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Change in the humanitarian sector, in numbers

A deep dive into 25 years of data

(Composite: Annie Spratt/Unsplash, Abigail Geiger/TNH)

Once a small collection of loosely organised groups, the humanitarian system has seen staggering expansion over the last couple of decades. Today, a multi-billion-dollar industry operates around the globe, employing hundreds of thousands of people and pumping out reams of reports and information.

We ploughed through 25 years of data to show just how much the sector has changed. Here’s our breakdown of how things looked then and now.

Mounting displacement

One of the primary reasons people need humanitarian aid is due to being pushed from their homes by violence or natural hazards. More than three times as many people are displaced today than 25 years ago.* People who cross international borders (refugees) used to be the majority, but the trend has changed: Those displaced within their own countries (internally displaced people or IDPs) now make up two thirds of the total.

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Growing humanitarian spend

Every year, the UN puts together a single plan and funding appeal for each crisis. These include projects and financial proposals from most of the major aid agencies. The growth in the number of these appeals has been marked – from six in 1992 to 36 in 2019 – and the amount of funding going to humanitarian response has also risen steeply. Despite a dip last year, the sector received 12 times the amount it did nearly 20 years ago. 

This graph, based on reports received by the UN, shows official humanitarian funding per year. These estimates include contributions from donor governments, and bodies like the EU and the World Bank, but not the donations of private individuals via charities and NGOs. 

About two thirds of humanitarian funding goes through UN agencies. See more on who’s giving and where it goes over the years. Also, take a look here to see how it works.

War and peace

Most humanitarian needs are driven by conflict: Angola's civil war received some of the most aid in 2000.** Palestine features year after year as a crisis that requires external funding. Wars in Syria and Yemen have dominated humanitarian spending in recent times, with funding levels that dwarf what was spent on conflicts in Africa nearly 20 years ago. 

Shifting focus

Humanitarian needs shift over time as new crises – conflicts as well as sudden onset disasters – spring up and require attention. The ReliefWeb site gathers reports from aid groups, UN agencies, and the media. Crunching the records of about 800,000 documents from 1995 to 2020, our code picked up how frequently countries were mentioned: Some appeared with chronic regularity; others peaked and then dropped off. 

Changes in the volume of reports – and likely attention and resources – are shown in these “small multiples” graphs. They give an indication of how needs have shifted over the years: from conflicts in Africa dominating in the late 1990s, to wars in the Middle East taking hold in the early 2000s, to European migration flows bringing unprecedented humanitarian attention to Greece in 2015. Crises in Yemen and Syria have dominated recent reporting. Sudden onset disasters are shown too in their respective years: Indonesia peaks after the 2004 tsunami, coverage of Haiti’s leaps after the 2010 earthquake, and the earthquake and tsunami puts Japan on the radar that year too.

Peaking in the late 90s

Rwanda

' ' ' ' ' '
'95 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Angola

' ' ' ' ' '
'95 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Sierra Leone

' ' ' ' ' '
'95 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020
Peaking in the early 2000s

Afghanistan

' ' ' ' ' '
'95 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Iraq

' ' ' ' ' '
'95 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Sudan

' ' ' ' ' '
'95 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Indonesia

' ' ' ' ' '
'95 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Lebanon

' ' ' ' ' '
'95 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020
Peaking between 2005 and 2010

Myanmar

' ' ' ' ' '
'95 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Palestine

' ' ' ' ' '
'95 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Haiti

' ' ' ' ' '
'95 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Japan

' ' ' ' ' '
'95 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Philippines

' ' ' ' ' '
'95 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020
Peaking between 2011 and 2015

Central African Republic

' ' ' ' ' '
'95 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Somalia

' ' ' ' ' '
'95 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

South Sudan

' ' ' ' ' '
'95 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Greece

' ' ' ' ' '
'95 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Nigeria

' ' ' ' ' '
'95 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020
Peaking from 2015 on

Syria

' ' ' ' ' '
'95 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Yemen

' ' ' ' ' '
'95 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020
Additional countries

Liberia

' ' ' ' ' '
'95 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Bangladesh

' ' ' ' ' '
'95 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Indonesia

' ' ' ' ' '
'95 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Pakistan

' ' ' ' ' '
'95 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Timor-Leste

' ' ' ' ' '
'95 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Turkey

' ' ' ' ' '
'95 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020
Show all

Note on methodology: The y-axis shows the percentage of reports of any published that were primarily about that country (data for 2020 runs up to 1 June). Note that each graph has a separate y-axis scale to match its peak – this highlights the fluctuations over the years but cannot be used to compare the absolute number of reports on each country.

Cost centres

In 1995, projects in Bosnia and Herzegovina received the most funding of any country, with a total of $466 million. By 2018, programmes in Yemen received the most, at about $5 billion. (In 2019, however, funding for Yemen dropped to about $3.6 billion).

