Shifts in Humanitarian Aid: A Look at Post-Recession Data

A few agencies have recently published their concerns that the “double dip” recession will negatively affect humanitarian aid, even as the worst famine in decades continues to hit East Africa. Have aid levels really been affected by the recession? If so, which countries are likely to feel the most impact? What factors are shaping aid decisions? In this post, we look at the latest data from the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC), the definitive source for international humanitarian aid data, and discuss the changes in aid that have transpired since the start of the 2007 recession.

Overall trends

If humanitarian aid shifts during this recession, such a shift would be a new phenomenon; when we investigated global aid trends during prior recessions, we found that aid usually didn’t significantly change during or soon after economic downturns, probably because foreign assistance is such as small part of government budgets, and because aid changes are often driven by disasters and conflicts rather than supply-side politics alone.

The first graph above depicts global humanitarian aid from 2006 to 2009 (all graphs are courtesy of GHA; note that the colors in this graph are incorrect for the last column, which should be black on top and green on the bottom). As shown in the graph, humanitarian aid actually increased a bit during 2008, likely reflecting commitments made before the recession. But aid then decreased 11% to $15.1 billion in 2009. The 2010 numbers won’t be released until later this year. The available figures refer to forms of aid that reach “delivery agencies” such as United Nations subsidiaries, non-governmental organizations and the Red Cross. Of note, while the 2008 contribution from governments is smaller than 2007, it still remains higher than earlier years. Of particular interest is that private donations have increased almost 50% since 2006 and have remained steady during the recession.

A major caveat to these numbers is that many humanitarian assistance dollars are difficult for the OECD or related sources to collate and categorize; the data also reflect committed dollars as opposed to actual disbursed dollars, while governments are notorious for making promises they don’t keep. Also, not all aid is in the form of real dollars; many countries are famous for providing technical expertise or other forms of assistance that can be difficult to quantify. And many governments contribute significant aid while being outside of the OECD. The official aid data additionally exclude money that’s sent from family members or friends overseas, as well as money that are spent locally by domestic government agencies redistributing funds within a country.

A related issue is how governments will classify aid as “humanitarian”. Development assistance overall (usually coded as official development assistance, ODA) includes long-term programs like water and sanitation programs or education funding. It’s really only the short-term funds that are classified as “humanitarian” aid, given the historical focus on disaster relief. It turns out that humanitarian aid used to account for 8.6% of ODA in 2000, and then rose to 9.4% in 2008 before falling to 7.8% in 2009. Perhaps this reflects less willingness of donors to contribute to aid because of recession; on the other hand, it may be a consequence of changes in how aid is distributed. That is, humanitarian aid levels were about the same for many years, then increased substantially in 2003 and 2005 (by 20% and 35%, respectively); since 2005, humanitarian aid again remained stable, with less than 10% variation between years. But ODA (the denominator of the percentage of aid that’s humanitarian in nature) was initially stable until 2008, when it suddenly increased by 26% and remained higher since then, diluting out the amount of aid that is made up by humanitarian funds. So humanitarian aid over the last decade increased by 48%, but ODA increased overall by 62%, making it seem like a smaller percentage of overall development funds have been going to humanitarian aid. The trends could be interpreted as suggesting that humanitarian assistance spiked as a result of major conflicts (e.g., Iraq and Afghanistan), while overall ODA later increased during a time when major contributors shifted their focus on longer-term development rather than short-term spending (e.g., the change of White House administrations).

Who’s getting the money?

The graph below depicts the growth in humanitarian funding from 1999 to 2008. It reveals that about 72% of all humanitarian aid was spent in conflict zones (which includes both active war zones and post-conflict areas).

Surprisingly, Sudan makes up an increasingly large share of funds over the past decade, exceeding the funding for Iraq and Afghanistan. Palestine also now receives more than Iraq, mostly as a result of increased expenditures from the US and Europe. There’s a marked decline in funding to Iraq over the last several years, followed by a sudden surge of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan in 2008 that almost reaches start-of-war levels from 2002. What’s not reflected in this graph is a subsequent dramatic decline in funding to Afghanistan in 2009, such that the country had the largest fall in humanitarian aid of any nation that year.

