Humanitarian Challenges: Assessment 2020, Outlook 2021.

The purpose of this site is to promote and strengthen humanitarian action, to shed light on the link between humanitarian and geopolitical issues and finally, to identify and document the major challenges which are as many threats, such as the Covid-19 epidemic.This assessment and these perspectives are of course not exhaustive. Rather, they seek to highlight some facts and trends and, in conclusion, to illustrate the action of this site which intends to be a humanitarian actor in its own way.

Water distribution and Covid-19 safety precautions, Myanmar, 2020 / ©Solidarités International

Assessment 2020

To get to the heart of the matter, the two major facts that mark 2020 have been the global spread of the Covid-19 virus from China and the continuation, if not the deterioration, of the main conflicts. Let us also mention the 5th National Humanitarian Conference (CNH) in Paris on December 17th to which all the articles are devoted in this edition.

The year 2020 will go down in history as the year of Covid-19. Appeared at the beginning of the year (December-January), the virus then spread rapidly on a global scale.

According to the WHO, as of January the 5th of 2021, there were 84 million cases and 1,800,000 deaths worldwide. While the most worrying prognoses have fortunately been thwarted in Africa, where health systems are weakened, there are 64,790 deaths and 2,280,488 cases, nearly half of which are in South Africa. Currently, the pandemic is most deadly in Europe and the Americas.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) estimates the economic losses at $1 trillion and, while the most developed countries have succeeded in mobilizing the resources necessary to protect their population, this is not the case for 6 billion human beings, including a large and unskilled workforce, highly dependent on the informal economy.

The other humanitarian front is the one of the major crises that have not diminished – quite the contrary – and none of them have been resolved: whether it is Yemen on the brink of famine, the Middle East and particularly Syria, or northeastern Nigeria. Nothing positive either for the Rohingyas in Myanmar and Bangladesh or in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo where chaos is thriving. As for the Sahel, the military and security situation continue to deteriorate and is leading always more populations into vulnerability.

©Réseau Logistique Humanitaire

In this chaotic context, humanitarians aid workers have been facing the interruption of almost all air transport, the closure of borders and thus supply chains. They had to show resilience, adaptation and innovation. This is why the NGOs of the Humanitarian Logistics Network (Réseau Logistique Humanitaire – RLH), in complementarity with the World Food Programme (WFP), set up a European humanitarian air bridge with the help of the Crisis and Support Center (Centre de Crise et de Soutien – CDCS) of the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs and the European Commission with ECHO. It enabled to organize 42 flights to priority destinations, to transport 1208 passengers and 785 tons of freight. Adaptation is a key word for humanitarian action, which must draw all the lessons learned in 2020 in order to implement them in 2021.

Let us recall that at the end of 2019, the United Nations (OCHA) launched a call for $29 billion for 2020 to help 168 million people, 22 million more than the previous year. Since then, Covid-19 has greatly increased the most basic needs.

Outlook 2021

“The Covid-19 pandemic changed the landscape of humanitarian response by making 235 million people dependent on international aid. This is a 40% increase over the same period last year,” according to Mark Lowcock, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs.

According to David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme, Nobel Peace laureate in 2020, “the Covid-19 pandemic threatens to trigger another ‘pandemic’, that of famine”. He adds, “A total of 270 million people will face extreme hunger in 2021. He also points out that about 3 million children die of hunger and malnutrition every year in the world.

In fact, an increasing number of populations are at risk in countries already facing serious humanitarian crises such as Yemen, Burkina Faso, Southern Sudan, Northeastern Kenya and Afghanistan and the Sahel are very vulnerable. Syria will still be at the forefront of basic needs with an additional 2 million people to be assisted.

Flood in Central African Republic, 2019 / ©Solidarités International

This crisis overlaps and accelerates another one, that of refugees and displaced persons in the world. While the average number of refugees and displaced persons was 40 million between 1990 and 2010, this figure will rise to almost 80 million in 2019 and is expected to increase further as a result of a virus bringing vulnerabilities, tensions and conflicts.

While none of the major conflicts are on the way to appeasement and resolution, we fear that some may even lead to famines as in Yemen. The explosion in the port of Beirut, the war in Nagorno Karabakh, the serious risk of an intensification of the conflict in Afghanistan, which is experiencing a chronic shortage of cereals, are early signs of deterioration which have clearly led the UN to launch a record appeal of 35 billion dollars for 230 million people in need in 2021 against an appeal of 29 billion dollars last year.

But will the mobilization of financial resources get along with the urgency of the needs? Many voices are worried, including that of UN Secretary-General Antonio Gueterres, and fear “terrible cuts” given the economic losses and massive investments in social protection in OECD countries that are the main donors of international aid.

