Complex humanitarian emergencies: Global philanthropic giving can & should be more strategic


Alex Gray


Today, more people are impacted by humanitarian crises than at any point in recorded history.

Conflicts drive 80 per cent of all humanitarian needs. Yet in 2019, only 4 per cent of philanthropy’s $352 million giving for disasters went to address humanitarian needs in these Complex Humanitarian Emergencies (CHEs), whereas 55 per cent went to disasters caused by natural hazards and severe weather, and the remaining 41 per cent went to disasters in general, according to the latest ‘Measuring the State of Disaster Philanthropy’ report. International governments, on the other hand, spend 63 per cent of their $24.8 billion humanitarian budgets on CHEs, with only 7 per cent going to disasters caused by natural hazards and severe weather and the remaining 30 per cent going to disasters in general.

Why is philanthropy so far behind in its disaster giving? Can philanthropy be more strategic and effective?

The eyes of the world are, rightly so, on the horrific war in Ukraine. Armed conflict continues to forcibly displace and threaten the lives of innocent people in the many other ongoing CHEs such as Afghanistan, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, Yemen and beyond. The current media landscape, geopolitical interests, the protracted nature of conflicts and even issues of race, ethnicity and religion mean that interest, and unfortunately funding, quickly wanes as media attention move on. These factors contribute to why philanthropy isn’t funding proportionate to global humanitarian needs.

If we assume that humanitarian donors are driven by the humanitarian imperative, which stipulates that action should be taken to prevent or alleviate human suffering arising out of disaster or conflict, and stresses that humanitarian response must be based on need alone, then it follows that at least 80 per cent of international philanthropic disaster giving should go to CHEs. This figure is likely considerably greater as intersectional inequities are exacerbated in disasters and needs and vulnerabilities are multiple, compounded and protracted in CHEs. In these contexts, one could argue that your investment can stretch further, and interventions can have greater and longer-term impact.

Spurred by the crisis in Ukraine, donors of all sizes are considering where and how to gather the data they need most to make effective, informed response decisions and deploy resources quickly and to the areas where they can have greatest impact. The Center for Disaster Philanthropy held a webinar on Complex Humanitarian Emergencies: Where crisis, conflict, climate and Covid-19 meet on 10 March, where panellists Dominic MacSorley of Concern Worldwide, Lars Peter Nissen at ACAPS, CDP’s Patricia McIlreavy and I discussed CHEs and attempted to address some of these questions funders are asking, in the context of Ukraine and CHEs more generally, using case studies of two other massive and ongoing CHEs: Afghanistan and DR Congo. There were many takeaways, but most of the discussion centred around how to prioritize in CHEs given the massive needs.

Analysis can inform priorities in CHEs

There are many sources of information to draw from. US Agency for International Development produces Complex Emergency Factsheets, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs provides a wealth of information on, there is the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index, and then there is ACAPS, which provides multisectoral analysis, with a number of indices and a focus on severity and trends. These data sources can: help funders compare crises to decide where to support, create an understanding of the kind of needs the affected populations have and help them think about scenarios and what may happen next. At CDP we use all of these, and others such as the global hunger index, and global health systems ranking to inform our funding priorities.

What can philanthropy do and what should they consider in Ukraine and other CHEs?

  1. Investigate the barriers to increasing funding to CHEs. Many grantmakers believe that giving to CHEs is too risky but when probed, reasons given are often simply myths not substantiated by evidence.
  2. Plan for the long-term; offer flexible, predictable, multi-year funding. CHEs are often more protracted in nature, and the context and needs are often fluid and change. Multi-year grants and flexibility meet needs more effectively and achieve greater impact.
  3. Fund innovation, pilots, research and advocacy initiatives, and generate evidence of solutions that can be taken to scale. The evidence base for what works in CHE contexts is scant. Philanthropy can often take greater risks than government donors, so is better positioned to be a catalyst for change.
  4. Fund local actors, and interventions that strengthen local systems and capacities. They remain there on the ground and will continue to meet ongoing, recurrent, and protracted needs when funding starts to wane.
  5. Fund mitigation, recovery and resilience programming in addition to life-saving interventions. CHE contexts have greater disaster risk and investing in these program areas reduces future risk.

The crisis at hand is always a trigger for greater engagement by the public and institutional funders, particularly when it captures the attention of global media, as we are witnessing with Ukraine. We should capitalise on this momentum to demand a global commitment to the humanitarian imperative from all actors, including philanthropy, and draw attention to equally devastating conflicts and crises that are not currently making media headlines. Philanthropy must find a way to transform its global giving from reactive and scattered to systematic and strategic.

Alex Gray is Director of International Funds at the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, where he oversees their international funding, partnerships and grantmaking strategies.

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