Aid agencies are being forced to make cuts to their programmes as demand spirals and the cost of delivering aid increases

“We simply couldn’t find the money to continue supporting them,” says Rasmus Egendal of the World Food Programme’s (WFP’s) decision to cut around 360,000 Syrian refugees from its food voucher programme in Lebanon and Jordan in September.

Egendal, who leads the WFP’s government partnerships division, says the decision of where to cut and by how much was based on vulnerability. “We ringfenced those most in need so that the majority of the cuts would affect those that had a little more breathing room, who were better able to cope.”

Decisions to stop or cut parts of a programme are not taken lightly, but aid agencies are being forced to make them all too often due to shortages in funding.

The UN’s consolidated appeal process – a humanitarian funding appeal led by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) – is less than 50% funded for 2015, at the time of writing. For the various aid agencies, this means that Unicef is 50% funded, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) is 42% funded, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) is funded at just 30%. Egendal is hopeful that the WFP will receive 60% of the funding it has requested by the end of the year.

Over the past ten years, the amount of humanitarian funding received against OCHA’s target has fluctuated between 60% and 75%. The amount requested has more than quadrupled from $3.8bn in 2005 to $17.3bn in 2014, but so have the contributions, from $2.25bn to $10.7bn over the same period.

“Donors have actually increased their funding, it’s just that the need has increased way more than the funding,” says Michelle Gayer, the WHO’s coordinator of emergency response management.

The nature of humanitarian work has changed, too. Today, 80% of the UN’s humanitarian work is in areas of conflict and the complexities of delivering aid in insecure environments push up the costs. “You can’t just get in a car and go somewhere because of all the additional security measures that you need to take,” says Gayer. “We obviously want our staff in the field to be as safe and secure as possible, so these additional costs are unavoidable.”

Prioritise, scale back, innovate

In Nigeria, where violence and insurgency have displaced more than 1 million people, Unicef has been forced to scale back its work around the case management of separated and unaccompanied children because the agency has received only half of the funding it needs for the programme. “It’s a cost-intensive intervention because you have to regularly monitor children, set up a family-tracing and reunification system to be able to find the parents who could already be outside the country as a refugee, and be able to support the reintegration of a child once you’ve been able to trace the family,” says Ara Yoo, head of emergencies at Unicef UK.

Generally speaking, natural disasters are better funded than chronic, protracted crises such as those in Iraq, Syria, South Sudan and Central African Republic. “I think the general public can relate to horrible events happening out of the blue, and to families losing property,” says Gayer.

But even the two major natural disasters of 2015 – the Nepal earthquake and severe flooding in Myanmar – were “less considered by the donor community”, says Daniele Donati, head the emergency response team at the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

One reason for this might be that the conflict in Syria and resulting refugee crisis has somewhat dominated media and humanitarian attention this year.

“It is definitely one of the most complex crises ever,” says Donati. “The whole dynamic – the population movement, the conflict, the proximity to other crises, the terrorist threat – is unique in many ways so it’s a bit unavoidable that Syria gets the lion’s share.”

Many of the limitations aid agencies face could be attributed to the types of funding they receive; there is unearmarked funding which is given without any strings attached and the agency can decide where the money is spent, and then there is earmarked funding that donors have given to be used in a particular region, country or even sector with a country. Unfortunately, donors don’t always give that much unearmarked money and media attention can often determine which emergencies are funded.

“There are many other refugee situations, especially in Africa, which don’t get that media attention and therefore do not get that earmarking,” says Axel Bisschop of UNHCR. “We have to supply the non-earmarked money to those operations, which is sometimes difficult because, in relative terms, the funding gaps in some of our African operations are severe.”

The difficulties of this situation are clear for the WHO. It’s appeal for $8.7m to provide disease prevention and malnutrition monitoring programmes in Nigeria this year has so far received no funding.

Concerns for the future

Looking ahead, climate change – especially the imminent impact of El Niño – is of great concern to aid agencies.

“We are always concerned that some calamitous disaster will increase needs dramatically as there is very little capacity in the system funding-wise to meet new needs,” says Egendal. The impacts of El Niño have already been seen in Ethiopia, with floods in some areas and droughts in others. There are also worrying signs in south-east Asia and Central America, and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa are likely to be adversely affected.

“El Niño is, in my opinion, the most feared element of the next 12 months,” says Donati. FAO is monitoring closely at-risk areas and fortunately the phenomenon is getting attention from the donor community. “They know perfectly that this event may very well call for a radical revision of priorities, but this depends on facts that are still to become apparent,” he says.

The UNHCR is also concerned about more secondary movements – where people move from where they were refugees to another place – caused by a lack of funding. Bisschop explains that as European countries have to spend national income to provide new homes for refugees, they might divert money away from supporting the countries immediately affected by a crisis, in order to finance support domestically.

“We’re afraid that if that expenditure becomes too high, it might impact aid budgets and the amount of money given to the neighbouring countries to a crisis,” he says.

Across the sector, the most effective solution to these humanitarian crises and the funding given to mitigate their impacts is a political one. “The humanitarian solution of delivering aid is just a sticking plaster,” says Gayer. “In the end, the most viable solution for the population, and the most cost-efficient, is a political solution to many of these crises, so then we can get on with proper rebuilding rather than the stop-gap humanitarian measures that are really just there for lifesaving purpose.”

This article first appeared on the Guardian on 16 December 2015. 

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