And since the vaccine is arriving and vaccination is starting, especially in the most affected countries, vaccination in the most fragile and exposed countries must already be planned according to this or that mechanism, in particular the one set up by the World Health Organization (ACT, COVAX).

In such a situation, which will last – and no doubt worsen over time this year – humanitarian aid is the life insurance for populations at risk and it must work quickly and effectively.

What added value for the 5th National Humanitarian Conference?

During the 5th National Humanitarian Conference held on December 17 in Paris in the presence of the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, the latter asked the crucial question “what is most urgent”?

Mark Lowcock answered without hesitation “famine and aid to the most fragile countries. The European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid, Janez Lenarcic, prioritized “the impact of Covid-19 on the world economy and the social consequences”. For Philippe Jahshan, President of Coordination Sud, which brings together humanitarian and development NGOs, “the emergency is the supply chains and the mobilization of massive financial resources to avoid the worst”. As we can see, these priorities are intertwined and complement each other.

If we try to briefly summarize this NHC, knowing that we will come back to it in the next edition at the beginning of February, we can say that the main expectations of humanitarian NGOs were the following:

  • That the Covid-19 crisis serve as a spurt for the anticipation of crises, prevention, mutualization and reinforcement of complementarity between international and national actors.
  • That the budgetary commitments for ODA (0.55% of GNI) and humanitarian aid (500 ME) be met in 2022.
  • That International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality and independence be respected and that access to populations in danger be allowed.
  • To refuse the screening of aid beneficiaries under IHL, for the access of aid and the security of humanitarians in the field of crises.
  • To limit security screening of providers, partners and staff at the beginning of each new program and then on a regular basis of 2 to 3 times a year depending on the case.
  • To strengthen humanitarian-development synergy in conjunction with local actors without being in charge of peace, which is the responsibility of political decision-makers.
  • That all humanitarian actors take fully into account in their action the fight against climate change, for the environment and biodiversity.
  • That humanitarian actors benefit from an exemption from the anti-terrorist laws that put them at risk and that French criminal law integrates IHL.

After noting that impunity was becoming the rule and that security was deteriorating dangerously for humanitarians, Emmanuel Macron declared “France will be your ally”.

The President of the Republic made the following commitments:

  • Re-commitment to Official Development Assistance, a moratorium on the debt of African countries, and the issuance of monetary drawing rights. Following the recent G20 summit, France will organize a Summit on the financing of African economies in May 2021 in Paris.
  • It supports the creation of a post of special correspondent to the UN Secretary General for the preservation of humanitarian space.
  • He proposes the creation of a joint technical commission to strengthen the investigation of crimes against humanitarians.
  • That a solution be found within the next 6 months to facilitate NGO bank transfers and the publication of a “Pedagogical Guide”.
  • The President asked the Keeper of the Seals (the French Lord Chancellor) to send a circular to all public prosecutors’ offices in France to make them aware of the IHL that applies to NGOs.
  • He evoked an improvement in the exemption from sanctions for NGOs, on a case-by-case basis, in the face of anti-terrorist laws.
  • He reiterated his commitment that France will devote 0.55% of its GNI to ODA in 2022 on an increasing trajectory, as well as a budget of 500 ME for humanitarian aid.
  • In this 48th edition of Défis Humanitaires you will find several articles on the CNH and we will come back to it in our next edition at the beginning of February.

And to conclude, assessment and outlooks for the Défis Humanitaires website.

As a site publishing these articles, analyses, interviews, we also wish to share with you a summary of our achievements in 2020 and our projects this year.

In 2020, we published 13 editions and 51 articles written by 30 authors. The number of readers was 33,529 for 21,370 in 2019 and 11,116 in 2018. This tripling of the number of readers is a good indication of the interest generated by Défis Humanitaires and we thank you and the authors for their contribution.

The 10 most read articles were about the NHC, the protection and exemption of humanitarians from anti-terrorist laws, Covid-19, the Sahel, the humanitarian’s security and demography in the Sahel.

This year, we plan to update and promote the site’s model, strengthen the editorial staff, improve the photos, publish a monthly edition and, finally, publish the 2nd edition of the Study on French humanitarian NGOs abroad for the period 2006 – 2019.

But let’s be frank, in order to achieve this, we need your financial support. To continue and develop after 3 years and 48 editions, this free site now needs some financial resources. You will find the presentation of this project for which we thank you in advance for your donation on HelloAsso.

I present you my best wishes for you and your loved ones for the new year.

Alain Boinet.

Globl Humanitarian Assistance Report 2020 – Key figures

Development Initiatives has published the Global Humanitarian Assistance Report for 20 years now. It provides a detailed picture of the funding of international humanitarian assistance through a wealth of accurate data.

You will find here a summary of the 4 chapters of this report.

