Familiar humanitarian issues are taking on more urgency heading into 2022 as the emergency aid sector grapples with the fallouts of COVID-19 and climate change, and the continued reverberations of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The sector saw some notable changes in 2021 – the appointment of a new UN humanitarian chief, the revamping and upgrading of five-year-old system-wide commitments, and a raft of new pledges on responding to the world’s internally displaced and the climate crisis. However, 2021 did not deliver the system-wide reset some expected in response to the challenges of COVID-19.
All the while, humanitarian needs have been steadily soaring – once again outstripping financing. That trajectory is only going to get steeper as the consequences of the pandemic come into clearer view, with millions more facing poverty, hunger, or sickness.
Here are four policy trends, in no particular order, that we’ll be keeping an eye on in the coming year.
The hunt for new ways to plug the funding gap
What’s the point in mega-appeals if existing donors aren’t going to meet them?
The UN humanitarian ask for 2022 broke new records: A $41 billion request to help 183 million people in need across 63 countries – nearly double the amount requested for 2019, to assist more than three times the people targeted in 2015.
These crises come against the backdrop of flatlining funding. Martin Griffiths, the UN’s emergency relief chief, has acknowledged that “we won’t get the $41 billion”. That may not come as a surprise to humanitarians, but considering that wealthy donor nations are shelling out trillions to help their own, it shouldn’t be an impossible ask.
Louder calls for more money may be intended to shake out more from traditional donors or to find other forms of financial support – be it from private or philanthropic sources, international financial institutions (IFIs), or a different set of donor countries. But so far, this hasn’t gone so well: Despite high-level recommendations, the traditional UN donor pool hasn’t yet expanded beyond its mainly Western-driven base.
2022 looks set to be the year in which the aid sector faces a reckoning over this now-ludicrous funding gap, but the path ahead remains unclear. Will the Western-led donor set acknowledge that what was once considered “enough” is no longer that? And as the UN openly acknowledges that traditional donors will not meet the needs, will the non-traditional sources that are already plugging the gaps gain more recognition, or will new actors step up? Can existing money be made to go further through more innovative use of cash and voucher schemes? Will the “nexus” – collaboration between humanitarian, development, and peacebuilders – finally be realised so humanitarians can stay in their lane and push back on the more costly longer-term development work?
Thinking outside the box… New efforts are certainly already under way. The question is how far they will go. With traditional forms of funding insufficient, new financing models are being applied. Humanitarians have leveraged development financing, with, for example, the World Bank becoming increasingly active in crisis contexts. And the World Food Programme has been directly partnering with IFIs to deliver social protection and cash transfers in response to COVID-19. Other innovative approaches include development impact bonds for refugees.
In the meantime, individual organisations have looked to diversify their funding base: The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is experimenting with innovative financing mechanisms to tap new investment and find more efficient programming models. Other groups are generating their own social enterprises or fundraising completely outside of the traditional club of Western donors.
And many of the people not reached by the big humanitarian donors are reached by other sources that the humanitarian system doesn’t track – be it host communities, civil society, or the diaspora. Non-traditional donors like China aren’t channelling their funding through a UN-led appeal system anyway.
The emerging climate-focused mindset
Will a lot of climate talk in 2021 usher in a little more climate action in 2022?
Last year felt like a turning point when it came to the system embracing a more climate-oriented mentality: There was a more visible humanitarian presence at the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow (Médecins Sans Frontières attended for the first time); greater collaboration between the UN’s emergency aid coordination body (OCHA) and the UN Environment Programme to promote risk-informed action through their Joint Environment Unit (JEU); and 200 organisations signed a new Climate Charter aimed at addressing the climate crisis. A range of humanitarian programmes are now targeted towards climate action too.
While all of this points in a positive direction, less than one percent of humanitarian funding currently goes to anticipatory action – financing and aid activities based on risk triggers to mitigate the effects of disasters before they hit. And while there are some promising anticipatory pilot schemes, many are still at early and small-scale stages of development. Similarly low is investment in disaster risk reduction measures: Latest figures from 2019 reveal that only 1.2% of total country-allocable Overseas Development Assistance went towards these efforts.
COP26’s declaration also failed to recognise the cascading effects of climate change on humanitarian need and didn’t offer any tangible progress on loss and damage: compensation for climate-linked disasters for the most vulnerable countries. Current levels of adaptation finance – money from richer nations (which emit more) to help poorer ones (which emit less) cope with the effects of climate change – are also insufficient for lower-income countries and only expected to decline as a result of COVID-19.
Some have noted that if the level of discussion, interest, and research on climate-related approaches like anticipatory action were any indication of the funding being channelled towards them, the system would be in a much better place.
In 2022, we’ll be watching whether the heightened awareness shown in 2021 translates into action; and if the sector can come together to address the magnitude of the problem and scale up accordingly. We’ll also be looking to see whether wealthier nations share assets on data and forecasting, and asking what the big international players can learn from local actors in disaster-prone places – after all it is these civil societies and government authorities who are on the front lines and already facing the consequences.
