Shouldn’t Humanitarian Aid Come First?

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.

6 thoughts on “Shouldn’t Humanitarian Aid Come First?”

  1. Yes.

    Difficult to know, also, how some aid is classified. Are Food for Work programs under the Humanitarian rather than Development Aid budget. The cause might not be war, natural disaster, drought but it seems it is Humanitarian. The people on the program don’t have food but is it labelled as Development Aid rather than as Humanitarian

    Food for Work program here has been cancelled. Maybe due to bumper rains but also might be budget diversion to more desperate areas. Or it may be other reasons entirely.

  2. While I agree that these are important questions to raise in the wake of climate change, humanitarian aid’s effectiveness is far from “beyond the slightest doubt.” As with development aid, when you open the lid, there is plenty of waste and it comes under significant scrutiny for propping up corrupt regimes and obstructing local economic systems.

  3. Humanitarian aid comes with a whole set of nasty unintended consequences of its own: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/10/11/alms-dealers?currentPage=all

    The risks are likely much greater in conflict zones (as opposed to, say, areas hit by climate-related disasters), but in general it seems to me that the political consequences of humanitarian aid are likely to be complex and potentially harmful in many situations. (Just as with development aid, humanitarian aid reduces pressure on local governments to develop their own systems to predict, avert, and respond to crisis.) That doesn’t mean that it isn’t a good thing on net – but its effectiveness is far from “beyond the slightest doubt.”

    All the same, I am in complete agreement that our failure to respond adequately to humanitarian crises is a wildly unacceptable moral travesty… I’m just less certain about what to do about it. Very interested to hear your response to the above.

    1. Obviously there have been some notorious emergency-response fuck-ups. Goma ain’t just a river in Egypt. Still, politically, emergency response is a pitch that sells itself: development aid, much less so.

  4. In addition to the three you mention, South Sudan is also an underfunded Level 3 emergency with serious concern of a famine.

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