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Diversity in donorship: the changing landscape of official humanitarian aid

Hero image description: Malnurished people in Ethiopia approaching a health center Image credit:© Siegfried Modola/IRIN Image license:ODI given rights

Historically, a small number of Western governments have provided the bulk of the funding for humanitarian action. This is a trend that has allowed them to dominate public debates about how and where aid is directed. As members of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the OECD, these donors have also been integral to shaping the principles and methodology that guides relief efforts.

In recent years, however, governments such as China , India, the Gulf States (also known as non-DAC donors) have become increasingly involved in responding to complex crises and natural disasters. When the Indian Ocean tsunami hit in 2004, for instance, pledges of support were given by no less than 70 non-DAC donors. This growth in donors presents the humanitarian community with significant opportunities, not least in challenging perceptions that Western countries are the only providers of assistance to the developing world. It also presents significant challenges to the way in which the international humanitarian system is financed, managed and coordinated.

The project approach

This research, led by the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI, reviewed non-DAC humanitarian donorship. The study, which was updated in a Working Paper in 2007, identified a number of key policy and financing trends of non-DAC donors including:

  • Humanitarian assistance is concentrated on a few, usually sudden onset, crises rather than spread across a range of crises;
  • There is a strong preference for bilateral, particularly government-to-government, aid or channeling through national Red Cross/Red Crescent societies rather than multilateral routes; and
  • Broader, more complex definitions of humanitarianism exist, and remain largely under-represented in the international fora where aid policy is shaped  

Much of our understanding of non-DAC donorship is based on headquarters policy and reporting, and it has yet to be informed by a detailed study of practices in the field. A second phase of the research, which launched in 2007, aims to fill this gap through an examination of policy and programming of these donors in three operational settings including: the response to the crisis in Lebanon in 2006; the South Asian earthquake in 2005; and the ongoing response to the conflict in Darfur. This will contribute to a better understanding of how the diverse policy drivers for humanitarian action are playing out in relation to crisis response.

Sue Graves, Lin Cotterrell, Gareth Price and Sven Grimm