Enjoy reading it!


You will find here the PDF of the complete Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2020.

You should watch the animated summary of the GHAR 2020.

Chapter 1: People and Crisis

This first chapter draws a global image of the spread of poverty around the world. It connects this phenomenon with countries experiencing protracted crisis.

It focuses on gender, stating that “women are often disproportionately affected by humanitarian crises”, while they are also “disadvantaged by gender inequalities and vulnerabilities”. The difficulty to access gender-disaggregated data in aid spending hinders our capacity to evaluate the extent to which “women and girls are affected in humanitarian crises”. According to existing figures, “ODA1 relevant to gender-based violence (GBV) has increased gradually since 2016”. It represents, however, only 0.7% of total ODA.

Data from the report enables to create a map of people affected by crisis, and in need of humanitarian assistance. The authors estimate that 215.6 million people living in 69 countries are in need of humanitarian assistance. 57% of them live in 10 countries. Of these 10 countries, only 4 are among “the 10 countries receiving the largest volumes of funding through UN appeals”.

Chapter 2: International Humanitarian Assistance

International Humanitarian Assistance falls for the first time since 2015

“In 2019, total international humanitarian assistance from governments and EU institutions and estimated contributions from private donors decreased by US$1.6 billion to US$29.6 billion.” This is a 5% fall, which follows 4 years of growth. This sharp decrease is mainly due to “a fall in funding from governments and EU institutions, which decreased by 8%”.

On the opposite, UN appeals increased by 5%, and requirements met increased, from 60% to 64% in 2019.

The volume of international assistance provided by the 20 largest donors reduced in 2019. Indeed the trend of slower growth lasts since 2014. It was interrupted in 2018 by the exceptional contributions from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). They increased their contribution by 1.8 billion USD in 2018, and reduced it by 1.5 billion USD the next year. As a result, regional contributions from the Middle East and North of Sahara fell by 44% in 2019.

On a regional scale, only Europe increased slightly its contributions by 1.9%. This is driven primarily by “a large rise in international humanitarian assistance from the UK, rising by 24%”. 

Finally, the authors note the significant role of private donors, which contributions “have consistently made up just over a fifth of total international humanitarian assistance”.

The largest recipients, a stable group, experiencing protracted crisis

This very clear figure shows the 10 largest recipient of international humanitarian assistance in 2018.

To keep in mind :

  • Syria did not receive the largest amount of assistance for the first time in seven years.
  • The increase in assistance to Yemen is due to Middle Eastern donors: “In 2017, 29% of total funding to Yemen came from these two donors [UAE and Saudi Arabia]. By 2018, this proportion had grown to 69%”.
  • The largest recipient are a relatively stable group, because most of them experience protracted crisis.
  • Outside the 10 largest recipient, Bangladesh, Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, and Niger saw major increase in funding received.

Finally, this chapter focuses on ODA targeting disaster risk reduction. International humanitarian assistance for Disaster Risk Reduction gains importance as “climate change is likely to have (…) profound and long-lasting impacts on people’s lives”. It appears that this specific ODA is well targeted to countries at “very high” or “high” risk or natural catastrophe. ODA with primary focus on Disaster Risk Reduction represents, however, only a small proportion of total ODA, varying between 0.5% and 1.7%.

Chapter 3: Funding for effectiveness and efficiency

The total international humanitarian response in 2018 was of 31.2 billion USD. Channels of delivery of this assistance have not changed much since 2017. Governments mostly give to multilateral agencies (62%), while private donors continue to donate in majority to NGOs (89%, which represents 56% of the total funding to NGOs). When we take into account both governments and private donors, “funding to NGOs (…) as a proportion of total international humanitarian assistance decreased from 35% in 2017 to 30% in 2018”.

Sharp fall of direct funding to local and national actors

Data on the beneficiaries of funds allocated to international humanitarian aid are not easily accessible. Indeed, “beyond funding to first-level recipients, there continues to be a lack of data on subsequent transactions,” making it difficult to analyze the effectiveness and efficiency of aid spending.

Data analyzed by Development Initiatives, including OCHA FTS2 , show that direct funding to local and national actors has been significantly reduced in 2019 . Thus, in the diagram above, we can see a decrease, both in proportion and volume, in direct funding to local and national actors.

UN pooled funds, which provide a flexible, country-led funding option under the Country-based pooled fund (CBPF), increased by 25% in 2019. However, this increase is mainly due to a 55 percent increase in funding from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) and not from the CBPFs.

