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Ten donors and 10 crises dominate humanitarian spending

‘The transformation so desperately needed in crisis financing is not yet happening.’

An EU-funded cash distribution to refugees in Ethiopia
An EU-funded cash distribution to refugees in Ethiopia (WFP/Giulio d'Adamo)

International money for emergency relief flattened off last year, even as appeals for donor funding rose to new highs. New data shows that funding in 2018 reached $28.9 billion, about the same as 2017, but the number of people needing help climbed to a record 206.4 million.

The 2019 edition of the Global Humanitarian Assistance report, prepared by UK-based research NGO Development Initiatives, tells a familiar tale of the dominance of big donors and big crises: 10 severe crises consumed about 63 percent of the funding. And the same consistent small group of donors paid the overwhelming majority of the bill for the world’s international crisis response. Nine countries, plus the European Commission, accounted for 81 percent of 2018’s official funding. 

Compared to 2017, the United States, Germany, and the UK spent $1.06 billion less in 2018. Large increases in donations from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (mainly for relief in Yemen) compensated in part for those reductions. 

But while the geography of humanitarian aid may not have changed markedly, the nature of some of that assistance has.

The wider use of cash (money transfers) is one of the major policy changes the sector has adopted since the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016. Aid delivered in the form of cash and vouchers, which can substitute for delivering physical goods like food and allow recipients to buy more locally, reached record levels in 2018, growing 10 percent year-on-year to $4.7 billion.

However, little change in other areas – such as localisation and longer-term funding that allows planning beyond a one-year horizon – led the analyst behind the GHA report to say, “the transformation so desperately needed in crisis financing is not yet happening.”

The latest figures for localisation – the intention to put more funds directly into the hands of locally based agencies and organisations – have budged, but only a little. Direct allocations have crept up to 3.1 percent of all spending (from two percent in 2016). Most of that went to national governments in affected countries. Funding to local and national NGOs stands at just 0.4 percent of the total. 

The Global Humanitarian Assistance report tallies annual humanitarian funding for disasters and refugees, as well as long-running conflict situations and other persistent crises. It compiles data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the UN, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and large NGOs. Domestic efforts, family remittances, informal support, and national governmental spending are not captured. 

Here are this year’s figures compared to previous years in a series of charts. 


Who gives?




Where does it go?

Over recent years, Syria and Yemen have come to the top of the spending tables.


The following overview of $190 billion of spending from 2000 to 2017 shows the ups and downs of countries facing some of the world’s worst conflicts or disasters.

Both this table and the pie chart above show funds allocated to a specific country – other funds deployed globally or by region or theme are excluded.

Who spends it?

The relative spending power of the main actors in humanitarian enterprise has remained static. The UN receives about half of the traceable international spending, and a large array of NGOs gets another third. These proportions have not changed for almost 20 years.


(TOP PHOTO: A refugee counts a cash allowance in Ethiopia.)



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