UN appeals for record $41bn as humanitarian needs skyrocket

Displaced villagers leave their home after it was destroyed in artillery fire in the Amhara region of Tigray, northern Ethiopia, September 2021. UN relief chief Martin Griffiths said it was “very worried” by the situation in the country as the fighting continues to escalate. (Keystone/AP Photo)

Covid-19, climate change and conflict have caused humanitarian needs to skyrocket in the past year, the UN has warned.

The United Nations appealed on Thursday for a record $41bn to provide life-saving humanitarian assistance to 183 million people.

As the pandemic continues to impact countries around the world and millions are affected by conflict and climate change, the UN warned there has been a jump in the number of people in crisis – up from 100 million people in 2019.

“The climate crisis is hitting the world’s most vulnerable people first and worst,” said UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths. “Protracted conflicts grind on, and instability has worsened in several parts of the world, notably Ethiopia, Myanmar and Afghanistan. The pandemic is not over, and poor countries are deprived of vaccines.”

“If everyone requiring emergency aid lived in one country, that would be the fourth most populous country in the world,” Griffiths told reporters in Geneva.

More than one per cent of the world’s population are now displaced, he said. He also warned that famine remained a “terrifying prospect” for some 45 million people in 43 countries as extreme weather worsened by climate change takes its toll on food supplies.

He noted that international aid had averted famine in South Sudan and Yemen in the last year. “Humanitarian aid matters and it can make a difference,” he said.

But he noted that underfunding for aid programmes would force UN agencies to cut rations, making people “go hungry”.

“Without immediate and sustained action to prevent famine, humanitarian needs will far exceed those in the last decade,” the UN said in the appeal.

With the pandemic already forcing 20 million people into extreme poverty, Griffiths said the spread of the Omicron variant would likely cause more economic damage. “With Covid continuing to threaten us and continuing to mutate, we will continue to see increased humanitarian needs,” he said.

The UN has doubled its appeal for humanitarian aid in the past four years, with the latest funds required for people in 63 countries.

Nine country programs now require more than a billion dollars each, with Afghanistan and Syria at the top of the list, where more than $4bn each is needed, followed by Yemen, Ethiopia and Sudan.

Griffiths warned needs in Afghanistan have “skyrocketed” since the Taliban takeover in August, with political turmoil, a collapsed economy and the worst drought in almost three decades pushing 24 million into acute food insecurity.

Aid for Afghanistan has been stalled by international reluctance to send funds through the Taliban and the freezing of the country's overseas assets. The humanitarian chief said a solution had to be found to stabilize the country beyond humanitarian assistance, citing a UN currency swap initiative that is expected to be running by the end of this month.

“The absence of cash in Afghanistan is a major impediment to any delivery of services,” he said.

“We need efforts to stabilize the economy and welfare of the people of Afghanistan. The humanitarians go first, but I don't think they should go alone, ”he added.

He also expressed alarm over the situation in Ethiopia, where the UN has struggled to get aid to nine million people in the northern Tigray region, where 400,000 people are facing famine. Around 21 million people in the country are in need of humanitarian assistance due to the ongoing conflict coupled with drought and locust infestations.

“Ethiopia is the most alarming, probably almost certainly, in terms of immediate emergency need,” Griffiths said. He said he was “very worried” as heavy fighting continues between government forces and the Tigrayan Liberation Front. “Capacity to respond to an imploded Ethiopia is almost impossible to imagine,” he added.

“My goal is that this global appeal can go some way to restoring a glimmer of hope for millions of people who desperately need it,” said Griffiths.

“Aid does save lives, and it can do it here and now.”