“NGOs receive more than two thirds of the funding allocated from CBPFs”, however 65% of CBPF funding allocated to NGOs aimed at international NGOs, while 35% targeted local and national NGOs. CBPFs are an important source of funding for local and national actors, but they “remain a small part of total humanitarian assistance, representing just 4% of total public donor contributions in 2019”. There are also wide differences between country-based pooled funds: for instance, “the Iraq Humanitarian Fund allocated 0.9% of its funding to local and national NGOs, while the occupied Palestinian territory Humanitarian Fund allocated 36.9%”.

“Quality funding”, an option favored during the Grand Bargain, but still little used

The last part of this chapter focuses on “quality funding”, which encompasses unearmarked and multi-year funding. While multi-year funding have largely increased, “unearmarked funding as a proportion of total funding has decreased steadily since 2015”, and its volume dropped in 2019 below 2015 levels. A great increase was seen, however, regarding the use of cash and voucher assistance (CVA), which volume has grown steadily since 2015.

In 2016, at the World Humanitarian Summit, the five largest donors and the six largest UN agencies signed a document of 51 decisions to make aid more effective. This is called the “Grand Bargain“, which today has 61 signatories (24 states, 11 UN agencies, 5 intergovernmental and Red Cross organizations and 21 NGOs). Improving traceability and the flexibility of the funds allocated were major points of this report. However, the authors, here and later in the report, clearly show the difficulty of access to reliable and comparable data, as well as the lack of flexibility in the funds released. It is difficult, after reading this report, to conclude that good progress has been made by States and international donors on the points raised during the Grand Bargain.

Read more on the Grand Bargain, here, on Défis Humanitaires.

Chapter 4: Crisis financing to the Covid-19 pandemic response

Covid-19, a pandemic with multiple consequences, has a negative impact on international humanitarian aid

This last chapter analyzes crisis financing to the Covid-19 pandemic response. While requirements and needs have largely increased due to the pandemic, resources, including ODA, have reduced. Indeed, “total UN humanitarian appeal funding requirements for 2020 have already reached 37.7 billion USD, 25% higher than in June 2019”. Simultaneously, resources, such as foreign direct investment, tourism, remittances etc., fall because of the economic crisis caused by the pandemic.

Development Initatives calculated that “total ODA may fall from 2019 levels of 153billion USD to, at best, 143 billion USD in 2020 (…) At worst, total ODA may fall to 139 billion in 2020 before falling further to 134 billion USD (a 12% reduction) in 2021”. These projections are likely to severely affect countries, as “ODA represents more than a quarter of all government expenditure for a third of countries within the Global Humanitarian Response Plan (GHRP)”.

In June 2020, 20% of the 37.7 billion USD of UN humanitarian appeal funding requirements had been met, “with the same proportion, on average, of requirements fulfilled for the Covid-19 appeal and for other humanitarian appeals” – donors did not prioritize Covid-19 response to other crises. Although it is a bit lower than the 23% of requirements met June last year (2019), it is higher in volume by 578 million USD.

The delivery of aid varied from usual, as a lower proportion was allocated directly to countries, with “a sixth of total allocations going to global support services”.

Repartition of total appeal funding related/non related to Covid-19

2020 – not Covid-19 related 2020 – Covid-19 related
Directly to countries’ plans 83% 74%
Support services 17%
Regional Response plans 17% 8%

Who gives and to whom? The main donors of the response to Covid-19 are the same as those providing the largest volume of humanitarian aid in 2019

As of donors, they mostly are the same as usual: “the three donors providing the largest volumes of international humanitarian assistance in 2019 are the largest donors to the Covid-19 response”. Namely the US, Germany and the UK, who provided 44% of total grants from public donors to the Covid-19 pandemic response.

The international humanitarian assistance to fight Covid-19 mostly channeled through UN agencies: “As of 24 June 2020, almost three quarters of the total international humanitarian assistance to the Covid-19 response was channeled through multilateral organizations”.

92% of this went to four UN agencies, namely:

  • The World Health Organization (38% of funding to UN agencies and other multilateral organizations)
  • The UN International Children’s Emergency Fund (24%)
  • The World Food Programme (17%)
  • The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (13%).

In comparison, NGOs received less than usual, with “just 5.1% of the total international humanitarian assistance for Covid-19 – compared to an average of 19% directed to NGOs and CSOs by governments between 2014 and 2018”.

Covid-19, what to learn from the financing of this crisis?

Let’s end this article on a positive note. There is one benefic aspect to this health crisis, that is the greater flexibility in funding it imposed on donors. UN agencies issued new flexibility guidelines, promoting re-programming of existing funding, lighter process for negotiation and disbursement, and simplification of processes such as due diligence and reporting. These aspects are in line with Grand Bargain decision to increase flexible funding. The question remains whether it will last beyond the pandemic or not?


Madeleine Trentesaux

[1] ODA – Official Development Aid

[2] UN OCHA- FTS – United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid- Financial Tracking Service