Humanitarian aid is often dictated by donors’ agendas – here’s how to depoliticise it

A WASH project coordinator with the Ethiopian Red Cross Society, stands on a water spreading weir near Shebele Woreda, Jijiga, Somali region. Ethiopia faces one of the worst droughts in 50 years. (Credit: Amanuel Sileshi/IFRC)

The unprecedented level of humanitarian support for Ukraine is a testament to what we are capable of, but it also reveals a long-standing need to rethink how humanitarian aid is distributed, writes Jagan Chapagain, secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

We have seen that it is indeed possible to help people when a crisis or disaster strikes. However, the level of response is often dependent on who they are and where they’re from.

Governments, aid agencies and donors, the private sector, and the wider public have shown up to support people affected by the conflict in Ukraine in an unprecedented manner alongside the media, whose extensive coverage plays a key role in keeping us all engaged. 

While this solidarity has shown us what humanity is capable of, it has also shone a spotlight on its limitations and biases. Yemen, Afghanistan, Lebanon, the Horn of Africa are just a few examples of countries not receiving enough support. While funding appeals for Ukraine have been quickly met, the reaction to crises in these parts of the world has not even come close. 

When I visited Kenya last month, I was heavily challenged by journalists on this. In their eyes, we are not balanced in responding to the hunger crisis in the Horn of Africa, for example, compared to the conflict in Ukraine.

Of course, people fleeing Ukraine need to be helped. But 14 million people in the Horn of Africa who are on the verge of starvation feel their suffering is relegated to the sidelines. This is because most of our response plans for Africa are very poorly funded at just 10 or 15 per cent. This is a visible trend across the humanitarian sector and has also been reflected in the unequal response and recovery during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Impartiality is one of our core fundamental principles, which guides how we deliver humanitarian assistance and alleviate human suffering. It is second only to the principle of humanity. 

However, the principle of impartiality should be an objective and an aspiration – not something that is taken for granted.

The IFRC has systems in place to ensure we deliver our support based on people’s needs alone, but the disparity in funding for those affected by the conflict in Ukraine compared to other crises clearly shows that these systems are inadequate.

Despite having the necessary information and expertise to determine the fair distribution of humanitarian resources to help those most in need, the size and scope of our operations are often dictated by donors’ political agendas. 

This undermines an impartial, needs-based approach to aid and taints it with bias, often influenced by the accompanying political and media rhetoric circulating at the time.

People affected by crises have needs that we must respond to. That means listening, engaging and acting to ensure effective recovery, dignity and resilience building. Donors must adjust to this approach.

Of the CHF 851 million we received in 2020, besides the CHF 35 million in membership fees from our National Societies, only CHF 30 million came without restrictions. 

We are able to use this unrestricted funding based on the needs of the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, who are directly engaged with local communities. We know that the most effective and sustainable approach to helping people is by supporting locally-led humanitarian action, especially once the cameras are gone – or were never there to start with. 

One specific area the IFRC is focusing on is growing our Disaster Response Emergency Fund (DREF) – which responds to crises that do not attract attention, support or funding. The DREF works as a central pot of money that can be quickly and transparently distributed to support community action in countries facing disaster. 

But this is not enough. We can – and must – do better. Regular, long-term and flexible funding that truly allows us to help everyone facing crisis on a needs-based approach is critical for much more effective and efficient aid. However, there is great reluctance to provide this type of funding.

The number of people affected by crises around the world is increasing rapidly, with those already most vulnerable disproportionately impacted. If we fail to radically rethink our systems across the humanitarian sector to ensure that we can truly respond to everyone in need with impartiality, we will face even more extreme inequality and suffering. Inequity is not just unfair, it is fatal.