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New money? What the numbers say about ‘non-traditional’ aid donors

Emerging donors already give more money than they get credit for. Who and what they fund may be shifting.

A worker moves relief items arriving from the United Arab Emirates to provide aid following fatal floods in Derna and neighbouring areas, at Benina International Airport in Benghazi, Libya, September 15, 2023. Amr Alfiky/Reuters
A worker moves relief items from the United Arab Emirates following fatal floods in Derna, Libya, at Benghazi's Benina International Airport on 15 September 2023.

Humanitarianism faces a funding crisis, and the system desperately needs other donors to step up, aid leaders often say.

Just under 3 in every 4 dollars of humanitarian funding in 2023 came from just seven donors: the United States, Germany, Japan, Sweden, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the EU’s humanitarian aid arm, ECHO. This is according to data from the UN’s Financial Tracking Service (FTS), the system’s main source for mapping funding flows.

Are so-called non-traditional donors the solution to the humanitarian sector’s funding woes?

The numbers paint a nuanced picture.

An analysis of humanitarian data suggests non-traditional government donors have offered up significant amounts of funding in recent years, but these sums haven’t grown. These are countries outside of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC), the donor’s club of wealthy countries mainly in the Global North.

A handful of Gulf states account for most of the spending from non-traditional donors. Like many conventional humanitarian donors, these countries have often sent humanitarian aid to where their political priorities align. But there may be a growing willingness to target funding beyond their backyards.

Year-on-year funding gaps for humanitarian appeals are widening as the sector’s traditional donors tighten their budgets. The EU’s commissioner for crisis management, Janez Lenarčič, has called the situation “unsustainable”. Non-traditional donors may not be a magic bullet for this, but the data suggests they could be a bigger part of the solution.

Here are a few takeaways:

Non-traditional donors are already important to the humanitarian system…

Non-traditional donors give more money than aid leaders might acknowledge. Roughly 1 in every 8 dollars of humanitarian funding came from countries that aren’t DAC members: $5.3 billion out of more than $40 billion recorded in 2022.

They’ve represented a bigger share in previous years. In 2018, for example, non-DAC countries gave $6.1 billion – or nearly a quarter of humanitarian funding recorded by the FTS. 

This represents a significant part of the funding mix.

… but they’re not growing in importance

Funding from non-traditional donors has grown. But when compared to traditional DAC donors, the relative importance of non-traditional donors has decreased over the last decade.

In 2013, non-DAC countries gave 17% of all humanitarian funding. But this declined to 13% by 2022:

The heavy-hitters are Gulf countries with targeted interests…

So who are the main non-traditional humanitarian donors?

This analysis focuses on a few key criteria: donors that are governments, that aren’t a DAC member, that contributed a minimum of 0.5% of total humanitarian funding in a given year, and that met these criteria for at least two years.

Four countries stand out for giving substantial sums over the last decade: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, and Qatar.

Heavy-hitters Saudi Arabia and the UAE gave $9 billion and $6 billion, respectively, since 2013. Kuwait registered $2.6 billion and Qatar gave $735 million in humanitarian funding over the same period.

Yemen has been at the core of humanitarian spending for both Saudi Arabia and the UAE – unsurprising, given that both support parties to a conflict that has driven one of the world’s most dire humanitarian crises for more than a decade.

For Saudi Arabia, this peaked in 2019 when 89% of its humanitarian funding went to Yemen, while UAE peaked in 2018 at 96% of its total recorded funding for Yemen alone.

… but who and what they fund may be shifting

Historically, humanitarian funding from heavy-hitters like Saudi Arabia and the UAE has primarily gone to Arab League or Organisation of Islamic Cooperation countries.

But there may be a shift underway towards more global interests. Since 2020, the proportion of total funding to Arab League or OIC states has decreased. Nearly 4 in 10 dollars from Saudi Arabia, and nearly half from the UAE, now goes to places outside the Arab League. Similarly, funding to non-OIC countries has increased for both states. 

Funding for COVID-19 health responses may be one reason behind this change.

In 2020, Saudi Arabia’s funding for “global” projects jumped to more than a third of its humanitarian portfolio, according to the UN. This included funding to the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), covering health and COVID-19. 

While the pandemic’s emergency phase is over, Saudi Arabia has maintained its humanitarian funding for global projects: A quarter of its funding in 2022 was marked “global”, though some of this covers multiple locations, such as funding for the UN’s agency for Palestinians, UNRWA.

For the UAE, funding to Ethiopia markedly increased in 2022, rising to 36% of all its humanitarian aid – a significant change from 2018, when funding to Yemen dominated the picture.

This funding for Ethiopia may be particularly telling. While it increased humanitarian aid, the UAE has simultaneously invested more in trade and closer bilateral relations between the two countries – a development driven as much by economic interests as by maritime security and geopolitical priorities in the Horn of Africa, analysts say.

As with Gulf funding for Yemen – and the humanitarian system in general – the interests of donor countries don’t lie far from the cheque books of nation states.

Who doesn’t show up in the figures

The elephants in the room are the countries that don’t appear on the humanitarian funding ledger.

The BRICS block of big economies – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – have a combined GDP comparable to the United States. However, according to FTS data, BRICS countries recorded only $88 million in humanitarian funding. And this sum includes countries on the verge of joining the bloc, including Egypt, Ethiopia, and Iran (Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also accepted invites).

Aid leaders have long urged China, in particular, to contribute more to the international humanitarian system.

China’s aid has often been more focused on development and infrastructure, and its humanitarian aid is bilateral rather than through international donors – meaning its contributions don’t show up in the UN’s tracking data.

Analysts say China has a growing interest in global humanitarian action. But whether that includes being a significant player in the existing multilateral system remains to be seen.

This raises a core question: To what extent are China and other countries interested in playing a significant role in today’s international humanitarian system, which is often dominated by the priorities of the mostly Western nations that fund it?

Then there is the humanitarian spending that’s far more difficult to track: How much funding is not recorded from governments that are responding to humanitarian crises inside their own borders?

Host country governments spend significant sums hosting refugees, or on disaster and crisis response at home. The UK, for example, spent 28% of its aid budget on hosting asylum seekers and refugees in the UK in 2023.

What this means for the system

Non-traditional donors are already more important than they get credit for, but they don’t seem to be playing a growing role in the humanitarian system.

The main non-traditional donors are from the Gulf. Like the sector’s conventional donors, there are clear political interests that dictate where funding goes.

However, the data suggests there may be a shift underway to a more global outlook, as COVID-19 health funding and the UAE’s interest in Ethiopia shows. This indicates funding may be available in the next decade for contexts that haven’t traditionally received attention.

The UN’s voluntarily reported data doesn’t tell the whole story of where the money flows. And it’s unclear whether non-traditional donors are interested in significantly contributing to the system as it’s currently built.

For the time-being, today’s humanitarian system relies on only a few donors, which makes it vulnerable when budgets are tight – as they appear to be in 2024.

Just as any organisation needs to diversify its funding base to strengthen its resilience, so does the system that funds global humanitarian response. 

Non-traditional donors may not be the answer, but the numbers show they’re an important part of the puzzle.

Edited by Irwin Loy.

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