Complex Humanitarian Emergencies


In recent decades, humanitarian emergencies have become more complicated and long-lasting. An emergency always poses challenges, but they become complex when layered with crisis, climate change and conflict.

No universally agreed definition of a complex humanitarian emergency (CHE) exists. Britannica describes a CHE as “a type of disaster event that is caused by and results in a complicated set of social, medical, and often political circumstances, usually leading to great human suffering and death and requiring external assistance and aid.”

Such emergencies are associated with a variety of factors, such as war, poverty, human-caused environmental destruction and climate change, and disasters.

The United Nations (UN) considers a CHE a crisis involving multiple causes. A breakdown in authority or inadequate capacity often prevents adequate response from the government, who are the ultimate duty bearers responsible for responding to the needs of those affected in the country.

Characteristics of CHEs often include:

  • War or conflict.
  • Great human suffering and death.
  • Large numbers of affected and displaced people.
  • Human-caused environmental destruction and disasters caused by impacts of climate change.
  • Weakened public institutions and systems such as healthcare, education and sanitation.
  • High risk of public health emergencies and outbreaks of disease.
  • International assistance and aid are needed, and actors who abide by the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence.
  • Delivery of assistance is prevented by groups who are part of the conflict.
  • Relief workers face heightened security risks.

The following are examples of different types of CHEs in terms of characteristics, scale and humanitarian needs:

  • Haiti became the world’s first Black-led republic when it overthrew French colonial control in 1804. However, the country is regularly exposed to natural hazards and the effects of climate change and faces recurring socio-economic and political challenges. The roots of these challenges include France forcing Haiti to pay reparations which indebted future generations and hampered economic progress for decades. In 2023, 5.2 million people needed humanitarian assistance, nearly half the country’s population. Gangs were estimated to control or exercise influence over 80% of the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area in 2023, and their activities expanded, especially to the central Artibonite Valley.
  • Ethiopia made important development gains in the last decade. However, the combination brutal internal conflict, climate shocks, human rights abuses, disease outbreaks and the socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19 led to the deterioration in humanitarian conditions. In 2023, 20.1 million people needed humanitarian assistance across the country, including an estimated 4.6 million internally displaced people.
  • Afghanistan has endured decades of war, recurring natural hazards, chronic poverty, drought and food insecurity, resulting in 29.2 million Afghans needing humanitarian assistance in 2023. Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis has political and economic roots that were exacerbated when the Taliban assumed power in August 2021. In July 2023, the World Food Programme said nine out of 10 Afghan families lacked adequate food and children and pregnant women are the hardest hit. The deadly earthquake that hit northwestern Afghanistan in October 2023 demonstrates how a sudden onset disaster can exacerbate and complicate an existing CHE.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) coordinates emergency responses to humanitarian crises. Their coordination role includes working with humanitarian actors in assessing situations and needs, agreeing on shared priorities and response strategies, clarifying consistent public messaging, and monitoring the progress of the crisis and the humanitarian response to it.

In complex emergencies involving refugees, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is responsible for protection and assistance activities on behalf of the refugees. UNHCR may also be appointed lead agency and therefore be responsible for coordinating the UN response.

The Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) uses several sources to inform our analysis and funding priorities for CHEs, including Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index, Global Hunger Index and ACAPS’ Inform Severity Indices. These sources help CDP decide where to support, understand needs and anticipate what may happen next. Internally, CDP categorizes CHEs as Levels 1, 2 or 3. Level 1 CHEs are profiled in the weekly What We’re Watching blog and tracked. Level 2 CHEs receive a higher level of attention by featuring an in-depth Disaster Profile and consideration for funding. Finally, Level 3 CHEs are prioritized for funding and receive a more significant focus in CDP’s communication and educational content. Level 2 and 3 Disaster Profiles are on our website’s disaster page.

Key Facts

  • The number of people globally that need assistance is growing. In 2023, 364.6 million people required humanitarian assistance and protection, a significant increase from 274 million people the year before. The COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and conflict are key drivers of this upward trend.
  • Humanitarian emergencies are consistently underfunded. The protracted nature of CHEs means that donors often lose interest. According to UNOCHA, donors funded only 57.5% of humanitarian appeals in 2022. Underfunding has severe consequences, including not reaching all people in need and resulting in actors emphasizing life-saving assistance over recovery and longer-term solutions. Philanthropy can help fill this gap by providing flexible and multi-year funding and focusing on funding longer-term solutions and humanitarian relief.
  • Humanitarian crises exacerbate all inequalities. Violence against women and girls is persistent, and climate shocks disproportionately impact them. Gaps in sexual and reproductive health services are chronic. LGBTQ people and communities are often excluded from the humanitarian response. Emergency policies and plans usually do not consider the needs of older adults due to ageism which results in inadequate services. Humanitarian crises often lead to an increase in human trafficking. Humanitarian action must promote the protection and participation of marginalized populations and seek to address inequalities.
  • The climate crisis compounds humanitarian crises. The growing climate emergency adds another layer of stress and complication to CHEs. Human-induced global warming has led to a doubling of disasters in the past 20 years. Climate change also exacerbates pre-existing risks. When governments and institutions are weakened, people are often more exposed and less resilient to the impacts of natural hazards and climate change. The Overseas Development Institute estimates that between 2004 and 2014, 58% of deaths from natural hazard-related disasters occurred in the top 30 most fragile states. Investments in CHEs benefit from an awareness of how climate change affects local populations.
  • Aid workers face a challenging operational environment. The number of major attacks on aid workers and the total number of aid worker victims has continued to increase in recent years. Ninety-eight percent of the aid workers who died in 2021 were nationals of the emergency country and 2% were internationals. Understanding context and actively mitigating security risks are essential to ensure aid workers remain safe and that humanitarian operations continue.

