Humanitarian aid, 31 billion in 2020

Launching a nutrition campaign in Southern Sudan with UNICEF and WFP, 2015. Credit: UN Photo/JC McIlwaine (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Official Development Assistance figures for 2020 are now available.

2020 ? For humanitarian operators used to immediacy, releasing figures for 2020 mid-2022 may seem laughable. More immediate data can be found elsewhere, such as OCHA’s Financial Tracking System (FTS).

But the OECD is not working on immediacy, rather on the quality and comparability of data between countries. Each of the thirty members of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) reports each development assistance project to the OECD, and each of these data, for each contract signed, is analyzed to ensure that the expenditure corresponds to the definition of Official Development Assistance (ODA). This is an immense task, which has ensured the integrity of ODA figures since its creation in 1969. Humanitarian assistance is one part of ODA among many others, and even if definitions adapt, it is generally over time that one must read these figures.

2020, then. The Covid pandemic was just beginning. The United Nations was appealing for $9.5 billion in funding, while many humanitarian operations were frozen. Ukraine was only the 26th recipient of UN humanitarian funds, and many questions arose. Why was so much money requested if so many programs were blocked? What was going to happen, would donors divert their aid budgets to an economic and social response at home? Not so, and total ODA increased again in 2020, from $196 billion in 2019 to $224 billion in 2020. 60% of this amount comes from the 30 DAC members. Preliminary figures for 2021 already suggest a further increase.

For donors, humanitarian aid spending is a part of Official Development Assistance. In 2020, DAC members’ share of humanitarian aid amounts to $31.2 billion. This represents 13% of total ODA. Logically, since it is in these contexts that humanitarian aid is mobilized the most, the humanitarian share represents 25% of aid in fragile countries. This is an average and the share of humanitarian aid varies greatly from one country to another (Table 1). Less than 1% of French ODA is allocated to humanitarian aid, a decline since 2019, while more than 28% of US aid is humanitarian. The overall trend is upward, therefore, for humanitarian aid (Figure 1).

Source : OECD Creditor Reporting System, Creditor Reporting System (CRS) (

In 2020, 43% of this humanitarian aid was delivered in the Middle East and North Africa region and 26% in sub-Saharan Africa. This is reflected in the share of “non-traditional” donors, i.e., those that are not part of the Aid or Development Committee and do not follow its rules. These are mainly donors from the Gulf and Turkey, whose aid is targeted more precisely at specific crises, Syria in particular and Yemen next, with greater annual variations and therefore less predictability. (Figure 2). It is not clear that the share of non-DAC donors funding aid to Ukraine, or that they are making up for the share of DAC members’ aid to Ukraine that does not go to other crises.

Source : OECD Creditor Reporting System, Creditor Reporting System (CRS) (

In 2020, 33% of this humanitarian aid will be implemented by international or national NGOs. Although the aid distributed by NGOs is increasing in absolute value, with 6.4 billion dollars in 2020, the percentage is tending to decrease over the long term; it was 41% in 2002. For NGOs, this is an effect of the general increase in humanitarian aid, which tends to favor large allocations to those who can best absorb them. For a donor that is bound by budgetary rigor and limited staffing, absorption capacity also includes its own administrative capacity to issue contracts, and this capacity is only decreasing, to the detriment of NGOs and even more so of national NGOs. Figure 3)

Source : OECD Creditor Reporting System, Creditor Reporting System (CRS) (

The growing share of humanitarian aid in absolute terms as well as in percentage of aid raises several questions. An important element of the discussions is that this continuous increase in needs, and therefore in humanitarian funding, is not sustainable in the long term, especially since there will always be more needs than funding to meet them. Crises are less deadly than a few decades ago, but there are more of them, and it is therefore normal that the pressure on humanitarian assistance increases accordingly. Crises also seem to be getting more expensive. The United Nations flash appeal for Ukraine is asking for $2.25 billion for a six-month operation in a region without major logistical problems. That’s more than $12 million a day, plus the response of neighboring governments, led by Poland, to accommodate the refugees. To compare, the five-year war in Bosnia between 1991 and 1995 cost its main humanitarian operator a little over a billion dollars at the time – about two billion today.

Compared to the 57 most fragile countries, humanitarian aid, which represented 11% of total aid in 2002, now represents 25%. What does this growth in the humanitarian sector tell us?

Most of this aid is mobilized in conflict contexts. This trend partly reflects the impossibility for the “international community” to prevent conflicts, or at least to transform conflicts into violence. As we see more and more every day, the list of common values that underpinned the concept of international community is rapidly eroding. The United Nations is no longer able to play the role that justified its creation – preserving peace – and, as a powerless spectator of a changing world, the organization has thus turned into a giant humanitarian organization. The war in Ukraine, unexpectedly, plays the role of an earthquake that suddenly releases years of accumulated geopolitical tensions, and we are probably not finished suffering the aftershocks.

Cyprien Fabre

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Cyprien FABRE

Cyprien Fabre is the Head of the Crisis and Fragility Unit at the OECD. After several years of humanitarian missions with Solidarités, he joined ECHO, the European Commission’s humanitarian department in 2003, and held several positions in crisis contexts. He joined the OECD in 2016 to analyze the engagement of DAC members in fragile or crisis countries. He also wrote a series of “policy into action” and then “Lives in crises” guides to help translate donors’ political and financial commitments into effective programming in crises. He is a graduate of the Faculty of Law of Aix-Marseille.


Tableau 1 : Official Development Assistance 2020 and Humanitarian Aid

million of dollars 2020, Gross ODA, disbursement

Membre du Comité d’Aide au Développement Aide Publique au Développement 2020 (USD million) Aide humanitaire 2020 (USD million) Part d’aide humanitaire de l’APD totale (%)
Total CAD 152 895.09 19 775.44 12.93
Australie 2 318.95 232.88 10.04
Autriche 568.21 55.68 9.8
Belgique 1 175.95 186.89 15.89
Canada 3 917.17 578.87 14.78
Republic Tcheque 72.7 19.03 26.18
Danemark 1 718.5 368.49 21.44
Institutions UE 23 977.1 2 534.8 10.57
Finlande 656.94 90.8 13.82
France 13 088.23 124.29 0.95
Allemagne 25 878.79 1 961.46 7.58
Grèce 84.78 4.21 4.96
Hongrie 225.93 7.65 3.39
Islande 46.13 4.03 8.74
Irelande 521.95 123.24 23.61
Italie 1 403.01 173.29 12.35
Japon 16 886.07 451.19 2.67
Korée 1 925.23 1925.23 6.76
Luxembourg 314.81 61.07 19.4
Pays-bas 3 748.29 342.58 9.14
N.Zélande 433.41 27.33 6.31
Norvège 3 168.32 473.12 14.93
Pologne 233.06 37.07 15.9
Portugal 230.37 6.18 2.68
Répubique Slovaque 37.35 1.4 3.74
Slovénie 31.15 1.82 5.83
Espagne 1 036.17 111.61 10.77
Suède 3 618.25 551.05 15.23
Suisse 2884.7 589.4 20.43
Royaume Uni 12 381.1 12 381.1 15.86
U.S. 30 312.46 8 562.12 28.25


Source : OECD Creditor Reporting System, Creditor Reporting System (CRS) (


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