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Humanitarian crises abound. Why is the U.N. asking for less aid money than last year?

Palestinian children wait to collect food at a donation point in a refugee camp in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on December 23, 2023.
Mahmud Hams/AFP via Getty Images
Palestinian children wait to collect food at a donation point in a refugee camp in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on December 23, 2023.

Humanitarian aid groups around the world can agree on one thing: The number of people in need, from Gaza to Haiti to Afghanistan, is higher than any time in recent memory.

"I live in fear of opening up my email every morning and seeing what else has happened that is going to make things worse," says Leslie Archambeault, managing director of humanitarian policy at Save the Children U.S.

So then why is the United Nations asking governments to give less humanitarian aid money in 2024 than they asked for in 2023?

The U.N. has called for $46 billion in its annual appeal for this year, down from $57 billion last year, acknowledging a chilly atmosphere among donors.

"This is the first time that this has happened in recent years. And it's not because there is no need, it is because we have had to prioritize urgent life-saving need as our core business," said Martin Griffiths, U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, at a December event. Griffiths said the U.N. has had to narrow its focus to the most urgent crises, "looking at life-saving needs as the overwhelming priority."

And keep in mind, the U.N. typically does not get all it asks for. In 2023, the U.N. received just 40% of the donations it requested to fund worldwide humanitarian efforts, down from 68% the year before. There is almost always a gap between the funds requested and what governments give. But this year the gulf between the growing needs and thriftier donors could be especially large.

"I think the outlook for humanitarian funding globally is pretty bad right now. I am pretty concerned. I think everybody is very concerned," says Archambeault.

Humanitarian donations are vulnerable in part because so few countries shoulder so much of the burden.

"It's really three donors that fund around 50% to 60% of that, so you're looking at the U.S., Germany and the EU," says Kate Katch, a practitioner fellow at the University of Virginia and a former humanitarian affairs officer at the U.N. "We're not seeing a decrease in humanitarian needs, and we're not seeing those top three donors giving significantly more. And the signals would suggest that's going to stay that way or it could even slow down."

The U.N. estimates that some 300 million people worldwide are in urgent need of food, shelter, health care and other essential resources. That number has grown as protracted crises stack up in places like Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Myannmar, and acute emergencies in Gaza and Ukraine pile on the need. Besides wars and conflicts, natural disasters accelerated by climate change and global economic struggles are adding to the toll.

"It's this compounding vulnerability that is really making crises much more protracted and much more expensive," says Katch. "At the end of the day, we have to look at longer-term solutions about how we really assist these communities as opposed to just leaving it to the humanitarians to try and keep essentially putting Band-Aids on the problem."

A stretched humanitarian sector

Humanitarian funding tends to be short-term and limited in what it can pay for, aimed at emergencies rather than grinding, long-term turmoil.

Kaela Glass, head of partnerships at the Norwegian Refugee Council, says a classic example is water trucking – driving tanks of clean drinking water to a distribution point where people line up to fill their jerry cans. "Expensive water trucking to a population who has been in the same place for five years doesn't make any sense. But because of some of the restrictions we have on humanitarian financing, you can't install a permanent water source."

Long-term fixes have typically been the province of the international development sector, led by organizations such as the World Bank. But development funding tends to move slowly and is often subject to political considerations.

The U.N. and NGOs who rely on international funders are preparing for donations to stay flat – or even, for the first time since 2010, decrease from the previous year's sum.

"I heard someone say, did we hit peak humanitarian in 2022?" says the NRC's Glass. "There is a bit of pessimism that we kind of reached as high as we could reach, and now we're on the other side of the mountain."

Aid groups face impossible choices

Glass says in places like Chad and South Sudan, where millions of Sudanese refugees have fled, the funding shortfall means you can't always help both the displaced people and the often poor host communities struggling to meet their own basic needs.

"We're basically choosing which type of needs to address, and ultimately having to choose which populations are going to be receiving assistance. There's just not enough to go around," Glass says.

Katch says it's especially damaging to some of the dire situations that don't make headlines: the chronic violence in Honduras, an economic meltdown in Lebanon or persistent armed conflict in the Sahel.

"There's more risk of starvation. Food rations have to be halved. People get more waterborne diseases. They can't get access in remote areas to health care. It's very tangible. And I think it's really important for people to understand how destitute it is for a lot of these communities when the funding doesn't come in," she says.

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Gabriel Spitzer
Gabriel Spitzer (he/him) is Senior Editor of Short Wave, NPR's daily science podcast. He comes to NPR following years of experience at Member stations – most recently at KNKX in Seattle, where he covered science and health and then co-founded and hosted the weekly show Sound Effect. That show told character-driven stories of the region's people. When the Pacific Northwest became the first place in the U.S. hit by COVID-19, the show switched gears and relaunched as Transmission, one of the country's first podcasts about the pandemic.