Contractors Beware: Humanitarian Aid Cuts Loom

Officers from the Indonesian Formed Police Unit, a joint African Union/United Nations operation in Darfur, distribute food and religious materials to internally displaced persons at Sudan's Zamzam camp. Photo by: Olivier Chassot/U.N.

In 2008, about $10.4 billion was made available by the world's richest countries to deal with humanitarian crises. While this amount might seem staggering, experts say it was nowhere near enough for assisting an estimated 250 million individuals who are affected by humanitarian crises annually.

Some reports suggest that by 2030, climate change, natural disasters and environmental degradation will affect 660 million people and lead to 500 million deaths. Meanwhile, in July, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Response reported a $4.8 billion funding gap for its 2009 aid projects, covering 43 million people.

But that's not all. After assessing humanitarian responses of 23 donors in 13 crises over the last year as part of the 2009 Humanitarian Response Index, Development Assessment Research Associates predicts further cutbacks in humanitarian aid as donors grapple with the economic slump.

To be sure, other areas are feeling a similar crunch. A World Bank communique released in November, for instance, estimated a 6 percent drop in remittances for 2009. For countries like Lesotho, where remittances contribute 28 percent of national income, this could mean less capital for development projects. But humanitarian relief is especially crucial for unstable regions like Pakistan", where security and development concerns are ten-fold.

Aid cuts expected next year

Donor officials have "unofficially" told Dara to expect a decline in aid budgets amid the current economic slump, the group's executive director, Silvia Hidalgo, said Nov. 10 at the Washington launch of this year's HRI.

"There's real concern that the gap between needs on the one hand and what's available is just going to increase given the fact that donor countries are expected to have 4 percent less income next year," she said.

Hidalgo noted that "progressively, there is more knowledge on what good practice is," but that challenges remain when it comes to funding, disaster prevention and capacity building.

Many experts agree that media coverage of a humanitarian disaster can influence how much aid it receives. Algeria's Saharawi people, for instance, has lived in U.N. refugee camps for three decades, but a lack of media attention to their plight may have contributed to an increased food aid shortage in recent years, said Hidalgo, adding that the tribe may be among those who will suffer the brunt of looming cutbacks.

The number of underfunded emergencies will likely increase, Hidalgo suggested, citing Ethiopia, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic as examples. Pakistan and other hotspots which receive ample media attention might not suffer as much.

How contractors can prepare

The United States, one of the world's top funders of humanitarian relief efforts, may not be able to avoid funding cuts either, Hidalgo suggested. President Obama recently nominated Rajiv Shah as U.S. Agency for International Development administrator, but some industry experts have quietly voiced concern about the 36-year-old's ability to protect the agency's programs amid other pressing diplomatic and defense priorities.

"The concern is that as he doesn't have that much of a developed position on things, or at least, not that we know of, he won't have enough seniority or a clear enough policy to already determine what foreign assistance policy should be about, and have sufficient weight on foreign assistance issues as the other branches of U.S. foreign policy," she argued.

In order to ensure that donor countries maintain their commitment to dealing with humanitarian disasters, non-governmental organizations and others should prepare for the storm ahead.

Hidalgo suggested that NGOs and other development contractors intensify their advocacy efforts and form a collective voice on the issue of humanitarian aid.

"They have to advocate very strongly," she said. "I think it's really important not to cut back on advocacy at first, so there isn't such a strong decrease in aid, and so NGOs are still able to receive funding."

As the purse strings tighten, relief groups should also look at partnering with similar organizations on cost-sharing initiatives, Hidalgo suggested. International organizations should, for instance, make greater efforts to partner with counterparts located in hard-to-reach crisis regions.

"Many times, it's the case that national NGOs are not only more efficient, but more effective because they know the local situation," Hidalgo explained. "This is especially true when there's a natural disaster scenario. Things become a little more difficult in conflict scenarios, as was the case with Somalia. Sometimes international cover provides additional protection for the agencies involved."

While there might be less incentive for donors to fund prevention and capacity-building efforts, Hidalgo suggested the exact opposite was necessary: scaled-up prevention and capacity-building. She noted that the benefits reaped from investing in those areas could help to build better response mechanisms for humanitarian crises and reduce overall need in the future.

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