Mapping the money: Unpacking the Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2013

by oxfamcanada | August 7, 2013
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by Carsten Völz, Oxfam International Humanitarian Director

The Global Humanitarian Assistance report is eagerly anticipated by some of us in the humanitarian field, as it provides us with hard data and trends required for strategic analysis and decisions. As humanitarian managers, high quality data is very important because it supports good management.

As such, this report is a useful tool for many decision makers – not only in the humanitarian sphere – but beyond, in the wider context of development assistance and international governance.

The challenges of collecting data

Firstly I’d like to express my appreciation for the authors’ efforts. Collecting data in our field of work is not an easy undertaking, in light of the obvious differences across agencies and organisations.

Varying definitions is one such challenge e.g. what is humanitarian and what is development? Which parts of disaster risk reduction (DRR) work fall into which of the two categories? And then there are differing reporting cycles and different levels of transparency of organisations.

Every three months, members of my own team are required to gather fundraising data across 17 Oxfam affiliates – a difficult enough task in itself. Comparing that with the far more complex one that Development Initiatives faces when trying to collect and process data from hundreds of organizations puts the task into some kind of perspective. A truly Herculean challenge and a Sisyphus task at the same time!

The data is not perfect, the data isn’t robust, and doesn’t cover all actors and thematic areas because of these difficulties and for other reasons relating to particular methodologies. However, irrespective of those details, what the report does deliver is a clear indication of trends. In addition, the clear and user-friendly presentation with many charts, descriptions and examples demystifies the data and makes them usable.

The year 2012

The content of this year’s report is particularly interesting due to the fact that 2012 was absent of any major disaster events. Discounting the growing crisis in Syria, it was a year of protracted crises. Because the data for 2012 were not distorted by mega-disasters, it provides a very useful opportunity to reflect on humanitarian work and the underlying trends – it reflects a ‘normal’ year in terms of humanitarian crises and response.

How is the global humanitarian funding system characterised through 2012 data?

Some attributes of the global humanitarian funding system are exemplified in the report sections. While, in general, we can see progress, there is still much to address. Humanitarian assistance is still:

  • largely reactive, not proactive;
  • lacking strategic coherence;
  • fragmented and in project silos;
  • disconnected from the development agenda.

To quote from the report: allocation of funds is “skewed by media coverage, proximity, cultural bias, economic significance and geopolitical importance” of the affected region/event. We say we allocate by need, but this is not always the case.

This significantly impacts, not only on the delivery of humanitarian assistance to particular emergencies, but it also on aid providers and the capacity of the whole humanitarian aid system. For example, the short-termism and lack of predictability of humanitarian funding makes humanitarian career development a serious challenge.

It is obvious, therefore, that readjusting the focus of funding efforts to a more strategic approach is what’s required. More efforts need to be put into meeting GHD commitments, to convince new and emerging donors to strive for these high standards.

Opportunities created by the global financial crisis for the resilience agenda

The report tracks a downwards trend of the percentage of needs being met. 2012 was the worst year of the past decade, with only 62.7% of UN Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP) funding requirements met. This continues the trend of this percentage dropping further year-on-year since 2007.

By mid-2013 consolidated and flash appeals had already exploded to US$12.94 billion, as a result of increased funding needs e.g. in Syria, Central African Republic and Mali. This makes it highly likely that the trend of funding needs not being met will continue also in 2013. However, the data provided are still indicative of a consolidation of a trend with growing needs and falling levels of funding coverage, which is of serious concern.

Despite the impact of the economic crisis, countries such as the UK demonstrate that commitments can be met. Financial austerity does make it harder for governments to justify funding international assistance, but, in fact, the financial crisis is an opportunity, insofar as it creates more pressure to use resources effectively. Austerity measures have breathed new life into the discussion around disaster prevention and risk reduction, as reflected in the rapidly spreading resilience conversations.

For the first time in the past 20 years, in my personal experience, there is a much more serious commitment behind these conversations. Talking about resilience is not new – in the 1990s linking relief, rehabilitation and development (LRRD) and DRR discussions meant very similar things. However, it is evident that there is currently a new quality to these conversations.

As a result of climate change, population growth and migration, the number of people affected by humanitarian crises is rising and the humanitarian response delivery model and the funding systems are stretched to the limit. In addition to this trend, the austerity situation has now re-emphasised the focus on the economics of aid, which, in turn, highlights what we all know: prevention and preparedness are overall much cheaper than response. The resulting resilience discussion is however not without the risk of directing attention to the wrong place.

The risks of a wrong focus of the resilience discussion

Let’s not make the mistake of believing humanitarians can fix all of these global problems by working more on risk. There’s a lot of discussion about a perceived need to redirect more resources from the humanitarian funding pots from response to prevention and DRR-type activities. While well intended, this notion is somehow missing the larger picture:

  1. Humanitarian funding consistently does not meet the acute requirements of global humanitarian needs.
  2. Humanitarian funding is about one tenth of overall official development aid (ODA) (9% in 2012 as per the GHA Report 2013)
  3. When some people are asking that 10% of humanitarian funding should be allocated to DRR, this only makes sense if 90% of DRR/resilience efforts are funded from development funding sources. Otherwise the impact of this reallocation will not make a serious dent into large scale prevention resulting in a reduction of overall humanitarian case load. It will simply reduce the amounts of funding available to meet obligations of the humanitarian imperative.
  4. Despite austerity, it is actually not a matter of lack of resources. Total ODA in 2012 (approximately US$120 billion) is less than 10% of security spending (2012 military spending approximately US$1.7 trillion).

Yes, we need to better integrate disaster risk reduction into relief programmes where feasible. But it is also important to hit the message home that any investment we do in development that does not assess risk is not worth it. We need to:

  • analyse vulnerability (usually the poorest are also the most vulnerable),
  • scrutinise against thorough risk analysis,
  • build in measures on how to reduce/mitigate socio-economic shocks and disaster risks that threaten both the communities targeted and the development objectives (i.e. increased the community resilience) and
  • think through what response mechanisms need to be in place in case the resilience thresholds are outstretched through shocks or catastrophic events.

To use a very simplistic comparison: in many countries, in Europe for example, you can’t buy a house without insurance, but the same governments don’t do preparedness and proper risk assessment before they invest in development.

By applying logic and scrutiny to international development investments and linking spending more closely to humanitarian assistance, both would be more effective. Only if we manage to significantly reduce vulnerability and disaster risks at scale, the current trend of growing humanitarian needs can be reversed.

Areas for improvement

I suggest the following changes in future editions of the report:

  1. Less focus on CAPs, which represent only a very small component of disaster response. The report needs to be more reflective of the overall disaster response situation and include national responses. For example, India and China together have more than half of the annual humanitarian case load globally, but this is not appropriately reflected in the report.
  2. Start broadening the sources for needs analysis (e.g. use ACAPS/OCHA dashboard/IPC type of data where ever possible), as the CAPs reflect only a small fraction of overall humanitarian needs. The source for the reporting on humanitarian needs is almost solely taken from CAPs, which aren’t assessment processes but rather wish lists in nature.

Development Initiatives’ Global Humanitarian Assistance (GHA) Report 2013 simplifies understanding and analysing trends in humanitarian financing. In addition, GHA has other products such as a helpdesk service for any queries on humanitarian funding data. This truly is an initiative and service that adds value to the work of humanitarian organisations.

This blog originally appeared at


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