2021 will be the 'bleakest and darkest' yet for humanitarian needs

Our COVID-19 coverage is free. Please consider a Devex Pro subscription to support our journalism.
Refugees gather their belongings from the back of a truck outside the reception center at a refugee camp in northern Uganda. Photo by: UNMISS / CC BY-NC-ND

NEW YORK — The anticipated humanitarian needs for 2021 represent the “bleakest and darkest perspective” that the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has ever presented, according to U.N. emergency chief Mark Lowcock.

The U.N. humanitarian response system is seeking a record-setting $35.1 billion to reach more than 235 million people — or 1 in 33 people worldwide who now require lifesaving assistance, as per the findings of the latest “Global Humanitarian Overview 2021.” Lowcock spoke with journalists in a press briefing ahead of the annual overview’s launch Tuesday.

Focus on: People and the Planet

This series explores how climate change and other planetary imbalances impact the rising trend of human inequality. We look into the potential solutions to eliminate inequality and support a healthy planet.

The updated figures are primarily a direct result of the pandemic and its myriad economic impacts on vulnerable people, Lowcock said. The emergency chief has previously warned that COVID-19’s effects will continue to deteriorate into 2021.

“That is a reflection of the fact that the COVID pandemic has wreaked havoc across the whole of the most fragile and vulnerable countries on the planet, those where humanitarians are involved in their day-to-day work,” Lowcock said.

UN's $100M famine response is not enough to match rising needs, experts say

The Central Emergency Response Fund is dispensing new money to prevent the increasingly likely possibility of famine in multiple countries. The move comes as humanitarian response funding remains at an all-time low.

Last year, OCHA anticipated that protracted conflicts and the worsening impacts of climate change would require a $28.8 billion response to reach 168 million people with humanitarian assistance in 2020. This year, just about 98 million people actually wound up receiving aid that totaled $17.3 billion, as the pandemic uprooted humanitarian strategies and created new needs on top of existing ones.

Both the pandemic and these preexisting factors “are what has caused this huge increase over recent years of people who may not survive in the absence of humanitarian assistance,” Lowcock said. The new stresses on the humanitarian system have also made it more challenging to implement OCHA’s previous recalibrations to focus more on prevention and less on emergency response.

“The scale of the needs, and the scale of the crisis, is such that this effort to anticipate things makes things a little bit better than they otherwise would have been, but they still leave us with a terrible, desperate situation,” Lowcock said.

One of the “most alarming” elements of the 2021 overview is the continued rise of hunger and the risk of famine in several countries. By the end of 2020, the number of acutely food insecure people may rise to 270 million as a result of COVID-19, marking an 82% increase in the number of hungry people compared with the amount before the pandemic. The U.N. Central Emergency Response Fund recently released $100 million for food aid in Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, northeastern Nigeria, South Sudan, and Ethiopia.

There is an imminent risk of famine in Yemen, Burkina Faso, northeastern Nigeria, and South Sudan, according to the overview.

Opinion: The choice we face to get things back on track

Will 2021 witness the unravelling of 40 years of human progress — or will we put the necessary effort and money into getting things back on track? OCHA's Mark Lowcock discusses the urgent choices facing the international community.

“Previously in human history, famine had been ubiquitous. It was a common feature all over the planet, and it was really one of the remarkable achievements of humankind to have got to the point almost where famines were confined to that bit of history,” Lowcock said. “Unfortunately, tragically, famines are now back.”

In addition to protracted conflicts in Yemen, for example, there are now new conflict outbreaks in places that were until recently considered fairly stable, including Nagorno-Karabakh, Mozambique, and northern Ethiopia.

“And things are just as bad in the biggest humanitarian settings as they were a year ago,” Lowcock said.

“The COVID pandemic has wreaked havoc across the whole of the most fragile and vulnerable countries on the planet, those where humanitarians are involved in their day-to-day work.”

— Mark Lowcock, undersecretary-general and emergency relief coordinator, OCHA

The sharp rise in gender-based violence is another result of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. GBV has also stressed the humanitarian system’s heavy load but has not been matched with sufficient donor funding. The “shadow pandemic” of GBV has resulted in an additional 15 million women affected by violence for every three months of lockdowns. But gender-based violence has not been widely incorporated into the global and national pandemic response, some studies have shown.

CERF released $25 million for women-led projects battling GBV this month.

“We have not been able to persuade the major donors to step up on that. We would like if more people would put their money where their mouth is on that,” Lowcock said.

Aside from a record-high funding request, OCHA and its humanitarian partners will also need to continue reconsidering methods of aid delivery during the pandemic next year, according to Jens Laerke, spokesperson at OCHA.

“We need to take into account that movements are not as they used to be. We cannot move around as we used to. We cannot distribute aid in the old-fashioned way where you have a food distribution point once a month,” Laerke told Devex. “That is, of course, something that we have been developing and getting better at over the course of this year. If we are going to continue anywhere in the world providing aid, we need to do it in a way that we do not inadvertently spread COVID.”

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.