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Could less be more? The paradox facing humanitarians at COP28

The emergency aid sector is about to take centre stage at COP for the first time. Should it double down, downsize, or transform?

A person walks past a “#COP28” sign during The Changemaker Majlis, a one-day CEO-level thought leadership workshop on climate action in the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, on 1 October 2023. Amr Alfiky/Reuters
A person walks past a “#COP28” sign during The Changemaker Majlis, a one-day CEO-level thought leadership workshop on climate action in the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi, on 1 October 2023.

This year, set to be the hottest on record and beset by multiple overlapping environmental disasters around the world, is the first time humanitarians have a headline slot at the COP climate summit – the event’s first Relief, Recovery and Peace Day on 3 December.

But humanitarians face a strange anomaly at COP28: At a time when humanitarian disasters are spiralling, they're not calling for more funding to respond to those crises but for others to do more to prevent them from happening in the first place. And this collective advocacy seems to be at odds with individual agency efforts to increase the slice of the climate finance pie humanitarians can access.

Climate change poses profound strategic choices and questions for humanitarian agencies: What is their role in the climate fight, and what does that mean for the shape and size of future disaster response?

Humanitarians will head en masse to Dubai for COP28, which starts on 30 November. This engagement is long overdue: Climate impacts are already hitting vulnerable communities hard and driving massive increases in humanitarian need, with climate-related and weather-related funding needs growing 800% from 2002 to 2021. The transformative investments needed to “disaster-proof” communities and infrastructure in fragile contexts aren’t happening. There’s not enough money, and adaptation in tough places is considered too difficult and too risky. The already stretched humanitarian system is struggling to cope. 

So, if 2023 is the year humanitarians enter the fray in earnest, what will they ask for and what are they bringing to the table?

The flurry of calls to action and key messages being published ahead of COP shows that key actors in the humanitarian community broadly agree on two key asks: more attention and funding needs to be channelled to the impacts of climate change on fragile and conflict-affected states; and a greater focus need to be put on preventing crises before they happen, through adaptation, disaster risk reduction, and resilience-building.

These messages are right, and they are hugely important. If the global community doesn't massively accelerate efforts to “disaster-proof” the most vulnerable communities, the humanitarian fallout of the climate crisis will become overwhelming.

Countries on the front lines of the climate crisis are making the same clear call: “Humanitarian assistance is not the solution… Some $8 billion has been spent in humanitarian funding since the famine in 2011, and we are still facing similar crises every other year,” Abdirahman Abdishakur, Somalia’s special presidential envoy for drought response, wrote in The Guardian earlier this year. If even a portion of that $8 billion had been spent on resilience projects like reservoirs, irrigation, or clean energy, communities in Somalia could have better withstood the crisis, he said.

If the massive global climate effort we need is mobilised, it is possible to do both – work in advance of disasters and increase response to disasters. But what if the money doesn’t come?

A senior UN humanitarian official we spoke to in researching this article agrees: “If we just continue to call for more funding to address disasters after they’ve happened, we’ll have – at best – the same amount of money to address far more emergencies. That means less money per capita. That means people will die. We need to think carefully about how we can prevent crises from happening in the first place.”

This is a significant departure from the traditional advocacy approach of the humanitarian sector, which is focused squarely on raising as much cash as possible for disaster response.

If the massive global climate effort we need is mobilised, it is possible to do both – work in advance of disasters and increase response to disasters. But what if the money doesn’t come?

So far, the signs aren’t good. The global pot of climate finance is both finite and falls far short of needs, with donors mobilising less than one quarter of the funding promised to support adaptation in vulnerable countries. And of this, just a small fraction goes to the fragile contexts where humanitarians are present. Unless COP28 delivers an unlikely financing miracle, we’ll have to prioritise – either try to stop climate hazards from turning into climate disasters, or build a bigger disaster response machine.

And here comes the glaring paradox: Just when emergency needs are growing exponentially, humanitarians might be arguing they should do less: cede space; crowd in with others, including adaptation and development actors; accept a more minor role and a smaller slice of the financial pie.

After all, many of the loudest calls humanitarians are making are for others to act: big emitters, adaptation and development actors, climate finance bodies, governments, local responders, and communities. Under this interpretation, humanitarians would go to COP in an advocacy role, not in fundraising mode, calling for urgent action from others on adaptation to prevent cascading crises – and if this means less international attention and funding for emergency response, then so be it.

But some observers we’ve spoken to doubt this will be reflected in the individual approaches of humanitarian NGOs and UN agencies. They suspect they will choose to stay with what they know: advocating for funds to go to their responses, and effectively competing with adaptation actors for the limited funding available. As Mauricio Vazquez, head of policy for ODI’s Global Risks and Resilience programme, told us: “Many in the humanitarian system are approaching the climate crisis as a funding opportunity rather than an impetus for the deep reforms needed”.

But there is a third way.

The alternative to ceding space, or to competing for funding, is that humanitarians decide to change their own way of working, and prioritise prevention and resilience over response – shifting along the disaster risk reduction spectrum towards climate adaptation. After all, humanitarian organisations form the majority of international actors present in many of the fragile settings most threatened by climate change.

Should they pivot to doing more to build resilience and support frontline communities to adapt? Maybe, but to do climate adaptation well would mean a complete transformation of humanitarian organisations – different skills, different staff, different partnerships. And if that transformation were to take place in time to avert the worst climate disasters, it would need to be under way already, and it isn’t. In a world on fire, with humanitarian responders focused on delivering on core mandate mega-crises in places like Gaza, Sudan, and Ukraine, is it really realistic to expect them to also be developing advanced resilience-building capacities?

Should they double down, downsize, or transform? These questions are thorny and difficult. But as humanitarian leaders head to Dubai thinking about how their organisations should join the climate fight at this critical moment, they’re becoming harder to ignore.

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