Issue 24 - Article 12

The road to good donorship: the UK's humanitarian assistance

October 7, 2003
Adele Harmer

The UK government has a significant influence over the shape of the international humanitarian system, both as a source of funds and as a policy-maker. This article, part of our series looking at donor governments’ policies, assesses the key features and future vision of the UK’s humanitarian aid programme.

The UK is the world’s second-largest bilateral donor of official humanitarian assistance (in real terms), after the US. In 2001, the UK allocated $411 million to humanitarian aid, 10% of the global total and 9% of the country’s overall aid budget.

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The Department for International Development (DFID) is the government department responsible for the UK’s development and relief aid. DFID was established as a separate department in 1997; prior to that, the aid programme had been the responsibility of the Overseas Development Administration, part of the British Foreign Office.

DFID responds to a wide range of emergencies. The nature and scale of these responses can vary significantly in response to the UK’s wider foreign and domestic policies. In the past five years, the former Yugoslavia and Kosovo have featured significantly. Likewise, the British overseas territory of Montserrat, devastated by a volcanic eruption in 1995, has been one of the top-ten recipients of UK humanitarian assistance for five of the past six years. Afghanistan received £50m in 2001/02, five times the assistance allocated to the second-largest recipient, Ethiopia. In 2003, DFID has earmarked £210m to Iraq, nearly double its total humanitarian aid budget in 2001.

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DFID has increasingly responded to needs created or exacerbated by conflict, or from a combination of conflict and ‘natural’ causes. Only eight of the 26 highest recipient countries of humanitarian assistance between 1996/7 and 2000/01 were solely ‘natural’ disasters. In terms of the type of assistance provided, DFID allocates funds across a diverse set of sectors, including assistance to improve humanitarian information flows and coordination mechanisms.

Disbursement channels

DFID disburses its funds through ECHO, UN agencies, the Red Cross Movement and NGOs, and through the UK government’s own civilian and military channels. Between 20% and 25% of DFID’s humanitarian assistance goes through ECHO; the UK is the largest donor to the IFRC, the second-largest to the ICRC and also provides a large share of OCHA’s income. In 2001, DFID spent $199m through NGOs, second only to ECHO. While a consistent supporter of UNHCR and WFP, DFID is not a major donor of either.

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The policy framework

DFID’s humanitarian policy is contained in the policy document Conflict Reduction and Humanitarian Assistance, released in 1999. The statement affirmed DFID’s commitment to ten principles, first outlined in the UK’s White Paper on International Development in 1997, including a commitment to:

  • uphold international and human rights laws and conventions;
  • be impartial, relieving suffering without discrimination, and prioritising the most urgent need;
  • assess needs and have a clear framework of standards and accountability; and
  • encourage the participation of those affected by crisis to help them find long-term solutions.

The policy outlined the purpose of DFID’s humanitarian assistance:

  • to save lives and relieve suffering;
  • to hasten recovery, and protect and rebuild livelihoods and communities; and
  • to reduce risks and vulnerability.

No further policy directives have been produced since 1999, though a new statement is expected in 2003–2004.


Within DFID, conflict and humanitarian policy issues, including emergencies and disasters, are handled by the Conflict and Humanitarian Affairs Department (CHAD). Over 40 full-time staff work in CHAD. CHAD is made up of five teams: Global Institutions, Humanitarian Response, Conflict and Security Policy, Arms Export Control and CHAD Operations (CHAD OT). CHAD OT supports CHAD’s management of its rapid-onset assistance programmes, provides humanitarian advice and logistics support and undertakes monitoring and evaluation activities. There are an additional 26 staff working in CHAD OT under contract to DFID through Crown Agents.

The co-location of conflict policy and humanitarian policy meant that CHAD was able to influence not only the provision of relief, but also the shape of the UK’s political response to conflict. CHAD is located in the International Division, under the Director-General, Policy and International. There are also three Geographic Divisions, which have a substantial role in shaping DFID’s humanitarian response. These are under the Director-General, Regional Programmes.

The Humanitarian Response team has formal responsibility for developing and overseeing the implementation of humanitarian policy throughout DFID. There is no formal mechanism for managing this responsibility, and consultation is done on an ad hoc basis. The division between policy and programming has never been clear, and responsibility for formulating a strategy on a particular emergency differs according to the nature and location of the crisis.

In principle, CHAD is responsible for managing rapid-onset assistance programmes, while the regional desks lead on slow-onset, recurrent natural disasters and complex political emergencies. Where no bilateral programme or desk exists, or when requested to do so by a desk, CHAD also manages natural disasters and complex emergencies. CHAD has responsibility for programme assistance to North Korea, Burma and the Northern Caucasus, for instance. There are no guidelines to determine when and how CHAD will be involved, nor are there formal guidelines for the handover of rapid-onset disaster programmes to the relevant desk. CHAD’s involvement usually lasts for under six months, but decisions about duration would seem to be based on comparative capacity and technical skills. For example, in responding to the slow-onset crisis in Southern Africa in 2002/03, the Southern Africa department and CHAD developed a joint strategy, with 11 CHAD Operations staff deployed to the region to provide advice to the country teams. For the response to the situation in Iraq, three units were established (humanitarian response, planning for long-term reconstruction, and briefing and information) all reporting to the head of the Middle East and North Africa Department.

