Cheap needs, overpriced humanitarian aid?

Humanitarian aid in a Somali camp. @HumanitarianReliefFoundation

Recently, during an exchange with a humanitarian donor, one of my interlocutors ingenuously asked me one of the most vexing questions about the future of the current humanitarian system: “There are more and more crises, more and more needs, we can’t keep increasing budgets forever, can we? How can we do this?

All donors are asking this question against a backdrop of weariness with regard to these never-ending crises. Obviously, answering it means squaring the circle of the sustainability of the global humanitarian system.

However, in the open discussion that followed, I could not help but question the two basic assumptions, seemingly so consensual, implicit in the question: are there really more crises? And has it really become unthinkable and unreasonable to further increase the overall humanitarian budget, which in 2021 was US$31.4 billion?

These questions are important because they have contributed to the rise in recent years of a certain humanitarian scepticism about the sustainability of the humanitarian system and have an influence on political decisions which may result in a freeze on, or disengagement from, humanitarian funding, a dramatic disengagement for populations at risk.

In the wake of this exchange, it therefore seems useful to me, in this short article, to try to shed a different, perhaps more proactive light on the two postulates mentioned, which I will summarise as follows

1 – The assumption that humanitarian needs are constantly increasing

2 – The assumption that there is a lack of financial resources to meet them.

Postulate 1: more needs, really?

Today, the metric for measuring the evolution of humanitarian needs at the global level is twofold: the number of people in need, and the estimated cost of meeting humanitarian needs, as captured by the “UN Coordinated Appeals”.

Martin Griffiths, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator meets with community leaders and displaced people in Djibo, Burkina Faso. @OCHA/AmadouCisse

If we look at these two numbers, the evidence is indeed unequivocal: from 2012 to 2021, the number of people in need increased[1] from 61 million[2] to 255[3] million, while the total estimated amount of funds needed to cover their needs increased from an estimated USD 10.5 billion to USD 38.4 billion[4] (of which USD 30.5 billion were actually funded).

So how do we explain this development?

The first explanation seems obvious to me. Over the last twenty years, and particularly over the last ten years, we have made immense progress in better understanding and capturing humanitarian needs. This is a key point: humanitarian needs are also increasing, and probably to a significant extent, because the humanitarian system has become much more effective at measuring them.

For example, the increase in consolidated appeal plans from 21 in 2012 to 48 in 2021[5] probably has much more to do with resources and OCHA’s growing capacity to be everywhere than with a proportional increase in the number of crises. Numerous programmes and specific methodologies for measuring humanitarian needs and monitoring crises were also set up in the 2000s: one example is the ACAPS programme (created in 2009), which organises a global watch of emerging or ongoing crises, classifying them according to a severity index. Another example is the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (Fewsnet)[6], the USAID programme that accurately measures food insecurity in most of our humanitarian contexts: in 1985, Fewsnet covered only Ethiopia and Sudan. Today, it covers more than 35, in Africa, Central America and the Caribbean, as far as Afghanistan. We could also mention the monitoring and forecasting systems for cyclones forming in the Atlantic or the Pacific[3], and the epidemiological monitoring systems set up by health actors (CDC, WHO, Epicentre etc.). I will quickly mention a few others: the REACH project for needs analysis, the ACLED project and the NGO INSO for near-real time data and analysis of conflict activity, etc. In a word, we have never been so well informed about the emergence or evolution of actual or potential humanitarian crises, and about the needs of populations.

A nurse measures the arm of a severely malnourished child at a clinic in Abu Shouk camp, North Darfur.
@UN Photo/Albert González Farran

Of course, there are still holes in the detection or analysis of these needs, particularly in areas where humanitarian space is extremely limited: Myanmar, certain regions of Ethiopia or Eritrea come to mind, but also areas under the control of certain radical armed groups, for example in the Sahel, Nigeria or Mozambique. But still, the prevailing feeling is that our humanitarian radar works quite well and covers almost the entire globe.

All this does not answer the question as to whether, all things being equal, we are witnessing an increase in the number of crises and the underlying humanitarian needs.

