Why the Central Emergency Response Fund is asking for $1B

By Amy Lieberman 12 October 2016

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addresses the high-level conference on the Central Emergency Response Fund in 2014. CERF aims to raise its annual budget to $1 billion by 2018. Photo by: Amanda Voisard / U.N.

The United Nations’ Central Emergency Response Fund is feeling the strain of the global humanitarian aid budget. Already underfunded and oversubscribed, CERF is now looking to raise its annual budget to $1 billion by 2018 — a doubling of current resources.

The emergency jump-start organization, situated within the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, mainly funds emergency situations and underfunded crises, or the “small tiny emergencies no one notices,” said Michael Jensen, the organization’s head of performance, monitoring and policy.

CERF will host a pledging meeting in December with the aim of expanding its donor base, from the current reliance on mainly European country donors — Australia and Canada also make up its top 10 list of donors out of the 126 countries that have contributed to CERF.* The fund is now examining how it can increase support from countries including Japan, France, Kuwait and China, and to bridge a collaboration with the private sector.

“The General Assembly established CERF as a ‘fund for all, by all’ but 67 member states have yet to contribute,” Claudia Hargarten, CERF’s public information officer, wrote in an email. “A second group of member states outside the top donor list is considered a priority for 2017-2018 and should be persuaded to increase or initiate funding to CERF.”

CERF will engage with these countries at the U.N. and national level to create a better understanding of both the organization and these governments’ humanitarian programs.

CERF, designed to kick-start funding for emergencies, does not accept earmarked funding from its donors. Last year, Yemen received the greatest percentage of its allocations, followed by Syria, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan.

U.N. agencies are eligible to directly apply for CERF funding, which has the potential to materialize within 48 hours, in the case of a major natural disaster or other emergency. This funding trickled down to 45 countries in 2015, supporting the work of 463 projects through 72 grants. In 2014, 366 national nongovernmental organizations and 554 partners benefits from CERF funding to U.N. agencies.

CERF has released a grant of $5 million to address the needs of people in the Caribbean impacted by Hurricane Matthew, which has killed more than 1,000 people in Haiti after hitting Tuesday. Last week CERF released an additional $8 million to UNICEF to scale up its response to the worsening cholera epidemic in Haiti.

Growing demand

CERF has received $345 million out of its $450 million requested budget so far in 2016, or 77 percent. But it has already allocated $360 million, drawing on last year’s funding pool. The 10-year-old facility is expecting more money to flow this month and is also waiting for Sweden to deliver on an additional new pledge of about $23 million.

“The big picture is the global needs have been increasing dramatically. The requirements for humanitarian appeals have quadrupled since CERF was created,” said Christelle Loupforest, the organization’s acting chief of resource mobilization in September. “We are constantly receiving applications from organizations that contact us and we have to say, ‘Sorry, we cannot give you money for this.’”

Humanitarian responses this year require $19.57 billion — and only 42 percent of that has been delivered so far. Various U.N. agencies, including the U.N. Population Fund and UNICEF, have also recently reported a decline in their core resources, distinguished from earmarked funding for a particular issue or region.

For CERF, “it’s not a very good situation,” Loupforest explained.

“In many cases we are not providing as much funding as we would like, so people [U.N. agency representatives] keep on coming back.”

The strong El Nino season of 2015 and 2016, resulting in droughts from South America to Southern Africa, have showed the limitation of CERF’s budget. While the fund has allocated $117.5 million to El Nino-related issues in places such as Ethiopia, Somalia and Malawi, a number of organizations returned for — and were denied — a second round of money.

“We had to tell them that, ‘We can’t afford to fund the response to El Nino. You need to find the funding elsewhere. This is not us,’” recalled Romina Woldemariam, the organization’s lead for rapid response.

Prospects for better funding

A key challenge in reaching CERF’s $1 billion annual funding vision — first announced this past spring — is the fund’s small donor base. The United Kingdom has consistently been its largest funder, followed by Sweden and Norway. This year, the United Kingdom dropped down to become the fund’s fifth largest country donor, out of 38 countries contributing so far.

CERF officials say they do not think there is a risk of the U.K. walking away from the organization with a change of leadership and funding climate at the Department for International Development. Still, a strong U.S. dollar has overall caused some funding losses. The Brexit referendum alone resulted in a $10 million loss in CERF’s projected income, due to exchange rate fluctuations.

Following the December pledge request, it could take CERF a year or so to build up $1 billion, resulting in a possible budget request for about $750 million for 2017, or perhaps an open target.

“We need to increase support from other wealthy nations that are not giving enough,” Loupforest said. “We need to broaden our base.”

* Update, Oct. 14, 2016: This article has been updated to clarify that Australia and Canada also make up the top 10 list of donor countries that have contributed to CERF.

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About the author

Amy Liebermanamylieberman

Amy Lieberman is a reporter for Devex, based out of New York, where she covers global development around the city and out of the United Nations. She has previously worked as a freelancer, reporting on the environment, social justice issues, immigration and development. Her coverage has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, Slate and The Los Angeles Times, among other outlets. She received her M.A. in politics and government from Columbia Journalism School in 2014.

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