How to Help

  • Use informed analysis to allocate funding systematically and strategically rather than reactively. This can be hard for funders, especially when stakeholders watch news headlines and expect them to fund the disaster, conflict and humanitarian crisis of the hour. However, significant unmet global humanitarian needs that do not get media attention and “forgotten crises” often have more significant humanitarian funding gaps.
  • Support broad and integrated efforts. CHEs involve multiple causes, so narrow and siloed approaches are ineffective. Funders can have a more significant impact when they support efforts that are broad in scope and integrated with the existing government, non-government or UN mechanisms. Most importantly, funder support should ensure programs are community-informed and community-led. Consider how support can address needs across sectors while reinforcing the respective country’s Humanitarian Response Plan, a document consolidated by UNOCHA on behalf of the Humanitarian Country Team and partners that respond to the assessed and expressed needs of the affected population.
  • Support mitigation, recovery and resilience, not just immediate needs. While ensuring affected people have access to life-saving assistance is essential, recovery and resilience cannot be ignored. Even amid a CHE, children need to be educated, small businesses need to return to operation, schools and health facilities need to be operational, and families need support rebuilding or creating new and sustainable livelihoods. The type of recovery support will vary depending on the context and current conditions. However, it is possible to help affected communities begin the recovery process and effectively strengthen their ability to adapt to increasing disaster risk and recurring shocks.
  • Provide flexible and multi-year funding. In CHEs, the context is dynamic and fluid. Shifting alliances and motivations of groups party to a conflict, ongoing displacement and the constant threat of natural hazards make precise planning difficult if not impossible. Allowing organizations the flexibility to use grant funds in ways that make the most sense given the current conditions on the ground exhibits trust in partners and supports effective response and recovery.
  • Fund local actors and interventions that strengthen local systems and capacities. Local actors remain on the ground and will continue to meet ongoing, recurrent and protracted needs when media attention and funding start to wane.

What Funders Are Doing

CDP provides support for people impacted by CHEs worldwide through its funds, including the Global Recovery Fund and COVID-19 Response Fund. In 2022, more than half of CDP international funding will go to various programs in CHE contexts. The following are examples of CDP grants awarded to support recovery from CHEs for individuals and communities.

  • CDP awarded $450,000 to Adeso in 2022 to provide communities with increased access to water for drought-relief and to mitigate the risk of spread of COVID-19 in water-scarce communities in northern Somalia. This project will also act as a pilot. Whole findings will enable Adeso to develop a water social enterprise that will replicate the project and provide a long-term, affordable and more sustainable solution to water security in drought-affected parts of Somalia, resulting in safe and clean water that will improve food security and livelihood outcomes, aid in better sanitation and hygiene practices, and reduce the risk of spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.
  • CDP awarded $1,000,000 to The White Helmets in 2023 to rehabilitate a major supply road running from the Jarablus cross-border point between Turkey and Syria, and develop a prototype for an autonomous mine detection and removal system, enabling quicker and safer recovery from the earthquake’s impact for vulnerable populations in northwest Syria.
  • CDP awarded $202,488 to Near East Foundation in 2021 to provide lifesaving support to conflict-impacted people in South Sudan and Sudan, including internally displaced persons, returnees and at-risk host populations. The project will support food security and livelihood recovery through climate-smart agricultural production, inclusive value chain development and access to finance.

Funding and support from the philanthropic community vary in size, focus and sector. The following are examples of the diversity of philanthropy’s response to CHEs:

  • The LEGO Foundation awarded $100 million to the International Rescue Committee and partners in 2019 to bring play-based early learning to refugee children. The PlayMatters initiative provided early-learning solutions for pre-primary and primary-school-age children affected by humanitarian crises in three East African countries.
  • The Ford Foundation awarded $110,000 to openDemocracy Limited in 2021 to expand coverage and reporting on the Venezuelan crisis, including the closing civic space, the migration exodus and the consequences of the CHE on vulnerable populations of ethnic communities and women.
  • Madre awarded $94,459 to the Syrian Women’s League in 2020 to provide safe access to psychosocial support, vocational training, and sexual and reproductive rights workshops to Syrian women and girl refugees in Lebanon.
  • The Charles Mott Foundation awarded $500,000 to Ednannia in 2022 to support Ukrainian community foundations responding to critical humanitarian needs resulting from Russia’s war on Ukraine. Ednannia will provide grants to up to 18 Ukrainian community foundations to ensure that they can effectively respond to the needs of their communities.

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(Photo: A Inter-American Commission on Human Rights worker questioning a Venezuelan woman at a refugee camp in Colombia. Source: Daniel Cima/CIDH; CC BY 2.0)