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Key takeaways from the UN’s record-breaking tally for 2023 humanitarian needs

Another massive funding gap puts the focus on how to shrink emergency needs.

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More hunger, more displacement, more people in crisis, and a soaring price tag: Humanitarian needs and costs will once again shatter records in 2023, but available funding – and the system itself – isn’t keeping pace.

The cost of UN-backed humanitarian response plans will reach $51.5 billion in 2023, according to a funding appeal released 1 December by the UN’s emergency aid coordination arm, OCHA. It’s $10.5 billion more than the figure for the start of 2022.

  • At a glance: The outlook on humanitarian needs and funding

  • The divide between what emergencies cost, and what donors provide, keeps growing
  • Funding is stretched for everyone, but more so in some emergencies
  • There’s a big disparity in how many people receive aid across countries
  • Aid itself is becoming more expensive
  • Inequalities are growing, yet women are underrepresented in humanitarian decision-making
  • Reforms aimed at reducing humanitarian needs are ‘excruciatingly slow’

“It’s a phenomenal number, and it’s a depressing number,” Martin Griffiths, the UN’s relief chief, told reporters in Geneva.

The tally is a first look at the UN’s projections for the scale of emergency needs in 2023. It doesn’t include responses planned by the global Red Cross movement or more independent NGOs like Médecins Sans Frontières, but it’s based on country-level or regional planning, fed into by major UN agencies and international and local NGOs, from Afghanistan to Venezuela.

Some 339 million people are estimated to need humanitarian aid – a 25% jump over this year, and the equivalent of the third-most populous country in the world. 

Roughly 103 million people are displaced – the highest ever recorded, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. 

And at least 222 million people are food insecure – including some 45 million people facing starvation – in what the UN is calling “the largest global food crisis in modern history”.

The record needs are fuelled by a slew of colliding crises, including: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, pressure on global food systems, economic shocks throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and the climate emergency.

Economic turbulence is making it harder for communities to adapt or recover: Inflation and debt are rising, as are fuel and food prices. Public health threats are growing amid the fallout from COVID-19 and climate change.

Here are a few takeaways from the latest record-breaking humanitarian appeal:

The funding gap continues to widen

The divide between what emergencies cost, and what donors provide, keeps growing.

But this gulf is because needs and costs are rapidly rising, not because funding is falling. Funding has grown steadily over the last decade – just not quick enough to meet a humanitarian bill supersized by new conflicts, COVID-19, economic turbulence, and the climate crisis.

It has reached the point where aid officials broadly expect large funding shortfalls, even as they ask for more money. 

Appeals have been less than half-funded for the last two years, and the same small group of mostly Western donor governments still funds the bulk of the international aid system.

There’s a gulf between the humanitarian haves and the have-nots

Funding is stretched for everyone, but more so for some.

There’s a vast imbalance in where the money goes. In 2022, for example, funding shortfalls were most severe in countries like Burkina Faso, Burundi, Guatemala, and Mali. Responses in these countries received around a third of the funding deemed necessary. 

On the other hand, responses in Central African Republic, Libya, and Ukraine reached 73% or more of their estimated requirements. 

Where funding goes has long been driven by political considerations, since the biggest traditional donors are governments. But many aid workers compare the heavy focus and generosity for Ukraine with the challenges of raising attention and funds elsewhere.

… and a wide disparity in how many people receive aid

Humanitarians are asking for billions, but how effective are they at reaching the people they target? 

That’s more of a question for independent aid analysts (read about one recent assessment here). As far as self-reported UN-backed plans go, insiders say the methods to assess needs across agencies have become more rigorous. Even still, the numbers are a bit murky.

The new UN estimates include figures on how many people were targeted and reached with aid in 2022, and these are as volatile as country-level funding gaps.

In responses for countries like Burundi, El Salvador, and Guatemala, aid reportedly reached 30% or fewer of the people targeted. In Burkina Faso, Kenya, and Pakistan the figure is less than half. 

Yet “people reached” is 100% for responses in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Ukraine, and an emergency appeal for Haiti. This is despite frequent humanitarian access roadblocks – from restrictions in Ethiopia to gang violence in Haiti – that are well documented, including by the UN itself.

Figures for “people reached” say little more than how many people received some form of aid. They offer no indication as to whether a person’s full range of needs were met. Someone may be counted as “reached” with a one-off food distribution, for example, but it’s a superficial indication of meeting needs.

Aid analysts say that people who use aid are largely still waiting to be meaningfully consulted, despite long-standing promises to improve.

Griffiths said humanitarian leaders want to prioritise “genuine relations with affected people” in 2023, calling the goal “a relationship that allows those people to tell us what they need”.

Aid itself is becoming more expensive

Food and fuel prices are rising, as are inflation and debt. Economic shocks are contributing to crises or spiralling into emergencies, and several countries with response plans – Afghanistan, Haiti, and South Sudan among them – will likely face debt distress in 2023. 

The same economic shocks affect the organisations trying to respond: It’s becoming more costly to run aid operations. For example, the World Food Programme’s monthly food procurement costs are now 44% higher than before the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN says.

Inequalities are widening, but women’s perspectives are still overlooked

Inequalities for women and girls are growing, and this has repercussions for humanitarian planning.

It will take 132 years for the world to reach gender equality, a World Economic Forum report said in July, measuring everything from earnings and political representation to mental stress and health.

More women and girls live in extreme poverty than men and boys, and COVID-19 pandemic job losses disproportionately affected women.

These are broad, global trends, but inequalities are magnified in times of crises. At the same time, women and girls are “underrepresented in humanitarian decision-making”, the UN says.

Reforms aimed at reducing humanitarian needs are ‘excruciatingly slow’

There’s no silver bullet for the humanitarian sector’s funding troubles. But if the cavernous funding gap is to shrink in the coming years, then needs and costs will have to fall. 

Humanitarians can’t control geopolitics or end conflicts singlehandedly, but analysts say the massive $51.5 billion cost for 2023 suggests the levers they do have aren’t working.

For example, the so-called triple nexus approach aims to reduce humanitarian needs by better linking emergency response with development and peacebuilding. Analysts often say that it’s long on rhetoric and short on actual progress.

The ever-growing number of people in need “reflects the excruciatingly slow pace of nexus reforms”, said Alice Obrecht, head of research at UK-based aid learning network ALNAP.

“There’s a gap about thinking, attitude, motivation, and goals between humanitarian and development actors, and a failure to work differently and quickly enough,” she told The New Humanitarian. “We focus so much on policy and processes, but how that will marry up with programming is an afterthought. We don’t know how to do early action: What does crisis prevention look like beyond cash payments?”

More recently, big donors and key players in the humanitarian system are pushing anticipatory action, which aims to prepare for and address needs before crises spiral.

Griffiths spoke of both – protecting longer-term development funding and scaling up anticipatory action – as keys to reducing the burden on the humanitarian system. He also wants to see humanitarians speak up about climate change and finance: Griffiths said climate funding doesn’t reach places like Somalia, parts of which are heaving under famine-like conditions and record-setting drought.

A year ago, the UN-led appeal for 2022 described the situation of escalating needs and funding requirements as “unprecedented”, “record levels”, and “skyrocketing”. 

Today, the same words apply to a new year, a new plan, and a bigger funding gap.

It’s “déjà vu all over again”. Griffiths said. “And it will be déjà vu all over again, probably, this time next year as well.”

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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