Complex humanitarian emergencies: How do donors prioritize when global needs are so great?

A woman carries a water container at a camp for internally displaced persons in Baidoa, Somalia, Feb. 13, 2022. (Photo credit: USAID via Twitter)

The eyes of the world are on the horrific war in Ukraine, and rightly so. Almost overnight, an immense complex humanitarian emergency (CHE) grasped the world’s attention as we watch horrific images of the human cost of war on our television screens. Not so long ago, we watched the fallout of the withdrawal of coalition forces from Afghanistan, another country plagued by conflict for decades.  Now, images of the aftermath of an earthquake are in the headlines, as the country teeters on the brink of economic collapse and potential famine.

Yet, Ukraine and Afghanistan are not the only countries at war or where armed conflicts continue to forcibly displace and threaten the lives of innocent people.

Today, more people are affected by humanitarian crises than at any point in recorded history. Conflicts drive 80% of all humanitarian needs globally. Click To Tweet

Yet in 2019, only 4% of philanthropy’s $352 million in giving for disasters went to address humanitarian needs in these settings. CHEs are vastly underfunded, relative to other disasters.

With all the world’s CHEs requiring urgent, often life-saving, support and with global humanitarian funding needs (over $41 billion in 2022) not fully met year-on-year, how do donors make the difficult decisions on where and who to give to?

Unimaginable numbers

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 8 million people, mainly women and children, left their homes, belongings and family members and urgently fled, seeking refuge and safety in neighboring countries. More than 7.1 million people have been internally displaced, including nearly two-thirds of the country’s children. According to the April 2022 UN Flash Appeal, at least 24 million people (more than half the 44 million population of Ukraine) are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance because of the war, with $2.25 billion requested for humanitarian assistance between March and August alone. According to the latest UN Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Global Humanitarian Overview figures, Ukraine ranks fourth in the number of people in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.

In early 2022, more than 100 million individuals were displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations. This is an increase of 10.7 million people from the end of 2021.

In a matter of a few months, the world’s forcibly displaced population has reached the highest level on record. Where are the news headlines and stories of the many other ongoing conflicts and CHEs, where millions are suffering, such as Afghanistan, Cameroon, Colombia, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Mali, Myanmar, Sudan, Syria, Yemen and so on? DRC has 27 million people in need of humanitarian assistance; Ethiopia has 25.9 million, Afghanistan has 24.4 million and Yemen has 20.7 million.

How do donors decide which CHEs to prioritize?

Spurred by the crisis in Ukraine, donors of all sizes are considering how to gather the data to make effective, informed decisions and deploy resources to where they can have the greatest impact. The Center for Disaster Philanthropy held a webinar on Complex Humanitarian Emergencies: Where crisis, conflict, climate and Covid-19 meet in March. Panelists Dominic MacSorley of Concern Worldwide, Lars Peter Nissen at ACAPS, CDP’s Patricia McIlreavy and I discussed CHEs and attempted to address some of these questions funders are asking, using case studies of Ukraine and two other massive and ongoing CHEs: Afghanistan and DRC. Most of the discussion centered around how to prioritize in CHEs, given the massive needs and human suffering in so many places.

Analysis can inform priorities in CHEs

There are many potential sources of information that funders can draw from to inform their analysis and decisions around which CHEs to fund. CDP produces Issue Insights on refugees and IDPs, CHEs, as well as many other relevant topics. US Agency for International Development produces Complex Emergency Factsheets, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs provides a wealth of information. Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index is another useful resource. ACAPS provides multisectoral analysis, with several indices and a focus on the severity of needs and trends.

At CDP, we use all of these and others, such as the global hunger index and global health systems ranking, to inform our funding priorities. Look out for an upcoming blog post illustrating how CDP used these indices to select which countries and issues to prioritize for funding in 2022 from our COVID-19 Fund.

What I do, as a grantmaker:

  1. I give more weight to CHE contexts in my global assessments of funding needs. I believe that program investments can stretch further and have greater and longer-term impact on CHEs. I acknowledge that intersectional inequities are exacerbated and needs and vulnerabilities are multiple, compounded and more protracted in these contexts.
  2. I use informed analysis to allocate funding systematically and strategically rather than reactively. This can be hard for funders, especially when their stakeholders are watching news headlines and expecting funders to fund the disaster, war and humanitarian crisis of the hour. However, there are massive ongoing unmet humanitarian needs globally that don’t get media attention and “forgotten crises” that often have greater humanitarian funding gaps.
  3. I take the long view and fund mitigation, recovery and resilience programming. Fragile and CHE contexts have greater recurring disaster risk. Investing in these intervention areas reduces that risk and future disaster impact.
  4. I fund local actors and interventions that strengthen local systems and capacities. They remain on the ground and will continue to meet ongoing, recurrent and protracted needs when media attention and funding start to wane.

The crisis at hand is always a trigger for greater engagement by the public and institutional funders, particularly when it captures the attention of global media, as we are witnessing with Ukraine and the CHE unfolding there. We should capitalize on this momentum to draw attention to equally devastating conflicts and crises that are not currently making headlines.

Join us for a webinar on July 7, 2022 where we will discuss what happens when an environmental disaster strikes in the midst of a humanitarian crisis and what funders can do, specifically in the fragile and complex environment in Afghanistan.

Alex Gray

Alex Gray

Director, International Funds