A global common good : Improving financing for UN humanitarian aid

Originally published


Dieter Reinhardt, June 2019


The scope and structures of the funding of international humanitarian organizations often provide a clearer indication of the foreign policy interests of donor governments in crisis areas than their general diplomatic statements. A description of the funding structures of this aid and of the international debate over their further development and reform can therefore also offer insights into the actual political dynamics in this policy field.

As regards political rhetoric, there seems at first sight to be broad international agreement that, for example, humanitarian assistance, as a response to violent conflicts and natural disasters, should be impartial and tailored to needs and should not be instrumentalized for political purposes.
These principles were confirmed in May 2016 at the UN World Humanitarian Summit, in which 180 states, the UN humanitarian agencies, and over 700 non-governmental humanitarian organizations participated. There was also widespread consensus when it came to the description of the major weaknesses of the funding system, including underfunding of individual crises or sectors, frequent delays in delivering funding, and the overdependence of the entire system on a few donor governments, e.g. on the US and EU governments. When it comes to what a reform of this system could look like, on the other hand, different or even opposing positions have been held for decades.

For example, important donor governments and the overwhelming majority of large humanitarian NGOs rejected the proposal by former UN High Commissioner for Refugees and current UN Secretary-General António Guterres that a large portion of the budgets of humanitarian UN organizations should no longer be funded through voluntary contributions but instead—analogous to the financing of UN peace missions—through assessed contributions from all UN Member States: »As [UN] peacekeeping operations are funded by assessed contributions I think that at least major emergencies like Syria should benefit from assessed contributions that all member states contribute to« (UN High Commissioner for Refugees 2015). In his role as UN Secretary-General, Guterres described the effects of inadequate resources on the threat of famine in parts of sub-Saharan Africa at a meeting of the UN Security Council in October 2017: »It is unconscionable that aid agencies must make life-or-death decisions about who gets aid, because of a shortage of resources« (UN Secretary-General, October 2017).

Kristalina Georgieva, Chairwoman of the High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing set up in 2015 by then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, also criticizes the existing funding system for humanitarian aid: »We collectively spend as much on chewing gum as we do on humanitarian aid. In 2014, the world’s military spending amounted to $1.7 trillion« (Georgieva/Shah 2016). Occasionally incumbent politicians also chime in with similarly drastic descriptions. For example, former German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel said in his speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2017, »It cannot be that those in positions of responsibility at the United Nations spend more time distributing begging letters to find the necessary funding than in organizing effective assistance. We have to change course here. We have to grant the United Nations more freedom, in exchange for greater transparency on the use of funds« (Gabriel 2017).

So there is no mistaking the major discontent with the serious shortcomings of international humanitarian financing mechanisms. In fact, however, many governments have thus far shown no interest in a reform that would address these shortcomings and establish structures for stable and needsbased financing of UN humanitarian assistance. This is also a reflection of the dilemma facing the general funding of the UN.