.

Isn’t it time to consider the idea that narrowing the range of humanitarian action would allow the saving of more lives in more places? Not just here and there, now and then, but every time and everywhere. This means doing less but reaching out reliably to more desperate people to survive their darkest hours. Then it would be for them and their leaders to take the responsibility to solve their own underlying problems. Outsiders can’t do that and, arguably, their meddling complicates crises.

The bill for this new tightly-defined humanitarianism is likely to be lower too. As a global public good, the new humanitarian enterprise must be funded through predictable burden-sharing by all nations – perhaps through assessed contributions as done for UN peacekeeping. Not only is this fair but it would create incentives for states to work together to solve crises that generate huge humanitarian costs. It would also mean more objective needs assessments, stronger accountability of humanitarian agencies, and greater dignity for the unfortunate people who currently rely on the humanitarian lottery.

Nothing else will restore belief in the universality of our core humanitarian principles. Such a new global humanitarian compact – and not a self-serving grand bargain between a selective monopoly of donors and aid contractors – would do much more to heal our broken humanitarian system and, who knows, even make it solvent again.

First published in The Guardian

Published by Mukesh Kapila


%d bloggers like this: