Global health centre
09 December 2015

2016 Humanitarian Overview – A world in need

The international community is facing nearly unprecedented levels of humanitarian need – comparable only to those seen during the Second World War. A staggering 125 million people will depend on humanitarian assistance in order to simply survive in 2016, with protracted conflicts and natural disasters - likely to be more drastic under the effects of El Niño - compounding this suffering. These undoubtedly daunting projections were introduced at the launch of the 2016 Humanitarian Overview at the Graduate Institute on 7 December by Stephen O’Brien, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordination. As moderator of the session, O’Brien was joined by an impressive array of panelists (please see full list below), whose discussion centred on the funding gap in humanitarian assistance and the pressures each organisation face in striving to meet mounting needs.

Protracted conflicts represent the largest burden of response, as initial humanitarian interventions soon turn to prolonged service provision for the weak and collapsed social service sectors of affected countries. This is especially evident in health systems, where instability and violence results in the closure of health facilities, damage to infrastructure, and limitations for health professionals. These collapsed health systems lead to further avoidable deaths from disease, injury, and lack of available services; as Margaret Chan noted, 60% of maternal deaths and 50% of childhood deaths occur in crisis areas. Antonio Gutteres similarly noted the increasing flows of refugees as a result of these conflicts, many of whose basic needs cannot be met. Indeed, the humanitarian system is struggling under the pressure of seemingly ever-growing demands amidst a widening funding gap.

At the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, stakeholders must address the future of humanitarian financing, including the exploration of innovative financing mechanisms, as stressed by Gilles Carbonnier, or a system of assessed contributions, as suggested by Guterres. Chan also emphasised the demand for unearmarked funds to allow for full flexibility in addressing needs. Indeed, considering 80% of humanitarian needs currently result from conflicts, a system of unearmarked, assessed contributions could potentially limit the highly-politicised nature of donating to specific causes.

Predictable funding must be at the heart of any solution, as should partnerships for capacity-building, technology transfer, and management development. As noted by Ahmad Faizal Perdaus, the diversity and complementarity of actors is vital in order to be effective in any response. Lastly, emerging countries must take up the mantle of assistance, and take the opportunity to redefine the meaning of countries as donors in a time when traditional donors are pulled in many thematic directions while running deficits.

As definitions go, the humanitarian sector should seek to reframe their appeals for funding; donations to humanitarian efforts should not be seen as begrudged charity, but rather as worthwhile investments. Public goods such as education and health are universally recognised as investments in our collective future, though provision of these services is not possible in too many countries where humanitarian interventions are necessary. If marketability is what is necessary to galvanize donors, then the emphasis must be on the return investment on the limitless potential of saved lives.

Above all, policy-makers must focus on political solutions to conflicts while assuring the space and access for humanitarians to intervene in the interim. Development must be taken into consideration from the start of any humanitarian intervention in order to understand and address the root causes of instability to make future development possible and sustainable. Of course, the questions resulting from all of these considerations, as highlighted by both O’Brien and Mohamed Omar Arte, were: what is the critical path? How do you begin prioritising so many needs? Effective coordination among UN agencies is critical to this, but first, appeals must be fully funded and countries the world over must recognise their moral responsibility to act, be it through peace processes or purse strings.

For more information:

Event Panelists:

  • Mohamed Omar Arte, Deputy Prime Minister of Somalia
  • Gilles Carbonnier, Professor of Development Economics, the Graduate Institute, Geneva; author of Humanitarian Economics - War, Disaster and the Global Aid Market
  • Margaret Chan, Director-General, World Health Organization
  • Antonio Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
  • Ahmad Faizal Perdaus, Chair, International Council of Voluntary Agencies; President, MERCY Malaysia

Photo: OCHA funding map -