Why is modern humanitarianism failing, even as we give more and more aid?

Mukesh Kapila – 30 December 2022

First published, 28 December in The National News

In Munigi, Congo, displaced people wait for food & non-food items for Unicef distribution, 5 Dec, AFP

Never has the world been more generous, with UN humanitarian appeals receiving $24.1 billion this year compared to $5.8 billion 10 years ago. But the gap between need and response continues to widen: in 2022, less than half the requirements of 216 million people of humanitarian concern were financed compared to nearly two thirds for 49 million needy people in 2012.

Next year will set a record with the UN seeking $51.5 billion for 230 million people across 69 countries. But this only covers UN agencies and selected partners. In addition, the largest global humanitarian network of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement expended about $40 billion in 2021 reaching about 400 million people in 192 countries. There are also large humanitarian NGOs such as Doctors without Borders and Oxfam spending billions. Not to overlook national governments and charities who are rightly the biggest humanitarian providers for their own populations.

Although the aid sector is obsessed with measuring and quantifying, and methods for doing this have improved, we still don’t know the full extent of global humanitarian need, or the proportion being met. That is because agencies count in different ways to suit their own angles, and the numbers can’t be added up.

But ballpark figures are still revealing, and it is indisputable that there is a huge ongoing toll from all types of catastrophes. About 1 per cent of the global population – some 80 million people – are forcibly displaced, two thirds of whom are refugees in foreign lands. Syria, Ukraine, Afghanistan and South Sudan are the biggest refugee exporters, while a record 130 armed conflicts rage endlessly across the planet. Many vie with each other in terms of brutality, as exemplified by Ethiopia’s Tigray civil war or Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis.

Meanwhile, climate change gives us ferocious disasters, with frequency increasing two or threefold over the past decade. Some 560 large-scale disasters are projected annually – or 1.5 major disaster events daily. Pandemics such as Ebola and Covid-19 have devastated whole communities and regions.

In short, one in 23 people worldwide needs humanitarian assistance. Whether that is too many or remarkably few is a matter of perception. Of course, each needy person deserves sympathy and support. Offering this is big business. The humanitarian sector’s countless organisations employ some 600,000 staff, while 1 billion people volunteer some of their time and skills to assist others in distress.If the organised humanitarian sector is busier than ever, how do we interpret fundraisers’ claims that needs are constantly increasing while we permanently fail to satisfy them?

Over the past decade, the world has added 13 per cent – nearly 1 billion people – and proportionately, absolute numbers in crisis are bound to increase. But we are also 50 per cent richer: global aggregate GDP has reached about $150 trillion on purchasing power parity terms, compared to about $100 trillion in 2012. We have never been so blessed with the resources and capabilities to care for the needy.

Therefore, humanitarian agencies are right to demand more by beating the drum of increasing unmet needs. But, although global humanitarian giving has increased five-fold in a decade, the paradox is that the constant narrative of failing generosity is counter-productive. If more-and-more humanitarian provision is less-and-less sufficient, why bother?

Unsurprisingly, cynicism in the modern humanitarian enterprise is growing. Most of us are decent and benevolent-minded. But when kindness is collectivised, the spirit of humanity is lost in institutional protocols ruling vast bureaucracies competing for shares in the market in human misery. Have many agencies become too large to succeed in the small-scale person-to-person interactions at the heart of humanitarianism?

As humanitarian businesses expand, so does mistrust. Especially with the imbalance between the desperately needy and those who have life-and-welfare power over them. Beneficiaries are disappointed when their dignity is not respected, and their voices not heeded.

Meanwhile, the complexity of the humanitarian ecosystem does not make for efficiency. Donors reduce their own administrative burden by giving large grants to big international agencies who pass on funds to lesser organisations who then sub-contract with smaller operational bodies. The transactional costs along the chain mean that, at best, only 75 per cent of the original contributions benefit the recipient. The 2016 World Humanitarian Summit’s call for localisation, that is funding national and local agencies more directly, has made little progress.

Several innovations such as in digital technologies, electronic cash and vouchers, and remote sensing and operational management can improve targeting and efficiency. But the rate of taking to these newer technologies is leisurely because they disrupt comfortably established ways of working.

