Top donors call for more humanitarian 'burden-sharing'

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Humanitarian and medical supplies related to COVID-19 arrive at an airport in Guatemala City, Guatemala. Photo by: Latin America News Agency via Reuters

BURLINGTON, Vt. — The world’s top 10 donors contribute 80% of humanitarian funding, a situation they say is unsustainable in light of budget pressures and increased needs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Representatives from the largest donor governments spoke Thursday at a United Nations General Assembly side event convened by the U.S. Many of them stressed the need for greater “burden-sharing” in humanitarian assistance, particularly by expanding the donor base to include new governments.

“The very small number of donors providing the major part of humanitarian assistance worldwide has always been challenging. In the light of skyrocketing needs, however, this is getting completely unsustainable. We can’t put more and more responsibility on fewer and fewer shoulders,” said Sibylle Sorg, Germany’s director general for crisis prevention and stabilization, post-conflict peace building, and humanitarian assistance.

“We, the top 10, should collectively reach out to new donors, encouraging them to enter the field of humanitarian assistance. And we should increase, or at least maintain, our funding levels from 2019. This is crucial to remain credible in our endeavor to broaden the bases,” Sorg added.

Multiple donor representatives also stressed the need to ensure better humanitarian funding, in addition to more humanitarian funding.

“COVID-19 is amplifying humanitarian needs but also putting pressure on many donors’ resources.”

— Janez Lenarčič, European Union commissioner for crisis management

Per Olsson Fridh, Sweden’s state secretary to the minister for international development cooperation, said that his country has sought to provide an example of “good donorship” when it comes to humanitarian assistance.

“This is not only a question of quantity, but also on the quality of funding,” Fridh said.

He noted that while donors agreed to increase flexible funding and reduce earmarking as part of the so-called Grand Bargain agreed during the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, these “have made less headway than other issues.”

“Sweden is worried about this development. The COVID-19 pandemic has also shown the importance of flexible funding, flexible core funding for … agencies to act fast and forcefully, and to allocate resources where they are most needed,” he said.

Some major humanitarian donors have seen their assistance budgets come under strain due to the financial fallout from the pandemic. In the U.K., rumors have circulated that the government might reconsider the law that ties its official development assistance to 0.7% of gross national income — and even with that law in place, U.K. assistance is expected to shrink as the economy contracts.

James Duddridge, minister for Africa at the newly created Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, said that the U.K. “remains committed” to the 0.7% aid spending target but called on international financial institutions to “step up.”

He also noted that only two permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the U.S. and the U.K. — are among the top 10 aid donors.

Janez Lenarčič, European Union commissioner for crisis management, acknowledged that “COVID-19 is amplifying humanitarian needs but also putting pressure on many donors’ resources.”

Lenarčič noted that the EU is still negotiating its next seven-year budget, but he said he is “confident” the bloc’s humanitarian funding will increase.

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“The European Union — and I personally — believe in and support a strong multilateral system with the United Nations at its core delivering as one. This is the best safeguard for a principled response,” Lenarčič said.

“With needs increasing, we should not be guided by political considerations in deciding what we fund and where. We should solely be guided by the needs of the people who need our help,” he added.

U.S. officials also weighed in on the politics of humanitarian aid, aiming criticisms at China without mentioning the country by name.

“What we need is transparent assistance that saves lives, not photo-ops and faulty [personal protective equipment] that puts people even more at risk,” said John Barsa, acting administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“We will not manipulate multilateral organizations to push our own domestic agenda,” Barsa added — despite numerous examples of the U.S. government using its funding leverage to advance domestic priorities.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.