World Humanitarian Data and Trends, 2013- report review

18 February 2014 ⋅ 

The United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) recently released a new report, “World Humanitarian Data and Trends 2013”. The report highlights the limits of the data included from the very beginning, but despite this, there are some interesting conclusions and points mentioned throughout.

Within the area of humanitarian data, the data that is most readily available is that surrounding funding. This means that, for lack of more accurate data (or a more accurate way to measure this), the level of assistance provided (ie. what people receive) is measured in terms of funding provided; as stated in the report, “there is currently no standardised reporting on the services provided or their impact – especially over the long term.”

This way of considering funding to a country to be an accurate measurement of the benefits that people are receiving is, as they admit numerous times, incredibly flawed; there’s no way to know whether the money is going to the places and people who need it the most, how this money is used within communities, and (if it is, at least on a high level, arriving to the countries most in need) – whether the funds are actually having a positive impact on their lives.

The variety of sources providing international humanitarian assistance was also interesting. While the total level of Official Development Assistance came to 26 billion USD (within humanitarian assistance only) – the total amount of remittances was almost double this, at 51 billion USD. Remittances to low and lower-middle income countries has increased four-fold over the past decade, and yet this is an area which doesn’t receive much focus within the international sphere. Exceptions – such as when Barclays decided to close a number of accounts in Somalia – exist, of course, though these have tended to be peaks of international activity around major news items, rather than a longer term focus.

As mentioned, the technical limits of humanitarian data are highlighted throughout; a lack of common data standards or protocol between humanitarian organisations limits the extent to which organisations can share their information, presuming that they would want to. Potential problems in terms of sharing data were also highlighted – political, as well as practical conditions have to be taken into account given the chaotic nature of crises, and some actors might not be able or willing to share information that they collect (whether that be for political or security reasons).

The report mentioned that appeals for funding were, on average, just 62% funded by the end of the year, but with no mention of the decision-making process that feeds into this. For example, in 2012, Liberia was the worst funded appeal (receiving 38% of what was requested) and Zimbabwe was the best funded (88%). It would be interesting to investigate if there were any media correlations in this trend; ie. did Zimbabwe feature more heavily than Liberia in international media, raising awareness internationally and potentially resulting in a better funding response?

There were also some frank admissions within the report:

“At the global level, we do not fully understand the relationship between what people need and the assistance they eventually get, which also depends on what resources are available, how they are prioritized by donors and aid organizations, and how effective assistance programmes are."

graph of sahel data Another admission came illustrated with this graph of assistance levels provided to the Sahel along with levels of malnutrition: despite levels of official development assistance peaking hugely in 2006, it’s unclear whether this had a direct affect upon levels of malnutrition in the country, and levels of undernourishment have continued to decline at a steady rate, despite (or because of?) aid flows.

The solution suggested here:

In particular, the model of short term responses to recurrent crises has not led to long term improvements for affected people. Moving to an approach where humanitarian and development sectors work together to provide better-targeted aid that can build the resilience of vulnerable communities to climate and other shocks is a promising alternative.

This suggestion was further backed up by the fact that half of the funds within humanitarian aid were used to provide food; ie. an unsustainable (but urgently needed) form of aid, clearly focused on emergency response. The report also stated that less than 1% of development funding is spent on “crisis preparedness and prevention”, highlighting a lack of strategy coordination between development funds and humanitarian aid funds.

This is the theme that resonated the most for me throughout; the need for international development and humanitarian aid to connect more over their activities, to ensure the best possible outcome for those in need of aid of all kinds. This sharing and collaboration between humanitarian and development actors over both long term and short term strategies and activities – who are often working in the same countries – is essential, and technology and open data should, at least in theory, help us towards that goal.