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Emergency aid funding fell in 2017, even as Syria/Yemen wars drove needs higher

Despite calls to reform and “localise” the response to humanitarian crises, two thirds of the money went to just 13 major groups

The numbers are in: 2017 was another costly year for humanitarian aid donors, but despite huge needs in Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, and elsewhere, funding levels have stagnated.

In 2017, preliminary UN figures show a drop in relief funding of $1.56 billion, or seven percent, against 2016, despite rising needs. Funding levels continue to be heavily reliant on the United States and the European Union, while an inner circle of 13 aid agencies commands two thirds of spending.

Confirmed 2017 funding reported to the UN’s Financial Tracking Service (FTS) was $21.3 billion, down from $22.9 billion in 2016. The data could still be adjusted with edits and additions, for example when amounts are moved from a status of “pledged” to “paid”. Donors and recipients report voluntarily to the system on a rolling basis. However, the decline shown in 2017 is in the context of a 19 percent increase in needs, according to the total price tag for the UN-managed response plans – reflecting increasing levels of need that donors didn’t keep pace with.

FTS is the most complete source of information on international humanitarian funding, and major donor governments submit their data to it. However it does not include the full extent of international relief spending.

For example, at least $5 billion of annual donations from private individuals to NGOs are not listed in the database. Médecins Sans Frontières alone reported spending of €1.4 billion in 2016, funded almost entirely from individuals.

An annual review of humanitarian financing is produced by the consultancy Development Initiatives. The Global Humanitarian Assistance report, expected in June, triangulates FTS with other data sources to provide a fuller picture.

Who spends where?

The pool of official donors is dominated by a small group: the 15 largest donors gave 86 percent of the money. Repeating the pattern in 2016, the largest donors are the United States, the European Union, Germany, and the UK. Despite fears for the aid budget under Donald Trump’s presidency, levels of US emergency funding have yet to show any significant changes.

Over half of all funding goes to the following largest crises: Yemen, Syria (and its neighbours), South Sudan, Iraq, and Somalia. This interactive graphic allows you to see where donors focus their energies – some spread even their modest budget across a wide range of locations -- others are more selective.

Pick a donor and see where the funding flows.


(IRIN built this 2017 dataset of donor-recipient pairings of more than $500,000 used here via the FTS API. It excludes donations for centralised, pooled, or multicountry purposes that couldn’t be mapped. However, to avoid missing a large tranche, funding for Syrian refugee operations is marked as directed to Syria.)

Fair shares

The United States pays about 30 percent of the total, but is the world’s largest economy paying an unfair amount? It depends how you look at it.

Rich countries have long been urged to spend 0.7 percent of their national income on development aid. However, they currently give about 0.32 percent. Emergency (or humanitarian) funding is only a portion of that, and there is no agreed target.

The donor countries who are the most generous with emergency aid spending are those who give the highest portion of their national income to humanitarian aid. The United States gives only 0.04 percent of its national income to humanitarian funding, placing it 16th in 2017.

IRIN calculates that the highest percentage was 0.12 percent, from Denmark. So the United States is not contributing beyond its means, at least compared to other major donors.

However, it could be argued that other large economies are not pulling their weight. The world’s second-largest economy, China, contributes very little to the conventional humanitarian aid apparatus.

And if, for example, Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, were to spread its income over the course of a year, we calculate that only 52 minutes’ worth would go towards financing emergency relief.

Who spends it?

The UN agencies have long dominated the finances of humanitarian aid, and last year they commanded 59 percent of the funding. The World Food Programme is the undisputed giant: the Rome-based UN agency took in $5.7 billion, more than twice the amount of second-placed UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency (WFP’s figures are not all cash – its turnover is boosted by the value of food commodities received and distributed).

As described in a related IRIN analysis, “The Humanitarian Economy”, a remarkably small group of aid agencies dominates the “market” – forming what some have called an oligopoly. In 2017, 13 big UN agencies and larger NGOs controlled two thirds of the funding. The largest non-Western, non-UN agency is the national branch of the Red Crescent of the United Arab Emirates.

A package of emergency aid reforms agreed at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, the Grand Bargain, commits major donors and field-based aid agencies to reduce overheads, streamline administrative costs, support local aid groups, and shift more spending to cash.

Whether or not the reforms are being implemented, the Grand Bargain now represents the consensus: 88 percent of all emergency aid reported to the UN comes from donors that have signed up to it. Many of the biggest aid agencies that receive donor funding have also signed up, and IRIN‘s analysis shows they get 70 percent of the funds. The Grand Bargain signatories on both sides of the table therefore represent the core humanitarian players. A progress report is due next month on the sidelines of the UN’s humanitarian meetings on how far they have actually stuck to their commitments.

The club of the major donors, the OECD, also released its figures recently. These capture all international aid (developmental and emergency-related) from major economies, under an extensive set of definitions that are regularly tweaked. For 2017, they also report a total aid spend of $146 billion (a small dip on 2016). Updated 16 May: The proportion of that which went on strictly humanitarian or emergency work is 10.5%. Some spending by rich countries on receiving refugees is also down, compared to 2016, according to the OECD figures. The rules for defining what should be allowed as domestic refugee aid spending were a subject of lengthy negotiations last year, as reported by IRIN.


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