Humanitarian Aid

How to Make Relief More Efficient 
and Effective

Help is on the way: in a refugee camp in South Sudan, January 2014.  JAMES AKENA / REUTERS

Every month, nearly one million people flee their homes because of conflicts or natural disasters. With few wars ending, and new wars starting, the number of people displaced by conflict now exceeds 50 million. Not since World War II have people sought refuge—in their own countries or in neighboring states—on such a scale. The disorder driving mass displacement is unlikely to be transitory. In a growing number of countries, the glue of national identity and state authority is unable to patch ethnic, sectarian, or tribal divisions, all of which are exacerbated by regional rivalries. Faced with such threats, multilateral institutions may be strong enough to prevent interstate war but too weak or divided to stop the fighting, as is the case in Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, and Ukraine. Further adding to the tide of humanitarian misery are climate change and demographic pressures.

The humanitarian sector sustains and improves life for people caught in these crises. Its staff are heroic, skillful, and inspiring. Yet the sector is struggling to cope with new realities, and there is a growing gulf between the needs of people affected by crises and the help they are receiving. One measure is humanitarian aid flows: the amounts pledged to address the consequences of crises now regularly fail to reach 40 percent of the UN’s targets. It is logical, then, to argue for increases in humanitarian aid funding. The total global budget for humanitarian aid stands at just $22 billion. And at 0.3 percent of GDP, the $135 billion spent on all aid last year—on poverty reduction as well as humanitarian crises—by members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) fell well short of the UN’s target of 0.7 percent. But with Europe and the United States still emerging from economic crisis, overall aid is unlikely to grow much in the short term.

More resources would help. But resources also need to be used for greater impact. Environmentalists like to speak of “factor 4” improvements, which cut resource

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