Obviously, to try to answer this is to quickly come up against two fundamental problems of definition. What is a humanitarian crisis? And what is a humanitarian need? This is a very long debate which would go beyond the scope of this article, and which has already been clarified in another article on Humanitarian Challenges.

However, it should be noted that the notion of ‘people in need’ or ‘PIN’ in humanitarian jargon, which is at the heart of humanitarian response plans and consolidated appeals of the United Nations, is in fact quite recent, and has itself undergone changes in methods and, above all, a broadening of the definition of what constitutes humanitarian need. These changes also have a significant impact on the NIP figures. I would also venture a rather banal remark: over the last twenty years, the world’s population has increased from 6 billion to 8 billion; it is therefore inevitable that this evolution is also one of the determinants of the growth in the number of NIPs.

Internally displaced children wait for the distribution of ready-to-use supplementary food in Banki IDP camp, Borno State, north-eastern Nigeria. @Unicef, Norway

Finally, concerning the number of humanitarian crises that would explode, it is difficult to compare without having adequate measurement tools. Today ACAPS counts 74 countries in very high, high or medium severity crises. That is almost 40% of the number of countries on Earth. In 2021 there were 38 consolidated appeals coordinated by the United Nations.

But, with the same definitions and analysis tools we have today, how many humanitarian crises would we count afterwards in 1992 for example? I do not believe that any study has attempted to compare these figures, but as a reminder, the beginning of the 1990s was unfortunately rich in terms of crises: the Rwandan genocide, the Cholera epidemic in Goma, wars in Europe, the former Yugoslavia, the war in Iraq, civil wars in Sierra Leone, Angola, South Sudan, and already civil wars in Somalia or Yemen, etc. …. Just as anecdotally, I could mention the beginning of the 2010s: the earthquake in Haiti, the beginning of the civil war in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, the DRC, the emergence of armed groups in the Sahel, the food price crisis of 2008, etc., and many others that I do not have the space to list here

Memory plays tricks on us, and we lack the analytical tools to temper it, but in the end I am not so sure that there are many more crises today than in the past, perhaps a few all the same, but that is just a feeling. It would be interesting to see more research on the subject.

Basically, it seems to me that one of the unexpected side-effects of the professionalisation of the humanitarian sector over the last two decades, and the creation of all these measurement tools, is a feeling of stupefaction and sometimes discouragement in the face of the extent of the needs thus revealed. Perhaps we were living more comfortably in ignorance of this human suffering, and it is not easy to come out of the cave.

Postulate 2: Not enough resources, really?

Now that the tools for diagnosing and analysing humanitarian needs are fairly well in place and, although they can be improved, cover almost the entire surface of the globe, the question naturally arises of ‘how to respond’ or, to remain within the framework of our article, ‘how to financially size the humanitarian system’ to meet all these needs.

We have already touched on this, but the financial volume of the humanitarian system has grown at a rapid pace, from USD 5.9 billion in 2000[8], to USD 16.4 billion in 2012 and now USD 31.3 billion in 2021[9]. This growth, it should be remembered, has been driven mainly by the growth in humanitarian donor budgets, which are mainly from OECD countries, and contribute 24.9 billion to this amount. The remainder was made up of public donations, which rose from USD 4.2 billion to USD 6.4 billion over the same period.

Development initiatives based on the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Financial Tracking Service (FTS) of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) and our unique dataset for private contributions.

However, these good figures hide several truths: firstly, funding for the humanitarian sector remains a dwarf compared to the more global funding of Official Development Assistance (ODA), of which it is a sub-component. In 2021, ODA reached USD 184 billion for the OECD countries alone, which are members of the Development Assistance Committee[10] and which, it is true, include most of the countries that contribute to this aid, whether it is humanitarian or development aid[11]. Is this a bad thing, or a good thing? The debate seems to be outdated today, with the return of the so-called “Nexus” approaches[12] which seek to overcome – nothing new under the sun, as the older generation would say – the emergency vs. development boundary. This comes after more than a decade of disinvestment by development actors in the so-called “red” zones, which were deemed too unstable and not conducive to development. 31.4 billion in 2021, is this such a high price to pay when we can mobilise more than 184 billion euros of ODA?

