A growing gap in humanitarian funding is hurting world’s most vulnerable
The masses of dead bodies and devastation that followed the flooding in Libya earlier this month adds a new layer of tragedy to a country that has experienced years of conflict.
And in June, the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam in Ukraine left entire communities to navigate fetid flood waters and unexploded mines, destroying important agricultural lands even as the world struggled to overcome a global food crisis.
Both catastrophes underscore the massive suffering that can occur in fragile communities weakened by conflict. Yet the generous donor countries that usually help alleviate human suffering in these crises — such as those also seen in Yemen, Somalia and Ethiopia — are now dealing with economic constraints of their own and scaling back humanitarian assistance, particularly for those taking place outside of Ukraine.
For nearly everywhere that’s at war, a growing gap in humanitarian funding along with mounting global crises is pushing the world’s most vulnerable people to the absolute brink.
Our message is clear: Humanitarian funding is shrinking at a time when the needs are growing, with a complexity we’ve not seen in our 160 years working in war. And in some places, if we are forced to shutter our offices, there may be no one else left to meet people’s basic needs. This trend comes at a significant human cost.
This year the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the humanitarian sector more broadly, are having to make cuts to life-sustaining services, such as health care, water and food. The impacts on future global stability and security are hard to predict, but they may be more consequential than is currently understood today, in a renewed age of power competition and changing world dynamics. Short-term savings could prove costly and dangerous over the longer term.
Conflicts compounded by climate shocks, rising food insecurity and a proliferation of non-state armed groups — more than 500, by our last count — have created new and extraordinary challenges that must not be neglected. We count over 100 armed conflicts in the world today and rising.
The explosion of conflict and violence over the last 20 years or more left legacy effects to which humanitarians must still respond. The average time we stay in a single place is now measured in decades, as modern-day conflicts last longer. And we estimate that tens of millions of people now live in an area under some type of control by a non-state armed group.
The good news is that through our neutral way of working, we have access to people living in many of these hard-to-reach areas to deliver life-sustaining assistance. This year alone, it was because of our neutrality that we evacuated almost 330 orphans and their caretakers stranded without electricity or food in Khartoum; facilitated a massive exchange of detainees connected to the conflict in Yemen; and visited prisoners of war on both sides of the Russia-Ukraine international armed conflict.
We will continue this work as guardians of the Geneva Conventions, reminding all countries of their obligations to protect civilians caught in war. But in the future, we must recognize that budget cuts to global humanitarian spending will increasingly limit our ability to work along these front lines and leaves us ill prepared for potentially greater crises to come.
We are already making those difficult decisions. Even while the ICRC scales up assistance in Sudan to get medical supplies to hospitals and carries out lifesaving medical evacuations into Armenia, we are nonetheless having to make cuts elsewhere, including places like Afghanistan, DRC, Mauritania, South Sudan, and Israel and the Occupied Territories, where we assist those affected by armed conflict and violence.
Providing basic needs for people in countries at war lays the groundwork for future political negotiation, recovery and governance needed to quell violence and lift people out of poverty. That is in every donor’s interest. The U.S. humanitarian assistance budget constitutes less than one-quarter of 1 percent of federal spending — a modest but high impact investment in our shared global security and humanity.
As the U.S. looks to bolster its support to Ukraine — including to help respond to the impacts of the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka Dam this year — it’s important to also respond to the far-reaching humanitarian effects of that crisis around the entire world.
The U.S. should continue its long tradition of generous response to global humanitarian needs, by bolstering neutral and impartial humanitarian aid and rallying others to meet the moment. Other donors including international financial institutions should intensify their engagement with humanitarians in areas of fragility, conflict and violence to join us in building solutions.
In our truly globalized world that’s tested by pandemics, climate shocks, and rapidly proliferating conflict, it’s essential we ensure those who are most impacted are left with their human dignity intact.
Patrick Hamilton is head of delegation for ICRC’s US and Canada region, based in Washington, D.C. Previously he has worked for the ICRC in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Chad and Somalia.