NGOs say most COVID-19 funding is stuck in multilateral system

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LONDON — The U.K. government must increase humanitarian funding to front-line NGOs to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, politicians and aid leaders insisted Friday — saying that less than 2% of funding committed under the Global Humanitarian Response Plan has so far made it to NGOs.

Concerns were raised at an inquiry held by the International Development Committee — the parliamentary watchdog overseeing the Department for International Development — about the relative lack of direct funding given to NGOs. Much of the funding is instead being directed through the United Nations or other multilateral organizations, which slows down distribution.

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“As a front-line NGO, we continue to be really worried about how much money is making it to the front line,” said Bob Kitchen, director of emergency preparedness and response at the International Rescue Committee.

He told members of Parliament that only $13 million of $900 million committed under the U.N.-coordinated Global Humanitarian Response Plan has “made into the hands of NGOs as of 10 days ago.”

“It's slow getting to front-line actors,” Kitchen said, adding that the rest of the money “is moving through the system.”

Aid agencies say that they have programming ready to be delivered and that speed is essential to prevent severe outbreaks of COVID-19 among vulnerable communities.

“DFID is doing a very good job in getting the money out, but it seems predominantly [to be] going to multilateral organizations like the U.N., and there is a definite lag in [that money] getting to the NGOs, and NGOs are suffering because [they] haven’t got cash they need on the front line,” said Sarah Champion, member of Parliament and chair of IDC, after hearing evidence from NGO leaders.

“It's very clear there is a window where we can be shoring up and making [communities] resilient and indeed preventing outbreaks of COVID-19, particularly in the global south, but that window is closing very, very quickly, if not shutting. So we need to be much more swift in our response in getting that money out to the front line,” Champion said.

DFID’s humanitarian funding saw £130 million ($158 million) go to U.N. agencies, along with £50 million to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Just £18 million went to six NGOs through the Rapid Response Facility — with NGOs calling for that figure to be raised fivefold — and over £24 million has been given to nine NGOs working on a hygiene and sanitation campaign that is jointly funded with Unilever.

There are widespread fears among NGOs that the bulk of the money will take a long time to be disbursed through the U.N. system and that NGOs will not be able to recoup the same costs compared with donations directly from DFID.

“A lot of that U.N. money actually ends up in the hands of NGOs but it takes two to three months to get there,” Gwen Hines, executive director of global programs at Save the Children, told MPs.

“We are then finding costs stripped out and not being able to reclaim the full cost of things like safeguarding and evaluation, which is really, really important,” she added.

“There is a window where we can be shoring up and making [communities] resilient ... but that window is closing very, very quickly.”

— Sarah Champion, chair, International Development Committee

Hines said there are coalitions of NGOs working “very successfully” in countries such as Yemen and Somalia “who can operate at the same scale as the U.N. much more quickly.”

Aleema Shivji, executive director of Humanity & Inclusion UK, emphasized finding the “right balance” between U.N. agencies and NGOs and “making sure the value-for-money analysis ... is looking at actual impact on populations and communities and not just what’s quicker to get out the door.”

Shivji suggested that DFID should target 30% of its funding to front-line organizations.

The Rapid Response Facility is a “good model” for the “flexible, nimble funding” required to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kitchen told MPs.

Referring to the £18 million that was announced via the RRF on Friday, he said: “I hope this is the first salvo of funding to come through it. I hope that it is scaled up.”

He added that “putting money in the hands of large, global, trusted partners to make decisions ourselves as to where the greatest needs are through consortia is another really flexible way to work.”

Update, May 18: This article has been updated to reflect that DFID allocated £50 million to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

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About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process. He can be reached at