UN funding appeal of $22B signals call for new approaches, experts say

Stephen O’Brien (center), head of U.N.’s Office of Humanitarian Affairs visits South Sudan to see first-hand the devastating humanitarian consequences of the conflict as well as efforts by aid organizations to respond to escalating needs. Photo by: JC McIlwaine / United Nations

The United Nations’ annual humanitarian appeal of more than $22 billion — the largest amount the organization has ever requested — is aimed at addressing a slew of protracted and emergency crises, from Syria and Yemen to Nigeria and Sudan, raging across the world.

But the gigantic funding request for 2017, delivered last week, also serves as a reminder that traditional approaches of tracking global appeals and fundraising strategies are becoming outdated. That now has to change, experts say.

The U.N.’s Office of Humanitarian Affairs has requested $22.2 billion to reach the world’s most vulnerable 92.8 million people who need aid, an increase from the $22.1 billion they sought in 2016.

Yet these annual appeals only offer a partial picture of the funding requirements for humanitarian work worldwide, says Barnaby Willits-King, a research fellow focused on international aid at the think tank Overseas Development Institute.

“There’s a growing elephant in the room of what is not captured by the appeal. We are trying to say what the problem is and yet we don’t know what the problems are, or the solutions, because there is a whole set of things that are not being tracked,” he explained.

The U.N. system appeal only considers pledges from donor governments, not fully taking into account some emerging country donors, the private sector and other development actors. Last year, the United States, Germany, the European Commission, the United Kingdom and Japan were the largest donors. Private donors also contributed about 2 percent to the pool.

“The annual appeal comes out and everyone goes, ‘Oh, this is terrible, the needs are terrible,’ ... but I think the problem we have at the moment is there is such a growing gulf between what is coming from the Western donors, who are really the main ones responding to these appeals, and what the appeals don’t capture,” Willits-King said. “They don’t include the Red Cross, the World Bank, the work local organizations are doing. And we see this playing a massive role.”

The appeal also does not include donations from China or many of the Gulf States, as lack of transparency makes their pledges challenging to dissect.

One solution to the growing, unmet need for humanitarian aid is investing in the insurance space, said Saadia Madsbjerg, the managing director of the Rockefeller Foundation. The Rockefeller Foundation, for example, supports the African Risk Capacity. It’s a specialized agency of the African Union created to help African governments mitigate risks of extreme weather and natural disasters by pooling responses and funds before the event occurs.

“How do we put in place mechanisms to withstand the effects of those shocks [of disaster] and climate change is one of those shocks,” Madsbjerg said. “It’s more about minimizing the effect of the shock and allowing people to rebound faster instead of being thrown into the downward spiral where things keep getting worse.”

Madsbjerg said that while she cannot speak for the U.N., there is an increased momentum within the past few years to consider how funds can be better put to use and considering long-term solutions.

Overall, as the U.N.’s annual humanitarian appeals have grown over the last decade, quadrupling last year from the $5.2 billion requested in 2016, donations have not kept pace. Only 52 percent of the appeal was met last year, resulting in a funding gap of a record high $10.7 billion. Unmet needs reached $1.7 billion in 2006.

“There is a massive gap and that gap has existed for a long time. So, there is the overall problem of there is not enough funding, but then there is the other problem that is equally important is that the money does not arrive in time,” said Madsbjerg. “The more you delay the money being made available, the more the costs actually go up in dealing with the crisis and the human suffering, as well. It is not just about economics.”

The overflowing Syrian refugee crisis, Syria, Yemen and Nigeria receive the highest allocations in this year’s funding request, with more than $1 billion allocated for each country. And the largest increase in requests comes from Nigeria, Haiti and Afghanistan.

In total, the appeal, which offers a preliminary estimate, support humanitarian work in 33 countries, according to the U.N.

“The scale of humanitarian crises today is greater than at any time since the United Nations was founded. Not in living memory have so many people needed our support and solidarity to survive and live in safety and dignity,” said Stephen O’Brien, U.N.’s undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, at the launch of the Global Humanitarian Overview in Geneva, according to a statement.

Last year, specific regions most in need with unfulfilled funding pledges were scattered across Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.

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About the author

  • Lieberman amy

    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the New York 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.