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Earthquake funding gap exposes larger fault lines for emergency aid sector

‘We were overstretched before Ukraine, and now we have multiple big global-level disasters again on the radar.’

At the center of the frame we see the back of an individual. Their hair is in a low bun and they're wearing a vest that says European Union Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid. At the center of the back of the best is the EU flag. The individual is facing a pile of rubble that was left behind after the February 2023 earthquakes that impacted Syria and Turkiye. Lisa Hastert/ EU Civil Protection Humanitarian Aid
Aid workers survey damage in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep after the 6 February earthquakes that killed 56,000 people in Syria and Türkiye. Estimates for recovery costs in Türkiye alone stretch to $100 billion.

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Funding pledges for last month’s catastrophic earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria are only a fraction of recovery costs, but they also point to deeper problems in an overstretched aid system that keeps money in the hands of the biggest players, analysts and aid insiders say.


At an EU-hosted donor conference yesterday, the international community pledged seven billion euros to support relief and recovery efforts in the aftermath of the quakes: just over six billion for humanitarian needs and reconstruction in Türkiye, and 950 million for emergency operations and early recovery in Syria. 


“The needs of the survivors are still massive and must be tackled with urgency,” said Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, co-host of the conference along with the Government of Sweden. “We need to sustain our support and help the survivors not just to survive but to rebuild their lives.”


An assessment by the UN, the World Bank, the Turkish government, and the EU estimates that Türkiye’s recovery costs alone will exceed $100 billion – approaching 10% of the country’s projected 2023 GDP. Meanwhile, recovery costs for northern Syria, which was already decimated by 12 years of civil war, are estimated to reach nearly $15 billion.


The Brussels conference included some 60 delegations – donor states, regional organisations, and NGOs. Such conferences are mainly diplomatic events, whereby donors make public pledges as a show of solidarity. So while the amounts pledged exceed what has been stated as required in the UN’s rapid appeals for humanitarian relief – $398 million for Syria and $1.01 billion for Türkiye – it remains to be seen when that funding will arrive; what are actually new versus already committed funds; and how much of it ends up in the hands of NGOs, particularly frontline local groups. 


In the lead-up to the conference, aid insiders expressed frustration at what one called the “atrociously slow” release of funds and support, especially to NGOs inside Syria.


Typically, a large-scale, sudden-onset emergency like the earthquake disaster – which claimed more than 56,000 lives across the two countries, damaging or destroying hundreds of thousands of buildings – would generate a rapid and significant disbursement of donor funds.


“An earthquake is easier to explain to the taxpayer rather than a neglected crisis in Niger,” said Cecilia Roselli, director of humanitarian policy at the Norwegian Refugee Council, one of the main international aid organisations working in Syria.


“This should have triggered a level of enthusiasm from donors that goes beyond the usual scheme,” Roselli told The New Humanitarian.


Resources stretched beyond the limit

Funding for Syria was already scarce: less than half the UN’s 2022-2023 humanitarian response plan was met; and the country was the most underfunded operation globally for the International Committee of the Red Cross in 2022.


Even before the earthquakes, NGOs were forced into impossible choices in northwest Syria due to the funding shortages, shutting down some programmes in a region where 2.9 million people were already displaced by war and grappling with an unprecedented cholera outbreak.


“If countries aren’t increasing their overall aid budgets in light of the earthquake, then the money will have to come from somewhere.”


“We were asked to prioritise one health clinic over another,” Clynton Beukes, programmes director for World Vision’s Syria response, told The New Humanitarian. “How do we prioritise water trucking to one informal settlement over another?”


Beukes said “many donors” are now allowing NGOs to reprogram existing funding in both Türkiye and Syria to support the earthquake response. And in a sign of their desperation to meet the intense levels of need, many NGOs are taking up that offer, even if it means some already underfunded operations will receive even less support. 


“If countries aren’t increasing their overall aid budgets in light of the earthquake, then the money will have to come from somewhere,” he said. 


But Syria isn't the only country to feel the squeeze.


Gareth Price-Jones is the executive director of the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response, an alliance of nine of the world’s largest aid organisations, including Oxfam, Save the Children, and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.


“We were overstretched before Ukraine, and now we have multiple big global-level disasters again on the radar,” he told The New Humanitarian, referring to Ukraine, the Pakistan floods, and major conflicts such as the civil war in Myanmar.  


This worry feeds into broader concerns over how global humanitarian needs can possibly be prioritised going forwards, given the tighter funding outlook across the board.


“Somalia will drop further down the priority list,” Price-Jones said, referring to a drought and hunger disaster in the Horn of Africa that is already believed to have claimed tens of thousands of lives, and is predicted will claim the same again in the coming months.

Although annual donor contributions have increased in absolute terms, the gap between needs (UN response plan requirements) and funding continues to widen. And despite repeated commitments to diversify the humanitarian funding base, the system is still mainly reliant on a handful of donors.


Tellingly, almost half of overall funding to UN-coordinated aid between 2018 and 2021 came from just five donors including the US, EU institutions, Germany, and Britain.


With a finite amount of humanitarian funding to go around, if new emergencies spring up in quick succession, donors tend to shuffle money from one country to another of more political significance, or to whichever crisis they think is more palatable to their taxpayer base. 