Secondly, as we have already seen, the years from 2000 to 2021 were those of awareness of the real extent of needs, which went hand in hand, and we should be pleased about this, with the setting up or reinforcement of the major current funding tools, our famous donors. We can mention the rise of ECHO, a formidable influencer and prescriber of good humanitarian practices at the time, the creation of the Humanitarian Funds by the United Nations, the rise (and then fall) of DFID / FCDO, OFDA / FFP and then BHA, and the creation of dedicated humanitarian agencies in many OECD countries (CIDA, AIDS, CDC-S etc.).

In short, there has been a tremendous catch-up effect in terms of the volume of humanitarian budgets. It is therefore not surprising that they have grown in double figures over the last twenty years. However, to put this into perspective, it should be remembered that over the same period from 2012 to 2021, global wealth has also continued to increase, rising from USD 75,000 billion to USD 96,100 billion, although these volumes are driven by India and China.

Source : ibid

However, the last four years (from 2018 to 2021 to be precise) have seen a downward trend, with the global humanitarian budget almost stagnating at around USD 30/31 billion, even though it is expected that this figure will rise again in 2022, with the war in Ukraine and the numerous dedicated funds that have been put in place, which do not seem to have had a crowding-out effect on funding for other crises. So where there is a will, there is a way.

All these figures lead to a simple answer to our initial question about the validity of the “lack of resources” assumption. In reality, with a cost of around USD 30 billion per year for a global GDP of USD 96,100 billion in 2021, the world is paying for a super-low cost humanitarian emergency service, which only costs the OECD countries (or the Development Assistance Committee to be precise) a meagre 0.055% of their Gross National Income (GNI). This compares with 0.35% of GNI for Official Development Assistance, which includes humanitarian aid. However, this is still a long way from the target of 0.7% of GDP devoted to ODA, a target that has been regularly promised and reiterated for the past 60 years at countless international conferences[13] held at the highest level.

Is humanitarian aid effective?

Of the two assumptions discussed at the beginning of this article, the first one (the increase in needs) seems to me to be largely nuanced: the needs were often already there, but we did not see them. The second assumption – a supposed lack of financial resources – which could not keep up with the increase in the number of crises and needs – seems to me to be something to be fought against, as it is above all a political choice. But this fight only makes sense if we believe that the humanitarian system works, and that we have the collective conviction that humanitarian aid “works”.

It seems to me that this conviction, with the passing years and our new measurement tools, is slowly but surely gaining strength, although it is often very difficult to establish a clear correlation between a humanitarian intervention on a given scale and its impact, for example on the number of lives saved[14]. 14] Indeed, how can one compare the incomparable, since a major crisis has turned entire systems of governance, health and solidarity upside down and prevents comparisons between these different periods, or even prohibits the collection of statistics? How can excess or insufficient mortality be measured in countries where there is often no solid data prior to the crisis? This classic approach to demonstrating humanitarian impact through public health is often frustrating, and sometimes I wonder if it is not a dead end.

However, some studies have been carried out, which seem to be gradually establishing a scientific basis for this positive correlation, although this basis remains fragile. The subject would undoubtedly merit a long separate article, but I will cite two examples: the positive impact of humanitarian action on cholera crises, and the impact of humanitarian action on food insecurity in the worst cases, for example in South Sudan, Somalia, or Yemen, where IPC maps drawn up by Fewsnet[15] show that in certain areas, food insecurity would be at a more critical stage without this action. So much for the scientific approach to humanitarian impact, which will remain a fruitful subject of study for future PhD students.

There is also another approach to measuring the impact of humanitarian action, which is more prosaic, and which is based more on the human level and the affected populations, and less on the level of data and statistical models: the words and opinions of those who are being helped.

