Issue 18 - Article 13

Global humanitarian assistance: trends and prospects

June 4, 2003
Nicola Reindorp

How – and why – has humanitarian aid changed in the past decade?

During the 1990s, average per-capita income in OECD countries increased from $21,000 to $28,000 per year. Of that, just over $5 a year was given to humanitarian assistance. As a share of GNP, OECD countries’ humanitarian assistance fell by a third – from 0.03 per cent to 0.02 per cent. In 1988, around 45 per cent of humanitarian assistance was given in multilateral contributions to the UN; bilateral donors controlled half of all humanitarian assistance, and the European Union (EU) five per cent. A decade later, bilateral donors controlled 62 per cent, the EU 11 per cent and the UN 27 per cent. In the same year, one-fifth of all humanitarian assistance was spent on supporting refugees and asylum-seekers in donor countries. Around 10m people were being supported in countries with an average per-capita income of less than $8 per day.

These are just some of the startling figures in Global Humanitarian Assistance 2000, a report by Development Initiatives’ Judith Randel and Tony German for the UN’s Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC). The report’s aim is to assist understanding of the trends in financing and delivery of global humanitarian assistance. With chapters on flows and channels of relief, the politics of humanitarian assistance and its management, the report combines statistical data with qualitative assessments of the sector. It is also a useful reference guide, offering an overview of how a selection of major donors, among them ECHO and USAID, are governed and organised.

Qualitative and quantitative indicators

In terms of volume, the report shows how levels of humanitarian assistance have fluctuated over the last decade: in 1991, aid totalled $4.6bn; three years later, it peaked at $5.7bn and, by 1998, stood at $4.5bn. Within this overall picture, the report also notes a trend towards the bilateralisation of assistance, such that bilateral donors now control more than 60 per cent of global humanitarian assistance, while over the 1990s the UN’s share fell from 45 per cent to 27 per cent. Although the volume of aid controlled by the UN increased in real terms by 32 per cent, the European Commission’s quintupled, while the budgets of bilateral donors more than tripled, from under $1bn at the start of the decade to $3bn by its close. Earmarking too has increased, up by a third over the last three years.

In contrast to the squeeze on income being felt by UN agencies, NGOs were a favoured aid channel throughout the decade. By the late 1990s, most OECD countries were disbursing at least a quarter of their emergency assistance through NGOs. Some donors showed a marked increase in the volume of assistance taking this route: in the mid-1990s, 45 per cent of ECHO’s budget was spent through NGOs; by 1998, this stood at over 62 per cent. Even staunchly multilateralist Sweden saw the percentage of its aid through NGOs grow, from 11 per cent in 1997 to 28 per cent in 1998. But there are exceptions: British spending through NGOs for emergency work declined by some 60 per cent, from £59m (around $92m) in 1995–96 to £24m (about $40m) in 1998–99. In the US, the picture is complicated by the distinction between NGOs, which are categorised as international not-for-profit entities, and Private Voluntary Organisations (PVOs), which are loosely defined as American organisations. On average, 75 per cent of US aid allocations went to NGOs and PVOs in the 1990s, but in 1996–97 NGOs received only 13 per cent of the spend, PVOs 58 per cent.

Looking at the policy and politics behind this, Randel and German note the push from donors for more integrated approaches, and the greater demands being made on humanitarians and humanitarian budgets. The authors also express concern about the exclusion of many vulnerable countries from long-term development assistance as a consequence of the results-driven policies exemplified in a focus on DAC targets and a trend towards favouring ‘good-policy’ countries. The report presents evidence of increased targeting and dirigisme among official donors. This manifests itself in the growing demand for logical framework analyses, results-based management and other targeting measures. It is also present in donors’ greater proximity to, and oversight of, humanitarian operations.

The report also tracks changes in contractual regimes and shifting strategic relationships between donors and recipients. Examples cited include the UK’s partnerships with major multilateral institutions such as UNHCR, the WFP and the ICRC, ECHO’s Framework Partnership Agreement and discussions around an ‘umbrella agreement’ between the UN and ECHO. As a counterpoint to their analysis of increased donor dirigisme and scrutiny, German and Randel suggest that, where these relationships are characterised by more transparent fund-management systems based on forward planning, such strategic relationships moderate bilateral control over funding.

Measuring humanitarian need

At the heart of this report lies a deeper question to do with measuring humanitarian needs. If one of the uses of the data presented by Randel and German is to assess the extent to which the needs of people suffering on account of violent conflict or disaster are met, the report can do little but present available estimations about displacement and those affected by calamity. Establishing what constitutes humanitarian need, and measuring it, are crucial tasks if we are to assess the effectiveness of global humanitarian action.

That said, this remains an indispensable data reference, and a compelling analysis that attempts to make sense of the trends in humanitarian policy and practice. As the report itself acknowledges, gaps remain, not least the extent of assistance provided by affected communities and countries themselves. Nonetheless, achieving such clarity and thoroughness from opaque, dispersed and partial data is no mean feat. The report’s introduction states that this is the first of the IASC’s intended series of targeted studies on humanitarian aid flows. The future of this series will be one to watch. There is more to know if the world is to understand to what extent the rights to assistance and protection of people affected by disaster and conflict are being met.

Nicola Reindorp is a Research Fellow in the Humanitarian Policy Group of the ODI.

Global Humanitarian Assistance 2000 was published in May 2000 by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Geneva. Contact OCHA at the Palais des Nations, 1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland, Tel: (41) 22 917 1234, Fax (41) 22 917 0023, email

Statistics from the DAC are available at



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