Ukraine is a good case in point: Donors have diverted funding from other crises to support aid efforts in Ukraine and surrounding countries.


“The enormous humanitarian needs created by the conflict in Ukraine is absorbing much of the available humanitarian funding, leaving many other crises seriously underfunded," Melker Mabeck, director of partnerships and resource development at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), told The New Humanitarian. 


Local groups come in last

Civil society from both Türkiye and Syria were notably absent from yesterday’s conference. And while some local and international groups operating in Syria were generally pleased that the amount pledged exceeded what was required in the initial UN appeals, they were still concerned that most of it remained in the hands of the biggest players, namely the UN.


Despite the presence of local groups leading programme implementation, especially in Syria, most of the institutional funding for earthquake response has so far gone to the UN agencies.


“The Syrian local NGOs were on the ground to do their best, but without resources they couldn’t do anything.”


In the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes, local NGOs scrambled to get back on their feet – many of their staff were directly affected and in need of support (as were many staff from international NGOs). But they were confronted with “business as usual” from donors, according to Mohannad Othman, CEO of Genel Müdür Yardımcısı, an organisation that works for Syrian refugees in Türkiye. 


“We were asked strange questions, ‘do you have a needs assessment, a proposal?’. I know the bureaucracy, you write 30-40 pages, then they give you feedback,” he said. “But when faced with a huge-scale operation, [we were] looking for help and assistance now…


“The Syrian local NGOs were on the ground to do their best, but without resources they couldn’t do anything.”


Such behaviour follows a familiar pattern.


According to UK-based research group Development Initiatives, 86% of funding for the Syrian refugee response in Türkiye was provided directly to international actors in 2019 and 2020, with nearly half being channelled to the UN. Only 1% of direct funding went to local and national NGOs in Türkiye. 


And it’s not unique to the earthquake response.


In Ukraine, for example, despite massive levels of funding, local organisations and volunteer initiatives are still struggling to find support


With so many crises happening at once, donors are trying to get funding out the door as quickly as possible and, according to one source, this means they’ll prioritise familiar working relationships while overlooking direct support to local NGOs. 


Finding other pots of funding

In any emergency, donations from the general public are important. What makes them doubly so is that they’re typically an unearmarked source of funding, meaning they’re often given directly to local organisations or can be used for things institutional humanitarian donors might be reluctant to fund, such as longer-term support. 


“Much of the funding has come from the general population,” the IFRC’s Mabeck said of the earthquake response, adding that more than 70 national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies had raised around CHF 150 million so far. 


“[Institutional] donor commitments have been scarce,” said Beukes from World Vision. “Most of the money raised has come from private funding. Our offices in Colombia or Singapore are raising money to support communities in northwest Syria.”


The Disasters Emergency Committee – a UK-based fundraising vehicle for 15 leading British aid organisations – raised GBP 100 million of public funding in just two weeks. Meanwhile, the British government pledged a quarter of that amount – GBP 25 million – to the emergency response over the same period. 


“That’s where the future lies. How do we create financing structures that make sense of the private market and work for us?”


Some Gulf states have stepped up support for the earthquake response, but, like all aid can be, it is often politically driven. This is especially the case for Syria: Some states have used the crisis to bolster political relations with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while others have focused support to rebel-controlled areas. With oil prices down, these countries too are tightening their belts.  


Roselli noted that attempts to mobilise additional donors haven’t resulted in significant extra support, for the earthquakes or other global responses. The Yemen pledging conference in February, for example, was “a real disappointment”, she said. World leaders pledged less than $1.2 billion for a humanitarian response that requires more than triple that amount.


Some believe the private sector is the real untapped resource for the aid sector’s future.


“One of the recurring themes that we keep having is – how do we expand the donor base: the Gulf, BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), that’s not where the trillions can be found,” said Melker.


“As different as our two worlds are – corporate and humanitarian – there’s a meeting of the minds somewhere,” he said, using climate change as an example. "That’s where the future lies. How do we create financing structures that make sense of the private market and work for us?”


The need for political solutions

Absent from yesterday’s conference were the Syrian authorities. Along with the government’s close ally Russia, they weren’t invited.


While it’s happy to finance humanitarian assistance and early recovery, the EU has said it will only fund reconstruction if and when a political transition is underway. The US has a similar position.


“Ultimately, the funding will never be significant enough to stem the increasing needs in Syria – in absence of a political solution or another mechanism of recovery,” Garth Smith, representative of the Syria INGO Regional Forum, a coalition of more than 70 international NGOs operating in Syria, told The New Humanitarian.  


Another donor conference for Syria will be held in Brussels this June, but it goes a lot broader than just earthquake recovery. The aim is to not only generate humanitarian funding, but also to garner international engagement for a political solution to the conflict.


For Roselli, the June event is of utmost importance. “While the facilitation of this [earthquake] donor conference is welcome, it should not overshadow the conference in June,” she said.


In the meantime, local actors like Othman remain frustrated.


“While we – local NGOs – are still struggling to make [ends meet], the international community is still ignorant about the future of the Syrian people,” he said. “Every year, NGOs go through the same problems – lack of direct funding; no sustainable solutions, especially in shelter; millions of children out of school. Yet we follow the same approach every time.


“Unless there is a real solution to the Syria crisis, we will still have the same problems in 10 years’ time.”  


Edited by Andrew Gully.

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