The UN is calling the plight of the Rohingya the "world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis". Geneva correspondent Imogen Foulkes looks at how the UN decides among the myriad of crises which ones to prioritise for funding.
"Fast-growing emergency"… "thousands stranded at the border"… "lack of clean water, risk of disease"… "shortage of food, shelter and medicine". Every moment of every day, these phrases are an apt description of somewhere on our planet. Humanitarian crises, many of them born out of conflict, just keep on happening. From South Sudan to Syria, to Yemen, and now to Myanmar, millions of families are in need.
Geneva is home to the humanitarian agencies which try to alleviate these crises, so journalists here are all too familiar with the warnings of an impending disaster (famine in Yemen), the scramble to deliver aid following a sudden emergency (earthquake in Nepal), and the endless appeals for cash (Syria, South Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Central African Republic…).
This week, Myanmar is the focus. The UN is staging a "pledging conferenceexternal link" to raise money for what it describes as the "fastest- growing refugee crisis in the world" right now. Over half a million people have fled from Myanmar’s Rakhine state to Bangladesh in the space of a few weeks. They are arriving, says the UN Refugee Agency’s Andrej Mahecic “with nothing, in a really fragile condition, many are children, there are older people with disabilities, people with injuries and trauma”.
A pledging conference is the UN’s response to a sudden, unexpected and large-scale emergency. “We don’t do them for every crisis,” explains Marcy Vigoda of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHAexternal link).
The first pledging conference I reported on was way back in January 2005, not long after I arrived in Geneva. It was in response to the Asian Tsunami which devastated parts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand on Boxing Day 2004.
Ahead of that conference, Jan Egeland, then head of OCHA, famously remarked that he could not understand why wealthy countries were being so “stingy”. His remarks were interpreted as being aimed at the United States, which had at that point offered $15 million towards relief for tsunami victims, about half what Washington was planning to spend on newly re-elected George W. Bush’s inaugural ceremony.
Egeland went on that “there are several donors who are less generous than before in a growing world economy,” adding that some political leaders “believe that they are really burdening the taxpayers too much, and the taxpayers want to give less. It’s not true. They want to give more.”
The US, the biggest donor to UN aid agencies, was angered by those comments, and Egeland sought to clarify that they were not aimed at one particular country. But those words, from one of the UN’s most dedicated and experienced relief coordinators, had what was almost certainly the intended effect; a very generous response at the pledging conference, so generous, Egeland said, that he had to ask his staff to confirm “that the number of zeroes was right”.
In fact it is not really true to say that donors have become less generous. Even after the global financial crisis of 2008, the imposition of austerity measures in some traditional donor countries, and the growing political debate over whether foreign aid is worthwhile at all, money for humanitarian crises has increased…but not as fast as the crises themselves. Needs consistently outstrip available funds.
Putting the spotlight on a crisis
In order to prioritise the most serious crises, the UN tends, as Vigoda puts it, to be "selective" about pledging conferences. Recently, they have been held for Syria, for Yemen, for Nigeria, for the Lake Chad Basin and for South Sudan.
Last April’s pledging conference for Yemenexternal link took place after over a year of UN warnings about the suffering caused by the conflict: warnings, which, judging by the modest response to the UN’s regular annual appeals for Yemen, had gone largely unheard.
Unlike those annual appeals, when the UN explains its estimates and budgets for all the crises it is dealing with, a pledging conference puts the spotlight on one particular situation.
The focus on Yemen worked, $1.1 billion was pledged, and, six months later, $991 million has been received.
Fresh flexible funds
Nevertheless, there are inherent risks in such high-profile fundraising events. Countries which have already allocated their annual foreign aid budget may be tempted to shift some money away from a less well known crisis to the headline grabbing subject of the pledging conference.
“We can’t have crises competing against crises for the same money,” explains OCHA’s Vigoda. “Ultimately we need to be increasing the pie.”
So money pledged will, the UN hopes, be fresh, and says Mahecic of the UN Refugee Agencyexternal link, it also needs to be flexible, rather than “earmarked for something specific”.
This can sometimes be a difficult ask: donors, especially in the limelight of a pledging conference, may want to offer money for a particular programme: psychosocial counselling for the victims of sexual violence, perhaps, or education for refugee children.
“These emergencies are fluid,” says Mahecic. “We need to be able to move from one set of activities to another. Right now [in Bangladesh] the key point is to get people under shelter.”
But aid agencies also hope to use pledging conferences as an opportunity to at least mention to donors some of the world’s other crises.
A fully funded UN appeal is very rare, and many crises barely make the news agenda. OCHA describes the situation in the Central African Republic (CAR) as having "significantly deteriorated since 2017". At 592,000, the number of internally displaced is the highest ever recorded, and half a million people have fled to neighbouring countries. Yet, as of this month, OCHA’s appeal for CAR this year is less than 30% funded.
Appeals for Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia and Burundi are among many others which are seriously underfunded.
“We are fighting fires on so many fronts,” points out Bettina Luescher of the World Food Programmeexternal link. “This is [globally] the worst situation since World War Two, with so many people on the run.”
For the programme, 2017 has marked a particularly unwelcome milestone: for the first time since the start of the 21st century the number of people going hungry in the world increased.
Humanitarian aid, as aid workers are the first to point out, cannot solve a crisis; aid can only alleviate the suffering. For a solution, or even prevention, qualities which nowadays seem even harder to raise than aid dollars are required: political will, diplomacy, and conflict prevention.
“Our goal is that families don’t need us anymore,” says Luescher.
That goal seems a very long way off. For now, aid agencies will continue begging for money, and hoping that it arrives in time.
You can follow Imogen Foulkes on twitter at @imogenfoulkes, and send her questions and suggestions for UN topics.