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U.N. Faces Record Humanitarian Aid Shortfall — but Not for Ukrainians

Camps for Syrian refugees in northern Iraq have cut access to clean water, sanitation and electricity. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, many people forced from their homes face life without shelter or basic tools like fishing or farming gear. In South Sudan, there will be no secondary school this fall for some refugee children.

Funding to ease the world’s humanitarian crises is falling further than ever behind what is needed for critical requirements like shelter, food, water, power and education, the United Nations reports. Demand, already inflated by scourges like the pandemic and drought, has soared this year, driven in part by the war in Ukraine. Donations from wealthy countries have grown, but not nearly as fast.

“This is the biggest funding gap we’ve ever seen, mostly because the number of vulnerable people who need support is increasing fast,” said Martin Griffiths, chief of the U.N.’s humanitarian and emergency relief office, which coordinates humanitarian aid through global refugee, health, food and children’s agencies. Those U.N. agencies and the private groups they work with need $48.7 billion in 2022 to aid more than 200 million people, he said, but more than seven months into the year, they have raised less than one-third of that.

That bleak overview hides a stark contrast: Money for programs to help Ukrainians has been relatively plentiful. Money for people in most other parts of the world has not.

The vast majority of the aid comes from a handful of donors — the United States, the European Union, a few individual European nations, Japan and Canada. Contributors can leave it up to the United Nations where to direct the money, but donors earmark the great majority of it for specific programs and countries.

“It is a perfect storm with many different factors — you have the Ukraine crisis where, for domestic political reasons, a lot of major donors have to commit a lot of funding there, and then beyond that there is the normal set of crisis that have been exacerbated by Covid and climate,” said Eugene Chen, a former U.N. official and an expert on the organization’s finances.

U.N. agencies “have to prioritize within their own programs,” he said, and without enough money to cover every crisis, “unfortunately some needs will have to go unmet.”

The U.N. humanitarian office has asked for more than $6 billion this year specifically to aid Ukrainians, both refugees who have fled the country and those still within it; its first Ukraine appeal raised more than the amount requested, and its second is on its way to being fully funded.

In contrast, much smaller appeals are 11 percent funded for Haiti, 12 percent for El Salvador, 14 percent for Burundi and 17 percent for Myanmar. For the world’s biggest humanitarian crises, involving Syrians, Afghans, Yemenis and Ethiopians, funding levels are somewhat higher — but still far behind those of Ukraine.

“The war in Ukraine has illustrated, very starkly, how it is possible to rapidly and extensively mobilize support for refugees and respond to humanitarian needs — when political commitment is there,” said Kathryn Mahoney, the global spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency.

As a stopgap measure, the United Nations has tapped into its Emergency Response Fund, but that is not enough, and not sustainable, Mr. Griffiths said.

He said he implores donor countries to extend the same generosity to other peoples as they are showing to Ukrainians, and other U.N. officials say they regularly make the same appeal, to governments and to private foundations.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has particular geopolitical urgency, in addition to its moral impetus, for wealthy countries that might not see crises in other parts of the world as directly affecting their national interests. The United States and its allies see supporting Ukraine as key to punishing and containing Russia, cementing their alliances, and sending a message to China about the costs of aggression. At the same time, European countries are sheltering more than six million Ukrainians as they struggle with the continent’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II.

But refugees and aid agencies alike have noted that the donor countries have shown far more concern for Ukraine’s overwhelmingly white and Christian populace than they have for people fleeing violence and deprivation in the Middle East and Africa.

Because of the crisis in Ukraine, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has seen one of the biggest jumps in need among U.N. aid agencies, to an estimated $10.7 billion this year. There are some 100 million displaced people in the world, up from about 39 million in 2011 — both refugees from places like Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Venezuela, and those who are displaced within their own countries.

Fund-raising for the agency is on track to break records — and still fall far short of the target. But that unmet need will not be felt by Ukrainians.

In all, 43 percent of the people served by the refugee agency live in just 12 nations: Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Iraq, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Chad, Yemen, Bangladesh, Jordan, Lebanon and Colombia. And in all 12 countries, its programs are running at less than 30 percent funding, forcing cuts or even suspension of vital services.

Without an additional $1 billion this year, the agency reported in June, cash assistance will be cut by nearly half, “12 percent fewer children would have access to schooling; 25 percent fewer displaced people would have access to shelter; 23 percent fewer would have access to health facilities.”

In Yemen, food rations have been cut for millions of people. In the sprawling Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan that has housed refugees from war and oppression in Syria for more than a decade, electricity has been cut to nine hours a day. In Ethiopia, about 750,000 refugees risk having no food by October.

Aid workers fear that in the long term, such deprivation could stunt an entire generation’s ability to build new lives.

Budgetary challenges are not new for U.N. aid agencies. Long-festering conflicts in Syria, South Sudan, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan and elsewhere have forced millions of people from their homes, trapped for years in limbo at U.N.-operated camps.

But several factors have pushed the challenges to a new level: The Covid-19 pandemic and resulting economic shocks; the economic collapse of Afghanistan, with the Taliban takeover and the withdrawal of international aid; Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, contributing to global food shortages, and crop failures abetted by human-caused climate change.

In 2019, the United Nations pegged the need for all of its humanitarian programs at $27.8 billion, but its fund-raising appeals fell more than $10 billion short of that — both record highs. The next year, the target ballooned to $38.6 billion and the shortfall to $19.4 billion. The figures improved slightly in 2021, but jumped again this year.

Mr. Griffiths’s office is seeking $48.7 billion in 2022 — about $8 billion more than it projected before the year began — and is on track to raise barely half that amount.

“Refugees and other displaced people are being pushed to the brink,” said Ms. Mahoney, the spokeswoman for the refugee agency, known as U.N.H.C.R. “The reality is that aid agencies like U.N.H.C.R. are also having to make heartbreaking choices.”

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