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What the latest funding data says about the humanitarian system

Longer crises, growing aid dependence, and a system at its limits

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As humanitarian leaders meet in Geneva for talks aimed at improving emergency aid, a new analysis warns that the system itself is “overwhelmed” and pushed to its limits.


The Global Humanitarian Assistance report, released this week by the UK-based analysts Development Initiatives, is an annual examination of international emergency aid funding. This year’s analysis paints a stark portrait of a system in crisis.


Donor funds rise each year, but they don’t keep pace with costs. The few tools the aid system has to make the money go further or to shrink risks – reforms to make aid more efficient and more locally led, or a focus on prevention, for example – haven’t evolved quickly enough to account for skyrocketing humanitarian needs.


The warnings come as humanitarian leaders converge in Geneva for a week of high-level meetings meant to thrash out policies to improve aid and help countries transition out of crisis.


The annual “humanitarian affairs segment” – staged by the UN’s Economic and Social Affairs Council – brings together aid leaders and political policymakers. Food and famine, the climate crisis, and impacts on women and girls are among the core themes this year.


“The humanitarian system remains under huge amounts of strain,” Ramesh Rajasingham, director for coordination at the UN’s humanitarian aid coordination arm, OCHA, told the council on Wednesday. 


Here are a few takeaways from the latest analysis of humanitarian financing trends:


The funding gulf is wider than ever

Humanitarian funding continues to rise year on year, at least on the surface. But it’s not enough to keep up with emergency needs supercharged by climate change, conflicts, and economic turbulence.


Humanitarian funding from public and private sources reached a record $47 billion last year, according to the report. But humanitarian needs also spiralled, leaving a $20 billion shortfall for UN-backed humanitarian appeals – also a record.


Needs have grown on such a scale that the gap between what aid costs and what’s available is five times more than it was a decade ago, the report’s authors said.


Longer crises are the norm

Crises are lasting longer and becoming harder to solve.


Some 83% of people in need live in countries that have had UN-backed emergency response appeals for at least five straight years – and the figure is rising.


The causes of crises are also overlapping. A growing proportion of people who need aid – now up to about three quarters – live in countries facing at least two of the key causes of crises: conflict, climate, or economic fragility.


“Complex, protracted crises are increasingly the norm,” the report’s authors said.


The same few donors fund the vast majority of international aid 

The international aid sector has not managed to diversify its funding base, leaving aid groups reliant on a shallow pool of donors.


Just three donors – the United States, Germany, and the EU – accounted for nearly two thirds of all international humanitarian assistance from public sources in 2022, the report notes. The US alone represents half of all funding for food emergencies over the last five years.


These big three upped their funding in 2022, as did most of the world’s top 20 donors.


There are long-standing calls to find new sources of funding – demands for governments of growing economies, multilateral banks, or the private sector to step up, for example. But analysts say there are no quick fixes for a sector in need of transformation, not tweaks.


There’s a growing dependence on emergency aid

Is the triple nexus working? The topline figures, at least, suggest the aid sector’s push to bridge its humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding efforts hasn’t made a dent in the world’s worst crises.


Emergency or humanitarian aid is meant to be short-term by definition, while longer-term assistance is geared towards helping communities withstand crises on their own. But the numbers show that countries in long-term crisis have a growing dependence on humanitarian aid.


They’re also receiving less in development aid that might help them transition out of emergency mode: Development assistance to countries in long-term crisis fell from 50% to 48% over five years as of 2021, while the proportion of humanitarian assistance rose to 41% from an average of 37%.


“The aid system beyond humanitarian assistance is not effectively addressing the wider development needs that could mitigate disaster, increase resilience, and help people lift themselves out of poverty,” the report’s authors said.


Countries in crisis see smaller shares of climate and disaster risk reduction money

Similarly, climate and preparedness funding that could help communities recover from and withstand shocks is only trickling down to countries that need it most.


People in climate-vulnerable countries also facing a protracted crisis received $1 per person from multilateral climate funds – about a fifth of what went to vulnerable countries with no long-term humanitarian response.


The largest chunks of disaster risk reduction (DRR) funding, meanwhile, aren’t always going to countries facing the highest level of risk.


Six of the 10 countries at the top of the disaster risk scale actually saw reductions in the amount of aid earmarked for DRR.


“The overall picture is of small volumes of climate finance and DRR to countries experiencing crisis,” the report’s authors said.


Edited by Andrew Gully.

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