The amount received by programmes in Yemen alone in 2018 was more than the $4.6 billion total spent on humanitarian assistance worldwide in 1995.

Growth of the aid agency giants

Over the years, the industry has ballooned – with thousands of aid groups, hundreds of thousands of staff, and multi-billion dollar budgets. The large aid agencies are only getting bigger: 

Medical NGO Médecins Sans Frontières nearly quadrupled its budget in 15 years, from €421 million in 2004 to €1.6 billion in 2019.

An even bigger jump was seen for the UN giant, the World Food Programme, which leapt from $1.2 billion in 1997 to nearly seven times that amount in 2019.

Increasing number of jobs

As needs and funding have risen, so too have the numbers of aid workers. Today, hundreds of thousands of people are employed in humanitarian aid – mostly staying in their home countries as local staff. A 2017 estimate, from ALNAP, said 570,000 people are employed as field personnel, more than doubling the conservative estimate of about 210,000 ALNAP reported in 2010. By analysing the number of job postings, we get another indication of the growing size of the overall enterprise. ReliefWeb shows that in 2019 there were over 39,000 jobs advertised. That’s more than two and half times the 15,141 posted in 2009. 

Rising and falling humanitarian trends

Buzzwords change over the years – reflecting policy priorities that rise and fall. Using custom code, we traced some of their trajectories across the grey literature and reports published since 1996 on ReliefWeb, selecting some jargon and technical terminology as examples of how the nature and scope of humanitarian action has evolved. 

Some issues or areas of work – like cash, accountability, gender, and protection – have seen a steady rise over time, whereas topics like digital security and climate have climbed more rapidly to the top. Other buzzwords, like the nexus and localisation, have sprouted more recently out of nowhere, only to plateau as they become part of the regular humanitarian vernacular.

As you would expect, COVID appeared just this year. Will attention last, or will this pandemic see a sharp ascent and then plummet like past pandemics and outbreaks – for example AIDS in the early 2000s or Ebola in 2013? 

Accountability

' ' ' ' ' '
'96 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

AIDS

' ' ' ' ' '
'96 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Cash

' ' ' ' ' '
'96 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Climate

' ' ' ' ' '
'96 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Counselling

' ' ' ' ' '
'96 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Covid

' ' ' ' ' '
'96 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Data

' ' ' ' ' '
'96 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Digital

' ' ' ' ' '
'96 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Diversity

' ' ' ' ' '
'96 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Ebola

' ' ' ' ' '
'96 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Gender

' ' ' ' ' '
'96 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Inclusion

' ' ' ' ' '
'96 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Innovation

' ' ' ' ' '
'96 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Localisation

' ' ' ' ' '
'96 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Migration

' ' ' ' ' '
'96 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Nexus

' ' ' ' ' '
'96 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Participation

' ' ' ' ' '
'96 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Protection

' ' ' ' ' '
'96 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Risk

' ' ' ' ' '
'96 '00 '05 '10 '15 2020

Note on methodology: The y-axis shows the percentage of reports of the total published that had the keyword in their title (data for 2020 runs up to 1 June). Note that each graph has a separate y-axis scale to match its peak – this highlights the fluctuations across the years but cannot be used to compare the absolute number of reports on each country.

Riskier work environment

The aid sector is constantly balancing its need to “stay and deliver” (to those it is meant to serve) with its “duty of care” (to keep its own staff safe). This is becoming more and more difficult as aid workers are increasingly in the line of fire, with the number attacked annually nearly doubling over the last decade. Last year saw a record high for aid worker casualties, particularly health personnel, who accounted for 42 percent of all aid worker fatalities in 2019 – including attacks on medics in Syria and on Ebola responders in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nationals working in their own countries have always faced the highest risks.

Scaling up cash assistance

Cash allowances or vouchers to exchange for goods are an increasingly popular way of supporting people in crisis. Agencies distributed $5.6 billion in cash and voucher assistance in 2019, constituting 17.9 percent of total international humanitarian assistance and representing a doubling, in dollar terms, in just four years from 2016 to 2019. The response to COVID-19 has favoured cash, with governments expanding their social assistance programmes to include more cash, and humanitarians scaling up cash programming for remote delivery. Whether this will be sustained beyond the immediate response is yet to be seen. 

One of the largest agencies employing cash is the WFP: In 2009, the WFP transferred $10 million in the form of cash and vouchers in 10 countries, representing just one percent of its assistance. That rose to $2.1 billion – 38 percent of its assistance portfolio – in 2019.

*(An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated 'nearly six times'. This and the corresponding graph were corrected and updated on Thursday, 10 September 2020)

**(An earlier version included Mozambique, but funding that year was for the floods, not conflict. This story was corrected and updated on 8 October 2020)

Interactive data visualisation by Abigail Geiger and Marc Fehr. Additional research by Hannah Jane Stoddard and Sarah Alshawish.

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