Of note, aid doesn’t include peacekeeping operations and various security funds, which are considered “non-humanitarian” funding streams. As a comparison to the money displayed in the graph, United Nations peacekeeping cost $7.4 billion in 2010, and the OECD donors spent about $3.8 billion of additional security funds on mine clearance, demobilization and related stabilization activities that year. Also of interest is that military budgets now include aid not disclosed to this database; militaries have increasingly taken over humanitarian aid duties, which groups like Doctors Without Borders have grave concerns about (as civilians attempting to get assistance from soldiers on one side of the conflict may be threatened if seen by opposing soldiers).

The graph below shows the top twenty recipients of humanitarian aid since the year 2000. The countries are sorted from left to right in order of the extent to which their overall ODA is made up by humanitarian assistance; in other words, Somalia receives almost 75% of its ODA in the form of short-term humanitarian aid rather than long-term development dollars. The three countries on the left receive more than half of their aid funds this way; another ten receive more than 20% in humanitarian aid dollars. Not all of that is surprising, since the list of countries here corresponds to those nations recently engaged in major conflicts.

Who’s giving the money?

The United States still tops other donors in overall aid, contributing $4.3 billion in humanitarian aid in 2009, a decline of less than 5% from 2008; in absolute dollars, however, it is the fourth largest decline in aid from 2008 to 2009. The major change has been to the number two donor, the continental EU donors (via their ECHO collective mechanism), who decreased their funding by almost 20% to $1.6 billion. The Netherlands and Ireland were the second and third biggest choppers of aid in 2009. By contrast, the United Kingdom (the world’s third largest donor behind the US and EU) actually increased its aid from 2008 to 2009 to by $150 million. The other top ten donors are: Germany, Spain, Sweden, Netherlands, Norway, Canada and France (note that some European countries can contribute either via the EU mechanism or individually). Only Canada is a new edition to this list; it took Italy’s place in 2009.

However, when we calculate how much aid is given per citizen for each country, the profile of donors changes dramatically. The United States, UK and continental EU ECHO drop off the list altogether. The top donor per citizen is actually Luxembourg (with each citizen contributing just over US$126 to humanitarian aid expenditure), followed by Norway and Sweden, then Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, UAE, Finland, Switzerland and Belgium. While the UK made the largest increase in aid during the recession period, it was followed by increases from Sweden, Australia, Turkey and Spain of over US$20 million; this despite Spain’s profound recession problems. Increases were also made by Canada, Finland, Hungary and Luxembourg.

Who needs the money?

While estimates of who needs funding are of course imperfect, the United Nations does dedicate an extensive program to estimate the cost of addressing major humanitarian emergencies going on in the world. This UN “consolidated appeals project” provides some data on how commensurate the aid is to actual needs.

The gap between needs and committed funds has remained essentially stable over time during the last decade (see the green area on the graph). But overall appeals for funding, reflecting the cost of managing ongoing emergencies, has increased over the ten year period. What’s also curious is that the yellow line reflects overall humanitarian funding, and is higher than the amount requested through appeals. In other words, while there is theoretically enough humanitarian aid funding being committed to various areas, it’s going to areas other than those for which the UN believes there are unmet needs. The actual areas that the UN believes are most needy are being underfunded by about 30%.

Of current concern are the funding levels available for Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Sudan during their ongoing famine, which we discussed in a previous post. Recent data allow us to look at how humanitarian aid, ODA and overall population needs have changed over time since 1995 in this region. Our readers can download the full data (in Excel format) here.

Overall, the trends in aid data may not only reflect consequences of recession, but also shifts in how aid is disbursed (from short-term to long-term programs) or individual plans from specific governments to reduce commitments to key conflict-affected countries (Iraq and Afghanistan in particular). Some governments like the UK have actually increased their funding during recession, but this has been outweighed by large decreases in aid from the EU. The aid data do show some surprising trends in who we think gets the most humanitarian assistance versus who really does, and serves as a launching pad for figuring out the more complex politics behind these decisions.

Sanjay Bansu, MD, PhD, is a public health epidemiologist. His blog, EpiAnalysis, is a forum for public health epidemiologists who study global health data, healthcare policy, economics, and sociology.

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