Change is in the air… Several donors are already stepping up to the plate: Germany has committed to provide five percent of its humanitarian funding through anticipatory approaches in the next two years, and others have made similar commitments, including creating a new START Ready facility to make funds available to local actors from the moment a crisis is predicted. But these amounts pale in comparison to some of the available pots for climate financing, and it remains to be seen whether humanitarians get a slice.
Commitment to the decolonisation agenda
Will years of buzz yield real change when it comes to diversifying aid and shifting power?
The discourse on decolonisation took shape in 2020 as the aid sector grappled with colonial legacies and made attempts to rewire inherent power imbalances within the system. Organisations publicly pledged to do better when it came to diversifying their staff and becoming more inclusive places to work – introducing new policies, job titles, and staff training.
But research conducted in 2021, including by The New Humanitarian, found that despite a range of diversity, equity, and inclusion policies being in place, little progress has been made towards addressing racism in the workplace, ensuring that leadership within international NGOs is reflective of people in need, or encouraging international actors to view their local partners as fully capable.
Localisation – giving more power, voice, and funding to local organisations – is another part of the decolonisation puzzle. Last year, humanitarian groups doubled down on localisation commitments through the Grand Bargain 2.0 – elevating it to one of its two main pillars. Critics note, however, that the Grand Bargain processes have been consumed with tracking progress on the commitments themselves, not on the actual results or benefits of localising aid. And while initiatives promoting localisation and locally led practice are proliferating, shifts on the ground are inconsistent and still run up against donor risk aversion and long-running – often misguided – assumptions about the capacity of local actors.
Similarly, while localisation is a staple in nearly all humanitarian policy and literature, the discourse is driven by internationals and, some believe, sidesteps the underlying issues of power and racism. Governments have also been largely excluded from the international-led localisation discourse, despite people wanting to see their own states lead. Some heads of international groups have pushed their organisations to give more space and direct funding to local leaders, but they remain the minority. And while a handful of smaller agencies and donor nations have revised their partnership policies and practices to be more favourable to local organisations, aid resources still fall short of empowering well-placed local responders.
True change takes time, of course. In 2022, we’ll be watching for advances – or setbacks – in the decolonisation agenda.
New momentum from the US? USAID chief Samantha Power’s recent commitment of 25 percent of funding to local groups (up from 6 percent today) over the next four years may spur other donors to follow. The hope is that more stable and longer-term funding flows from the United States – and others – may finally see local aid organisations less dependent on one-off partner agreements and allow them to scale up and sustain their operations. Some of the largest international organisations have also been busy hammering out a “pledge” to change partnership models, their lexicon, and the images they use.
Thornier aid access trade-offs
Is there a right way to uphold humanitarian principles, while also speaking out for human rights?
A series of major conflicts and political upheavals in 2021 heightened the tensions and trade-offs humanitarian groups face when they seek to uphold their values while trying to access people in need – putting renewed scrutiny and pressure on some bedrock humanitarian principles.
In Ethiopia, the old tension between speaking out about atrocities and remaining "impartial" to maintain humanitarian access came to the fore. The government has prevented aid from getting into the northern Tigray region despite famine conditions, suspended several NGOs, and expelled senior UN officials. The Norwegian Refugee Council, for example, continues to be suspended after the government accused it of spreading false information on social media. MSF, which had been vocal about the deliberate targeting of health facilities in Tigray, has had its three-month suspension lifted.
In Myanmar, the very principle of neutrality is being questioned by parts of a civil disobedience movement opposed to the military junta and its February 2021 coup. Civil society groups have called on aid agencies and NGOs to shun the military, and individual aid workers feel the pressure as well. It’s not the first time aid workers have had their neutrality questioned in Myanmar, but the sector hasn’t been adept at walking ethical tightropes in the past.
In Afghanistan, standing up for the rights of women may come at the cost of delivering aid. Some aid groups were reluctant to resume or scale up operations unless the new Taliban authorities could guarantee female staff would be welcome. While donors talk of conditionalities – aid on the basis of protection of rights and fundamental freedoms for women and girls – some humanitarian leaders say aid linked to political, human rights, or other stipulations erodes the principles of neutral and impartial humanitarian assistance.
In 2022, we’ll be watching for other examples of humanitarian principles coming under pressure as aid agencies fight for the right to access and assist crisis-affected populations. In Ethiopia, we’ll be looking in particular at the results of an investigation, recently launched by the UN Human Rights Council, into abuses during the 13-month conflict – in the face of government accusations that the Council is being used as an “instrument of political pressure”.
Modern neutrality… While neutrality has been seen as a fundamental pillar of modern humanitarianism, it hasn’t always been, and it may not have to be in today’s climate. Much of aid is delivered by community-based humanitarians who may not be neutral anyway, and using neutrality as a benchmark for “true” humanitarianism only excludes them further.