Davos Agenda

Global humanitarian needs are growing — here's how the world can shoulder that responsibility fairly

Davos 2023: If people in need of humanitarian aid constituted a country, it would be the 11th-largest country on earth.

If people in need of humanitarian aid constituted a country, it would be the 11th-largest country on earth. Image: REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Janez Lenarčič
Commissioner, Crisis Management, European Commission
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • 339 million people worldwide are in need of humanitarian aid — more than the population of the United States.
  • Historically, a few countries have taken on a disproportionate share of the responsibility for providing for that vulnerable populations.
  • But as humanitarian need spikes worldwide, a result of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, a new approach to sharing this responsibility is needed.

Seven years ago, the high-level panel on humanitarian financing led by Kristalina Georgieva put forward a startling fact: if people in need of humanitarian aid constituted a country, it would be the 11th-largest country on earth.

That was in 2016. In January 2023, no fewer than 339 million people — almost three times as many as in 2016, up from 274 million people only at the start of 2022 — will need humanitarian assistance in 2023. This is now more than the population of the United States.

Today, the ‘country’ imagined by the high-level panel would be the third-largest on earth.

Davos 2023 - Global humanitarian aid contributions are dominated by a select few countries or blocs.
Global humanitarian aid contributions are dominated by a select few countries or blocs. Image: Data: ONOCHA Image: European Commission

Globally, humanitarian needs are rising steeply. The war in Ukraine has made a bad situation dramatically worse. People in existing humanitarian crises are being hit hardest. The total humanitarian ‘ask’ for 2023, to provide basic life-saving support to people in need of assistance, is $51.5 billion — up from $41 billion at the beginning of 2022.

Humanitarian crises, caused by conflicts or natural disasters, can be felt on all continents. They are overwhelmingly the result of human action — or indeed inaction, when the conflict parties and international community as a whole fail to resolve steadily growing number of protracted conflicts or work towards preventing new ones. Providing for the basic needs of people affected by crises should be a shared responsibility for the international community as a whole. And yet, globally, the 10 largest donors of humanitarian aid alone provide 82.4% of all funding. This is neither fair nor sustainable.

Addressing global humanitarian needs sustainably

Faced with this expansion in humanitarian needs, we need an urgent discussion on how to address those needs sustainably — and how to share the responsibility for this fairly. This is needed both between different states, with whom the primary responsibility for funding humanitarian assistance lies, but also between states and the private sector. It is needed between those who have been doing their part to address this global responsibility, and those who have the potential to step up but have not yet done so — or have not done it to a degree commensurate with their economic stature.

Global leadership, represented in the World Economic Forum’s Davos meeting, has the opportunity to encourage emerging donors and private actors to step up. Since February 2022, as a direct result of Russia’s illegal and unconscionable invasion of Ukraine, the world economy has been facing a stark reality: the most vulnerable people on the planet have become even more vulnerable.

At the same time, the hikes in energy prices caused by Russia’s war have caused a massive transfer of wealth to energy producers. The net income of the leading oil companies, for example, has at least doubled, or in some instances more than tripled; as has the revenue of many energy-producing countries.

The exorbitant energy costs have driven commodity prices up and made the delivery of humanitarian aid more expensive. This is having dire consequences for food security globally, with 45 million people in 37 countries risking starvation in 2023, according to UN estimates.

In short: humanitarian needs are at a historic high. With the effects of climate change, including the new conflicts it may cause in the competition for shrinking resources, they are likely to keep increasing. The small number of traditional donors who currently account for the brunt of financing humanitarian assistance will not be able to keep up. Many of the traditional donor states are already facing a difficult fiscal situation because of the global context.

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A new approach to funding humanitarian aid

As a starting point to closing this gap, it is intuitive that a country’s effort in contributing to humanitarian response should be commensurate with its economic weight. This underlying principle is already reflected in other areas, where the international community seeks to address common challenges. Consider, for example, the formula that governs the contributions to the UN peacekeeping budget by United Nations Member States. For humanitarian assistance, the target-setting should aim to close the gap between needs, as identified annually in the Global Humanitarian Overview, and resources that can be drawn upon globally, taking into account a country’s share in global gross national income.

The private sector can play an important role in this — including both charitable foundations and private companies, whose contributions in 2020 made up an estimated 3.3% of overall humanitarian assistance. COVID-19 sparked an increase in charitable giving from private sources — funding from trusts and foundations almost doubled 2019-2020 from $400m to $900m, while companies and corporations donated $600m in 2020, up from $300m in 2019.

There is a clear business case to be made for participation of the private sector in the global humanitarian effort. Solidarity with those in need, and the moral imperative to save lives, are good reasons in themselves for supporting humanitarian response. But so is investing in stability and resilience in fragile contexts, thus preventing conflicts from spreading, becoming protracted and impacting the global economy and supply chains. Support for humanitarian aid and basic needs in fragile countries should be seen as an investment in a global public good — not exclusively as a charitable gesture.

Moving towards a fairer and sustainable way of sharing the responsibility for funding humanitarian response will be challenging, but inaction is the worst option and will affect everyone. The time to start is now.

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Davos AgendaGlobal CooperationHumanitarian Action
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