More jobs, more risk: What 25 years of data say about the aid sector

Composite: Annie Spratt/Unsplash, Abigail Geiger/TNH

What does digging through over 800,000 documents – 25 years worth of data from the humanitarian sector – reveal about how things looked then vs. now?

More crises, more money. As The New Humanitarian found (relying on data from a number of Geneva-based groups, among others), for starters the industry has grown, and at an exponential pace. Take the $5.7bn spent on assistance worldwide in 1995; it’s roughly the same amount received by aid programmes in Yemen alone in 2018. The official humanitarian aid spend was roughly $24bn at the end of 2019.

These figures come from the Financial Tracking Service (FTS), a section of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Geneva, which tracks humanitarian funding.

And now there’s Covid-19. The volume of data treated by FTS has multiplied since the pandemic, making it more difficult to track humanitarian funding, OCHA’s Angelica Alhaique told The New Humanitarian by email. Now, her team at FTS is working to capture not only funds committed to the $30bn the UN estimates is needed to respond to ongoing global crises, but also the additional more than $10bn UN officials are calling for to address COVID-19-related needs. “Since Covid, donors and organisations are asking more about the flexibility of humanitarian funding,” she said, and FTS offers them a transparent platform to track where and how the funds are channelled.

An upward trend (mostly) for Geneva-based jobs. Along with funding levels, the number of aid workers has also risen over the past quarter-century. Hundreds of thousands of people now work in humanitarian aid – most in their home countries, as local staff. Analysis of data from ReliefWeb, an information service published by OCHA, shows that annual recruitments in the sector more than doubled since 2010.

Postings for Geneva-based jobs have followed the same trend since 2012, with a sharp decline at the end of 2019 and early 2020 -- most likely due to slower recruitment during the pandemic.


Cash replaces stuff. The use of cash and vouchers when delivering aid has also risen. Data from the Cash Learning Partnership (CaLP) showed that aid agencies distributed $5.6bn in cash and voucher assistance in 2019, constituting 17.9 per cent of total international humanitarian assistance. That represents a doubling, in dollar terms, in just four years from 2016 to 2019. “The rapid growth of cash assistance is transforming the humanitarian sector - making it more efficient, effective, and accountable.” says Sophie Tholstrup, co-chair of the Geneva-based Cash Working Group, a consortium of cash and voucher actors, and policy coordinator of CaLP. People who need aid “tell us it’s what they prefer,” she noted, adding that “by putting choice in the hands of those affected by crisis, it’s contributing to a fairer, more people-centred system.”

Risk rises, too. Humanitarian assistance is being delivered under much riskier conditions today than 25 years ago. Data from the Aid Worker Security Database reveals that the number of attacks on aid workers nearly doubled over the last decade, the vast majority involving local staff. Insecurity Insight, based in Switzerland, recently indicated that this trend has continued through the pandemic: At least 90 per cent of health workers who experienced threats and violence while providing Covid-19-related aid were local.