A Humanitarian Bailout?

The NPSIA blog post “Legal Liability and Humanitarianism” discussed the shocking but real possibility that humanitarian organizations may be held legally liable for the assistance they provide. Remarkably, an ever more shocking reality that humanitarians must deal with has been highlighted over the past couple of weeks. And, like legal liability, this issue has gone unaddressed in the academic literature. The issue being: humanitarian organizations with large aid footprints have run out of funds.

This is an issue that is largely separate from the much-discussed problem of humanitarian agencies having too little funding. The problems that result from a humanitarian organization having limited funding and the problems that arise from an organization running out of funds differ considerably. Limited funding leads to problems with project implementation. In contrast, running out of funds leads to the immediate suspension of aid as occurred with the UNRWA cash assistance program in the Gaza Strip earlier this month. Not only does it seem likely that such an action will further marginalize those on the margins but, as the Gaza case demonstrates, such an action may also lead to social instability, revolt, and the repeal of further assistance.

The academic literature is inappropriately silent on this matter. This is a considerable oversight given there is not – nor has there ever been – a reason to suspect that humanitarian assistance is a self-sustaining enterprise or that the states that fund the biggest players in this field will always be willing to commit the bare minimum of funds required for the endeavor.

Since it hasn’t been addressed in the literature, the outstanding questions, now that several humanitarian organizations serving many different populations have announced that their pockets are empty, are: should the humanitarians be bailed out and, if yes, where will the funds come from?

The answer to the first question worries me more than the second. Concern surrounding the lack of funding to humanitarians becomes more salient when we acknowledge that humanitarian organizations tend to work in regions and contexts that are unfavourable to traditional bilateral donors – notably in fragile states – where the withdrawal of humanitarian efforts could seriously threaten vulnerable populations.  Indeed, humanitarian agencies play a unique role in aid provision, providing needs-based and immediate care to populations that bilateral and multilateral donors, either cannot, or are unwilling to access.  Based on this understanding, the need for humanitarian agencies to fill the space left by traditional donors increases the potential ramifications of dwindling humanitarian budgets.

While the need to continue funding humanitarian agencies is clear, the likelihood that such funding will continue to flow from bilateral donors is questionable at best.  As aid resources continue to decline in the wake of the most recent financial crisis, bilateral donors, who provide three-quarters of the financing for humanitarian agencies, are increasingly focusing limited aid dollars towards programs and sectors where the results generated from aid can be clearly measured and reported to domestic constituents. Unfortunately, this trend is disconcerting for humanitarian agencies, which by virtue of being altruistic and less explicitly connected to the strategic interests of bilateral donors, are likely to feel the pinch of tightening donor purse-strings.  With bilateral donors unlikely to increase funding to humanitarians in the future, the funding question remains a serious and pertinent constraint to the future of humanitarianism.

Stephanie Soiffer and Rachael Calleja

Ph.D. Candidates, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

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