The flexible division of labour within DFID regarding humanitarian policy and programming suits environments that are invariably dynamic, fluid and difficult to predict. However, this flexibility has also created a degree of confusion outside of DFID, in particular for partner organisations. DFID does not produce strategy papers for countries that are primarily recipients of humanitarian assistance, and there is thus no single document articulating DFID’s aims, objectives and strategy in this field.

Operational capacity

Like other major donors such as USAID and ECHO, DFID has expanded its capacity to deploy staff at field level, and occasionally to involve itself directly in logistics and service provision. This has been achieved largely through a private firm (Crown Agents) working under contract to DFID. CHAD OT provides 24-hour cover for emergency response and undertakes needs assessment and analysis of conditions. It also manages DFID’s vehicles, equipment and relief systems; provides training for other international agencies, including OCHA, in such things as logistics and humanitarian information systems; and has also assumed responsibilities for disaster preparedness, contingency planning and civil–military cooperation. Since 1995, the team has grown from five to 26 full-time members, plus a pool of specialists brought in on short- and medium-term contracts. Lines of responsibility between civil servants and contract staff have not always been clear.

Governing relations with humanitarian partners

DFID has invested considerable time and resources to the reform of international organisations’ responses to humanitarian crises. This is in line with the approach outlined in government White Papers, in which the Department has sought to achieve its objectives not simply by providing assistance, but also by seeking to influence global policy. These goals have been pursued by a range of mechanisms, including participation in global governance structures, such as the Humanitarian Aid Committee (HAC) of ECHO; active participation in donor groups, including the Friends of OCHA, the Technical Advisory Group of the IFRC, and the Donor Support Group of the ICRC; and through participation in the Montreux process and the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

DFID has also established three-year Institutional Strategy Papers (ISPs) for all international humanitarian organisations, except ECHO. ISPs set out how DFID aims to contribute to achieving its White Paper objectives in partnership with each of the institutions concerned. ISPs allow for more predictable funding, and there is evidence that they have increased the level of trust between DFID and its partner agencies; this is reflected in increases in overall funding. However, there are also significant transaction costs for the recipient, and concerns that these documents may reflect DFID’s own priorities, rather than those of the recipient.

DFID’s emergency funds are provided to NGOs through ‘accountable grants’, and are based on individual contracts. Over the last decade, contractual relations and management procedures have become increasingly complex. However, NGOs’ obligations are considered more straightforward and flexible than those with other donors. DFID has developed core funding arrangements called Partnership Programme Agreements (PPAs) for some of the NGOs they fund. These are intended to last for between three and five years, and set out how NGOs and DFID will work together to meet a set of agreed outcomes. Some of these agreements, such as those for Oxfam and Christian Aid, include specific goals for the humanitarian and emergency sector.

Future directions

The UK government’s future approach to humanitarian action will be influenced by two important international initiatives currently engaging the humanitarian community’s interest. The first, the Good Humanitarian Donorship meeting, held in Stockholm in June 2003, agreed on objectives for, and the definition of, humanitarian action; and also general principles and good practice in the financing, management and accountability of humanitarian response. The other, the Humanitarian Financing Working Programme, a process initiated by a group of donors working with the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), is looking at the allocation of official humanitarian assistance and its relationship to humanitarian need. The process has included commissioning four extensive studies: on needs assessments; on donor behaviour; on quantifying and qualifying humanitarian aid flows; and on the implications for the UN system. DFID has made clear that the best practice identified by the study and the broader agenda of establishing principles for good donorship will set the frame for a new humanitarian policy statement.

Adele Harmer is a Research Officer in the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG).

References and further reading

The website of the Department for International Development is:

Department for International Development, Eliminating World Poverty: A Challenge for the 21st Century, White Paper on International Development (London: DFID, 1997).

Department for International Development, Guidelines on Humanitarian Assistance. (London: DFID, 1999).

Department for International Development, ‘Conflict Reduction and Humanitarian Assistance’, Policy Statement (London: DFID, 2000).

Department for International Development, Eliminating World Poverty: Making Globalisation Work for the Poor, White Paper on International Development (London: DFID, 2000).

Department for International Development, Statistics on International Development 1996/97–2000/01 (London: DFID, 2001).

Joanna Macrae et al., Uncertain Power: The Changing Role of Official Donors in Humanitarian Action, HPG Report 12 (London: ODI, 2002).

Development Initiatives, Global Humanitarian Assistance Flows 2003 (Geneva: Development Initiatives, forthcoming 2003).


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