Funding the Submerged Bit of the Humanitarian Iceberg

The Guardian Professional Development network runs my piece on Invisible Crises today. Go have a look at it!

Given a funding architecture where the bulk of humanitarian donations are earmarked for use in a specific emergency, second-tier crises like the one in South Sudan face major obstacles to fundraising and third-tier crises like those in Chad often don’t get any direct funding. “We have plenty of operations that attract no earmarked funds at all,” says Alex Mundt, senior donor relations officer for the UNHCR. In those cases, the agency allocates non-earmarked contributions, typically from private donors, or “loosely earmarked” funds from donor governments directed at a broad region, rather than a specific place or activity. For the WFP, just 11% of donations come with no strings attached.

In general, I think it’s useful to divide humanitarian operations into three tiers.

The Top Tier involves large scale suffering in places of geostrategic significance, or in places with relatively empowered populations. They command sustained media interest and, partly as a result, sustained donor engagement. Syria, Iraq, Gaza, The Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan. The world only has attention span for one Top Tier crisis at a time, usually: it’s the confluence of four of them over the last 12 months that’s created this sense of “disaster overload”.

The Second Tier involves major crises in places of little geostrategic value (South Sudan, CAR), or comparatively smaller crises in highly visible places (Ukraine). They can command a solid humanitarian response (Humanitarian System-Wide Emergency Activation, in the jargon) though that doesn’t mean it’ll be properly resourced. Some journalists will go there, and lots of aid workers.

The Third Tier involves “minor” (in the scheme of things) crises in places of little strategic value. They command virtually no media engagement at all, because in a real sense there’s no “news” to report there: just chronic, grinding conflict and/or (usually “and”) environmental degradation taking place over a period of decades, with impacts that are incremental and cummulative. This is the underwater part of the Humanitarian Iceberg, and though the Sahel is its World Capital, it spreads around the globe, from Myanmar to Western Algeria to Paraguay to Mozambique.

The third tier is the submerged bit of the humanitarian iceberg: much bigger than the visible bit, but utterly out of sight. In my piece, I wanted to ask what happens to funding for the Third Tier when the top two tiers go haywire as they have this year.

This is an empirical question, and my article can’t answer it, only pose it.

What’s troubling, though, isn’t so much what’s happening now but what’s going to happen over the next generation or two. As climate systems change, we’re likely to see many, many more or these third tier crises…or, rather, we’re likely to not see them, because as they become more prevalent, they’ll tend to draw even less media attention than they do today.

Because the same chaotic climate, land degradation and population pressure that’ll drive the growth in third tier crises is also likely to drive growth in First and Second Tier crises.

The question for me is, how you manage disaster risk in the long tail as “disaster overload” becomes the new normal?

All major donors are theoretically signed up to the Principles of Good Humanitarian Donorship already. Principle 13 explicitly calls for more flexible funding of the type needed to address third tier crises. But that doesn’t seem to translate into a trend to more flexible giving. So what happens to funding for the long tail in the summer of 2028, when you have five Top Tier and nine Second Tier crises at the same time? Who goes there?

2 thoughts on “Funding the Submerged Bit of the Humanitarian Iceberg”

  1. And lets not forget a third tier category that is also growing very quickly: urban slums, which are really not all that different from large unmanaged refugee camps (in this case economic refugees).

  2. I suppose third tier is immeasurable but impacted by diversion of resource spend to second and first tier crises. Measure cancellation of food for work programs and trace where the money goes. Happened here to a five year program; just stopped at the end of the first year. But some places have no programs and need them but somehow classed as not needed. Difficult to know why.

    But a problem is spend. It is often blanket and non-discriminatory so money does not go as far as it should. The spend needs to be better targeted to be more effective.

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