A big rethink in how to aid people beset by crisis

The world’s first humanitarian-aid summit this May should look beyond raising more money for those most in need because of disaster or war, despite near-record levels. A new view of local actors in a crisis is needed. 

AP Photo
A convoy of cars loaded with food and other supplies heads toward the besieged town of Madaya in Syria Jan. 11. Reports of starvation and images of emaciated children have raised global concerns and underscored the urgency for new peace talks that the U.N. is hoping to host in Geneva on Jan. 25.

If the number of people in urgent need of humanitarian aid (100 million) lived in a single country, it would be the 12th largest in the world. That startling comparison is helpful for two reasons. One, not since World War II have there been so many people forcibly displaced by war, climate change, or poverty. And two, this May, world leaders will hold their first summit on humanitarian responses to crises from Burundi to Yemen – which, as a whole, are in effect the equivalent of a large country.

Total spending on foreign aid by governments has doubled in the past decade, reaching a record level of more than $137 billion. And at the summit, the United Nations will make a record appeal to donor nations for $20 billion to support UN-related work. These numbers, about both the people in need or the money required to help them, could seem boggling. But they shouldn’t. The summit may achieve another purpose. Aid advocates hope it will lead to reform of the very idea of aid itself by giving more control to local groups during a crisis.

Too much aid, even if well funded, misses the mark by being top-down with tight centralized controls. The world response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, for example, came with plenty of money. Yet a post-crisis evaluation found “international agencies often brushed local capacities aside.” And a survey after the 2015 Nepal earthquake found aid failed to meet the priorities of most local people.

Only a small fraction of aid goes directly to local nongovernmental groups. “The aid architecture we built after the Second World War is no longer fit for purpose,” stated UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres last year. “Unless we fix this system, things are going to get much, much more difficult.”

Stephen O’Brien, the head of UN humanitarian affairs, says local groups are more “culturally appropriate” in delivering aid. They are natural first responders, more able to innovate and assess needs and risks.

They may also view the people they help as already having the dignity and capacity to recover from a disaster. With the number of people in need of humanitarian aid having doubled in the past decade, that view is far more precious than billions in foreign money.

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