Last year, the world spent $135 billion on International Development Aid. It also spent $22 billion on Humanitarian Aid.
Is this the right balance?
Let’s see: development aid is controversial, its effectiveness is contested and its impact ambiguous.
Humanitarian aid enjoys consensus, its effectiveness is beyond the slightest doubt, and its impact visible to the naked eye.
An army of econometricians have been out trying to measure the contribution of development aid for a generation, and agreement seems farther than ever. Second-order impacts on macroeconomics and on the politics of both donor and recipient countries are intractable. In some cases, the impact is actively negative, in many more, merely wasteful.
Some of the best minds in the business – by no means just the usual right wing suspects – have concluded development aid is trapped in a paradox: countries that need it most don’t benefit from it, and countries able to benefit from it don’t really need it. Even some long-time campaigners for the developing world favor a gradual tapering off of development aid.
At the same time, the world is seeing an explosion in demand for humanitarian assistance, with climate change threatening to make it all much worse in the near future. While emergency aid spending is rising, it’s not rising anywhere near fast enough to keep up with the growth in demand. Events that used to be once-in-a-century, like the monstrous typhoon that devastated parts of the Philippines in November 2013, could start happening once a decade.
And chaotic weather patterns have already started to fuel conflicts in Central Africa, generating a series of crises international agencies can’t seem to cope with.
In this context, the EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid tells us we should “get used to it” when it comes to not enough resources for Emergency Response. People starving inside UN facilities is, we’re told, “the new normal.”
This situation strikes me as perverse. The rich countries spend plenty in the developing world, it’s just that 6 out of 7 aid dollars are directed to programs where it’s hard to tell if they’re doing any good.
What’s clear is that the macro-trends driving demand for humanitarian response are not abating. Just the opposite. And demand is already outstripping supply to wild, unacceptable degrees (…or, well, degrees we would recognize as wildly unacceptable if we could find editors who cared about hundreds of thousands of starving people as much as they care about one asshole planting a flag in the middle of the desert.)
What’s so strange about this situation is that while “Foreign Aid” is highly unpopular with first world voters everywhere, Humanitarian Aid is popular enough that people give substantial sums voluntarily: of the $22 billion spent on humanitarian aid last year, $5.6 billion was given by private entities, not governments.
In the last 12 months, the world’s seen what happens when three “Level-3 emergencies” (a.k.a., big-time humanitarian crises) hit at once. The Humanitarian Infrastructure buckled under the weight of Syria, the Philippines and Central Africa. The system can’t cope. People starve.
And the people who should be out there agitating for more money to face up to the simultaneous crises instead turn to us and tell us to get used to it.