They know better than anyone else what they are escaping from, and whether the aid is useful to them. In this respect, satisfaction surveys of aid beneficiaries have become almost systematic in most humanitarian sectors. They may be criticised for being sloppy, over-indulgent or biased, but they generally give a clear picture of the opinions of aid recipients, either positive or negative, project by project[16]. Donors who fund the system are also attentive to these satisfaction indicators, and an activity that does not work is quickly identified and abandoned.

From the March 2017 UOSSM report “Syrian hospitals surveillance study” @UOSSM

Finally, for the humanitarian that I am, and for those who have visited them, it is impossible not to see the lives saved in hospitals or maternity wards in Northern Syria, which without humanitarian aid would no longer exist, impossible not to see the lives saved in malnutrition treatment centres in Somalia, impossible not to see the lives saved in cholera treatment centres in Haiti, impossible not to see the lives saved in Southern Sudan, when 10. It is impossible not to see the lives saved in South Sudan, when 10,000 displaced people depended entirely on water provided by NGOs to access 5 litres of clean water per day per person in times of severe drought.

Taking collective responsibility for the cost of humanitarian action

Does humanitarianism work? I believe it does. Can it be improved? Very much so, and the humanitarian system is regularly and intensely criticised, especially internally, paradoxically.

In writing this article, I wanted above all to combat a preconceived idea: yes, needs are increasing, but this is above all because we know how to look at them and identify them better. In this sense, it is a success: we are much less unaware than in the past of the suffering of populations affected by ignored crises. And this success should encourage us to take action, rather than being discouraged or fatalistic enough to justify inaction.

Secondly, humanitarian aid ‘delivers’, more or less well, and this is up for debate, but it does deliver, and moreover at a price that defies all competition: 155 USD per person in need in 2021. In 2021 we needed 40 billion to help the 255 million people in humanitarian emergencies around the world. We managed to raise 31.4 billion between institutional funding and public donations. So we were “only” USD 10 billion short of 100% coverage of all humanitarian response plans in all countries of the world…

The good news is that we all know perfectly well, as we have seen every month since the Covid crisis and the war in Ukraine, that 10 billion USD is available at the global level. When you want….

Emmanuel Rinck

As soon as he finished his studies (Sciences Po Paris, Master’s degree in economics at Paris I), Emmanuel Rinck joined the Centre d’Action Social Protestant (CASP) as a volunteer, to help welcome Kosovar refugees in France.

After a “start-up” episode, he became involved in humanitarian work in 2005 with Médecins du Monde, still as a volunteer. This is where he discovered SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL, which he joined in 2007 in Somalia (Field Coordinator, Country Director). This was one of his richest experiences.

Emmanuel then contributed a lot to the development of security coordination platforms for NGOs, in particular with INSO, of which he was one of the key collaborators, and for which he opened or managed several countries (CAR, Nigeria, Somalia…).

In 2017, Emmanuel joined SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL again, this time at headquarters as Geographic Manager for DRC, South Sudan and Haiti. He was appointed Director of Operations in April 2021.

[1] Counting methodologies have changed significantly over the last 10 years: these figures should be taken with caution, but give an idea of the situation.

[2] Source: Global Humanitarian Assistance report 2012

[3] Source: ALNAP 2022- State of the Humanitarian system . ALNAP Study. London: ALNAP / ODI

[4] Source: ALNAP 2022- State of the Humanitarian system . ALNAP Study. London: ALNAP / ODI

[5] Source: ALNAP 2022- State of the Humanitarian system . ALNAP Study. London: ALNAP / ODI



[8] Source:

[9] Source: ALNAP 2022- State of the Humanitarian system . ALNAP Study. London: ALNAP / ODI

[10] Source:

[11] Source: Cyprien Fabre,

[12] I cannot resist the pleasure of recalling one of the two definitions of this word of Latin origin: “Nexus, citizen who, unable to pay his debts, was the slave of his creditor”.

[13] On the history of this objective:

[14] Source: ALNAP 2022- State of the Humanitarian system . ALNAP Study. London: ALNAP / ODI, p.159


[16] Strangely, in preparing this article, I was unable to find any academic research providing an independent, compiled analysis of beneficiary satisfaction with humanitarian aid.