Attention-deficit: is aid failing fragile states?

Oxfam is one of the world’s leading providers of humanitarian aid in emergencies. In 2014, it supported around 5.5 million people in crisis. Here, Laura Searle talks about why we have compiled the Humanitarian Key Facts and why it is vital that we ensure humanitarian funding and long-term development assistance is having the maximum impact.

More than 1.5 billion people live in fragile countries that are blighted by conflict and face repeated cycles of violence. Millions of people are being displaced as a result, more than at any time since World War Two. Humanitarian Key Facts brings into focus the scale and impact of war and brutality on the world’s extreme poor. It should draw our attention to, and prompt us to question, levels of, inequalities in, and the rationale behind, humanitarian funding and long-term development assistance.

More than 1 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day. One third live in fragile states, the share will rise to one-half by 2018, and to two-thirds by 2030.

Scale and impact of conflict and violence

The world is becoming less peaceful. In 2014, conflict in Syria, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Ukraine, and Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories all contributed to this trend. Repeated cycles of violence, and the emergence of new conflicts, threaten to disturb and destroy the lives of innocent civilians and undermine efforts to improve the quality of life of the world’s extreme poor. More than 1 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day. One-third of these people live in fragile states, and by 2018 this share is likely to rise to one-half, and by 2030

Emergency humanitarian funding

In the past decade levels of peace and stability have significantly declined around the world (reversing the period of peace enjoyed following the end of the Cold War), and poverty is increasingly concentrated in areas blighted by conflict and violence. Humanitarian need is on the rise, but there are insufficient funds to save lives and ease the suffering of people in urgent need of food, clean water, shelter and protection from harm. The UN Financial Tracking Service reveals that funds raised for individual humanitarian emergencies are not in
proportion to the number of people affected (see image below). For example, the Indian Ocean Tsunami and Haiti appeals received the highest number of donations seen in the past 30 years whereas natural disasters and other conflicts (with similar or higher numbers of people affected) received very little funding in comparison. 

Funding data from UN FTS database ( Number of people affected from UN appeal documents for individual emergencies.

Funding data from UN FTS database. Number of people affected from UN appeal documents for individual emergencies.

Media coverage has an important role to play in shaping people’s perceptions about the scale and urgency of humanitarian need. While an unexpected and sudden natural disaster qualifies as newsworthy, it is more difficult to maintain high-levels of coverage and interest in the needs of people whose day-to-day lives are continuously blighted by conflict and outbreaks of violence. For example, since 1998 more than 5.4 million people have died as a result of the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And yet the situation in the DRC and this devastating loss of life receives
very little media attention and little progress has been made in finding a lasting solution to the crisis there. 

More than 5.4 million people have died as a result of the civil war in the DRC since 1998. Yet the situation receives very little media attention

Besides media coverage, there are other factors affecting the level of funding for humanitarian crises. Studies have shown that the public often gives more in donations following natural disasters than during conflict-related crises. This is due to the perception that people are somehow less to blame for situations resulting from natural shocks. 

UK DEC appeals for natural disasters raise three times more than those for victims of conflict (£67m vs £21m). Public sentiment also shapes political behaviour. 

Despite protestations that humanitarian assistance is provided on the basis of need, research suggests that governments often allocate funds in accordance with public interest and popular opinion and are influenced by other political and economic factors. 

Long-term development assistance

In 2000, world leaders came together to adopt the Millennium Declaration, committing their nations to a global partnership to reduce extreme poverty through a series of time-bound targets: the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). 

In 2015, as we reach the deadline for the achievement of these targets, the aid community should recognise that progress by fragile states in eradicating extreme poverty has been disappointing slow. For example, just one-third of fragile states have made progress in halving the number of people with an income of less than $1.25 a day (MDG1) compared to two-thirds of non-fragile developing nations. This is reflective of a broader trend, with fragile states lagging behind non-fragile states in progress towards achieving the other MDGs.

Funding is vital to meet the immediate needs of people affected by conflict. But donor governments and aid agencies should also recognise the role long-term support and investment can and should play in addressing the causes of these crises, achieving lasting solutions and the broader effort to eradicate extreme poverty. Fragile states are heavily dependent on aid as a source of finance, and in some countries it can constitute over 55% of GDP. They have limited alternatives for financing development in areas like health, education and livelihoods, as often they are not perceived as an
attractive proposition for foreign investors due to political and economic instability. 

Poverty sometimes plays a role in prompting violence, and when inequality is rooted in religious, ethnic and political divisions then the risk of conflict increases. Yet the aid fragile states receive is shrinking, and this is a trend that needs to be reversed if we are serious about ending extreme poverty and creating conditions for a more equal, peaceful and prosperous world.

It is crucial that organisations such as Oxfam and the wider international community continue to monitor levels of, and inequalities in, humanitarian funding and strive to create a more equitable system where the plight of people affected by conflict and violence is adequately recognised and assistance is provided in accordance with their needs. The aid community should also place greater emphasis on support to fragile societies to address poverty and inequality, which is not only a symptom of violence and conflict but can also be an underlying cause. 

Aid alone is not the solution to fragile states; more than anything else, empowering citizens to hold those states to account is the real answer. But without adequate aid, poverty, inequality and violence are all likely to increase.

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Author: Laura Searle
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.