The humanitarian sector is further compromised when frequent misdeeds including fraud, corruption, sexual abuse and exploitation come to light. If there is little accountability and redress, especially in the UN system whose personnel enjoy legal immunities, disrespect and hostility towards humanitarians follows.

If all this was not enough, the humanitarianism concept is itself under question. The original humanitarian scope covered the minimal, short-term survival requirements of people affected by catastrophes. This has been overtaken by expanded definitions. With a billion people mired in permanent crisis, humanitarian aid is their only lifeline, and this is also expected to encompass recovery and rehabilitation while reducing future risks and vulnerabilities. It can’t be done effectively.

Meanwhile, humanitarian aid is being asked to make up for societal and governance failures, and substitute for inadequate investment in poverty reduction, the principal driver of crisis vulnerability. Far too often, socio-economic emergencies get labelled as “humanitarian”. There is much talk of the “triple nexus” to find durable solutions by interlinking the humanitarian, development and peace sectors. Problems with complicated dynamics can’t be fixed so easily, least of all through aid.

With humanitarians treading where other angels fear doing so, they bear the brunt of discontent, frustration and anger that occupies contemporary humanitarian spaces. There were 267 attacks against aid workers in 2021 with 203 seriously injured, 117 kidnapped, and 140 killed – the most fatalities since 2013.

Additionally, attacks on humanitarian supplies and premises such as ambulances and hospitals are frequent. For example, nearly all of Tigray’s health system has been destroyed over the past two years, and at least 500 health facilities were attacked in the first nine months of the Ukraine war.

Humanitarian access constraints from prevailing insecurity or deliberate obstruction to delivering or receiving aid are normal nowadays. Thirty active humanitarian crises experienced high or very high access constraints in 2022, while four – Eritrea, Ethiopia, Myanmar, and Yemen – were extremely constrained.

Trust in the integrity of humanitarianism used to be based on the cardinal principle that providers delivered aid impartially to all according to their needs, while remaining neutral amidst conflicts. Traditional humanitarians such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent argue that this enables greater humanitarian access and protects humanitarians. Their faith is tested as access and safety decline everywhere because international humanitarian law is routinely breached.

Modern humanitarians find it difficult to remain neutral when witnessing egregious human rights abuses such as the use of sexual violence and hunger as tools of war. They demand accountability and justice alongside helping the victims. Humanitarian doctrine is therefore shifting from neutral and passive aid delivery towards rights-based approaches that view humanitarian succour as moral resistance to oppression.

Also declining is the fairness with which available humanitarian aid is distributed. Humanitarian needs are everywhere, but most aid goes to a dozen or so well-publicised crises. UN figures for 2022 reveal that 100 per cent of targeted Ukrainians were reached with some form of aid while only 66 per cent of Syrians and 21 per cent of Burundians were so fortunate. All lives do not appear to matter equally.

That is not the UN’s fault because they can only dish out what they receive from donors while using their pooled funds to tackle forgotten or unpopular emergencies. Meanwhile, most bilateral donors prioritise suffering according to its strategic importance to them. Often, their principal consideration in aid-giving is to deter desperate migrants coming to their shores, or in countering terrorism. Humanitarian provision is thus increasingly politicised and securitised, attracting further contention.

Besides, the club of humanitarian donors remains small. Eight donors – all western nations – contribute three quarters of global humanitarian funding, with 44 per cent of global humanitarian funding coming from the US, followed by Germany, European Commission, UK, Japan and Canada. Many of the other richer countries donate little, and usually only to their favourite clients. With no set giving formula like for UN peacekeeping operations, global humanitarian solidarity is a random affair.

Humanitarianism is at a crossroads, as its fundamental premises are challenged as never before. How its many tensions and contradictions are resolved remain to be seen in a world disagreeing on almost everything.

The solutions will not be found in the vast global humanitarian machinery we have created. We must look inside ourselves because that is where, across all cultures and spiritual traditions, the innate humanitarian instinct is alive, waiting to be unleashed.

Published by Mukesh Kapila

See http://mukeshkapila.org

One thought on “Why is modern humanitarianism failing, even as we give more and more aid?

  1. Thank you, Mukesh!! Good piece. Wishing you and yours all the best for 2023 and look forward to catch up in person in a not too distant future. Michael


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