The Looming Humanitarian Crunch

July 22, 2009

According to the UN’s emergency relief co-ordinator, John Holmes, the organization is some $5 billion in the red regarding its peacekeeping and aid operations for 2009.

As Holmes says, “It is clear that the global recession puts pressure on the aid budgets of all donor governments, but of course it puts immeasurably more pressure on crises-stricken people in poor countries” while the food crisis which emerged in 2008 put a massive stress on aid budgets even before the economic crisis truly crystalised.

Now, a pincer movement is compressing aid budgets relative to global need. As the cessation of credit makes it harder for poorer countries to borrow and global trade has dropped off, richer nations are likely to be cutting back on their contributions to aid budgets. And this could be worse. As Reuters’ correspondent notes, “While there have been no large natural disasters so far in 2009, the global downturn has amplified needs in impoverished countries.”

Holmes has also warned that “There is likely to be a rise in distress migration, malnutrition and social unrest” while “Extreme economic hardship is likely to generate new, or exacerbate existing, social tensions and conflict.”

All of this has meant that the UN has a $5 billion shortfall for 2009, but as Holmes warns, this could get much worse relatively quickly. Moreover, as Reuters reports, “For the most part, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said, traditional donors such as the United States, European Union, Japan, Canada and the Nordics have not slashed their aid budgets.” Not yet, that is.

A UN financial report seen by the news agency counsels that “budgets will be under greater pressure for 2010, because of the expected declines in government revenue if national income continues to fall and simultaneous increases in government borrowing for economic stimulus spending.”

Conor Foley has an excellent article about this up at the Guardian’s website, which is worth reading. As Foley reminds us, “The UN funds its operations through a mixture of assessed and voluntary contributions by member states…The regular budget now only accounts for around 10% of total expenditure, with agencies relying on voluntary contributions for the rest, which makes the process of budgeting extremely difficult.”

This means that aid operations are systematically underfunded, as are peacekeepers and the many other branches of the UN which provide global coordination on cultural, social, economic, diplomatic and environmental issues.

Foley’s conclusion is withering:

It would cost around 1% of the money thrown at western banks in the last six months to bridge the current humanitarian deficit. Yet politicians will continue to play a game of cynical brinkmanship over where the money should come from, confident that it will be the UN itself that gets blamed for the resulting deaths and human misery.

The effects are already being felt. As Xan Rice reports for the Guardian, in Kenya “Rations of beans have already been cut, and distribution of cereals, the most important element of the handouts, will be reduced from next month and suspended altogether in September, unless donations of cash or food are received.” In Uganda, the WFP has stopped food handouts in the war ravaged north of the country while the agency has a £100 million shortfall in Somalia and refugee camps in northern Kenya are growing well beyond their maximum planned capacity.

There is nothing much new here – “humanitarian” programs have always been underfunded relative to need. The difference is one of quantity, not kind. Aid budgets in rich nations have never approached the 0.7 percent of GDP recommended by the UN in 1970 as a minimum for dealing with global poverty and the fallout from Cold War conflicts.

What we are seeing is another example of how, when capitalism shudders to a halt, it is the poor – wherever they live – who suffer the most.

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