UN seeks $2 billion coronavirus emergency fund

‘To leave the world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries to their fate would be both cruel and unwise.’

Volunteers carry UNICEF-donated supplies in Wuhan
Volunteers carry UNICEF-donated supplies in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the early epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak. (UNICEF)

The UN is calling for $2 billion in new funds to tackle coronavirus in countries with critical humanitarian needs. Launching the unprecedented global appeal, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said COVID-19 is “menacing the whole of humanity”.

Countries with existing humanitarian crises “are particularly vulnerable, and less equipped and able” to respond, the UN said in an 81-page response plan accompanying the appeal, warning that “political stability and security will also be at stake” in some places.

“To leave the world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries to their fate would be both cruel and unwise,” UN relief chief Mark Lowcock said. “If we leave coronavirus to spread freely in these places, we would be placing millions at high risk, whole regions will be tipped into chaos and the virus will have the opportunity to circle back around the globe.”

The funding request – an “initial estimate” – is to pay for new emergency interventions during the rest of 2020 in public health, logistics, and socio-economic support for the most vulnerable communities in up to 64 countries, including those hosting refugees and other migrants.

Comparing it to the US Congressional package of $2 trillion, Guterres said the amount being requested was “a drop in the ocean”.

The appeal includes proposals for new UN COVID-19 operations in Iran, and for a major dedicated sea and air logistics operation for humanitarian staff and supplies. It includes $450 million for the World Health Organisation, and takes UN-led 2020 humanitarian funding requirements from $28.7 billion to over $30 billion. The original projections had been aimed at helping 110 million people in ongoing crisis situations.

Prior appeals from UN agencies have been swept away by the increased severity of the pandemic. For example, UNICEF’s initial appeal was for $42 million. Its total ask to donors is today $651 million – $405 million for humanitarian situations, and another $246 million for low- and middle-income countries not classified as facing a humanitarian crisis.

Lowcock announced a new $60 million contribution from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF). While wealthy countries face huge financial demands, he said those most susceptible to COVID-19 must be included in the control effort “if anybody on the planet wants to be safe”.

What the money is for

The UN’s new Global Humanitarian Response Plan outlines measures to contain the virus; to support wider public health efforts; to provide clean water and sanitation for handwashing; and to limit related impacts – on availability of food, unemployment, schooling, migration, access to reliable information, and potential tensions and unrest.

Twenty-five countries already have UN humanitarian operations unrelated to COVID-19. Each of those already has a UN response plan and funding appeal attached to it that may be updated in consultation with the concerned government. Those can be revised as events unfold. A further 38 countries are hosting refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers – 17 of which are hosting Venezuelans fleeing economic collapse.

Typical lag times for grant agreements are slow. The new global appeal, covering the rest of the year, aims to get resources moving immediately and “layered” onto existing operations, according to Megan Gilgan, deputy director of public partnerships for UNICEF.

“Speed and flexibility are of the essence," said Gilgan. “We need to be smart, but we need to be fast.” As well as signing off quickly on new projects, she and other NGO officials all urged donors to tolerate delays and changes to existing projects.

The plan does not create a new oversight system, relying mainly on existing set-ups, with a significant role for the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA. Using existing “light and agile” coordination structures is sensible, as “creating new tools in the middle of a crisis” is unlikely to work, said Gilgan.

In response to a question from TNH, Lowcock said the coordination structure, which divides responsibilities between the WHO, the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), and OCHA is “tried and tested” – for example in the recent Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Existing UN humanitarian appeals, including budgets for long-running crises such as Yemen and Syria, were only 2 percent funded by the end of February.

“Speed and flexibility are of the essence. We need to be smart, but we need to be fast.

The new appeal urges donors not to divert money from other relief projects, but to find new resources.

Gareth Price-Jones, executive secretary of a humanitarian NGO association involved in the preparation of the COVID-19 appeal – the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR) – believes this is critical. “If funds are diverted from longer-term programming to immediate needs in a short-sighted way, that worsens both the response to COVID, and the response to other underfunded crises (such as the locust swarms),” he said.

NGO representation

Several NGO officials cautiously welcomed the plan, even while noting that the document’s financials are dominated by the UN and that the text was drafted rapidly in a “top-down” approach.

The document contains a budget line of just $100 million earmarked for NGOs – 95 percent of its proposals call for funding to nine UN bodies. However, the plan signals that the UN agencies will act as intermediaries, sub-granting significant funds to local and international aid groups doing work in the field, according to which are best placed.

One senior NGO official, who requested anonymity to speak freely, said “we are bothered by it” and that “it looks like a UN appeal” despite claiming to be a joint effort with NGOs. While it could never have included every NGO’s “ask”, the plan's design was a “huge missed opportunity” to get money to the field faster, with fewer steps in the contracting chain, the official added.

However, this person, as well as several other NGO officials contacted by TNH, said they were pleased some of their concerns had been listened to in the drafting process. A public dispute about the final document would have been damaging for the collective effort and not worth it, they added.

Localisation

The upheavals in international travel, lockdowns, and quarantine regulations mean that international aid groups – the UN and NGOs alike – have been partly paralysed, while local agencies, including the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, have been more able to swing into action.

A bigger role for local aid groups may become a persistent feature of the humanitarian response to COVID-19. “Localisation could be the big winner here – by necessity rather than design,” said one senior NGO official familiar with the appeal process.

Despite 95 percent of the funds going to the UN, the plan says “putting national and local NGOs at the centre of humanitarian operations… will become the reality in COVID-19 operations for the next few months, out of necessity, and has the potential to provide the blueprint for humanitarian operations in the longer term.”

What does it not include?

The UN’s new response plan says it ”does not attempt to deal with secondary or tertiary issues related to macro-economic effects or more longer-term requirements”.

The WHO, as well as needing funding for its own operations, is acting as a fundraiser, in a separate $675 million plan to support governments worldwide, according to their relative readiness. That plan, drafted early February, will be re-issued and updated.

The appeals and response proposals of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement are separate from the UN plan. Parts of COVID-19 appeals from international NGOs (several have issued independent calls for $30 million or more) could be met from funds flowing through the UN agencies. Other UN organs, including the UN agency for Palestine refugees, have issued appeals that have not been folded into the new package.

UN agencies that work in development, and non-“humanitarian” situations, may, like UNICEF, seek additional funding for other situations.

Additional response and spending plans have been drawn up by the World Bank, which may address some needs in the fragile countries covered by the UN appeal.

As the pandemic spreads, further countries may be pushed into crisis, and can be added to revisions of the UN plan.

The UN’s watchlist includes: Greece, Indonesia, Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Nepal, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Sierra Leone, Timor-Leste, and Zimbabwe, in addition to parts of Central America and the Pacific. The plan will be updated, as frequently as every month if required, said Lowcock.

As the rest of the world braces for the impact of COVID-19, is the UN plan ambitious enough and will the humanitarian response stop the worst of the pandemic? “It's an initial marker... this number will move,” said Gilgan. The senior NGO worker said: “Inshallah, I guess.”

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