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The tip of the iceberg: why 99% of humanitarian resources in crises are ignored

Written by Barnaby Willitts-King

The $27 billion of international humanitarian assistance given in 2018 supported almost 100 million people affected by conflict and disaster. But new research finds that this international support for crisis response represents only a small portion of a larger set of resources that the international system does not see or ‘count’: what we know about is only ‘the tip of the iceberg’. At the global level, our research estimates that international humanitarian assistance comprises as little as 1% of resource flows to countries affected by humanitarian crises.

These other resources cover a wide range, including monetary and in-kind help raised by crisis-affected individuals and communities themselves, remittances sent by family members abroad, local and national government resources and other informal aid, including volunteering, philanthropy and faith-based giving, as well as climate finance and development assistance.

The role of different resources

Local resources may be more timely, but also may not cover all sectors – in Nepal, where we studied the 2017 floods, there may be an increasing role for the international community in identifying the most vulnerable and addressing their needs, while acknowledging that food, cash or temporary shelter provided by the diaspora or local organisations will always be a major part of the initial response.

Alternative sources of funding can be unevenly distributed and reflect pre-existing inequalities within communities. In Iraq, people living in areas controlled by ISIL were less reliant on international assistance – and more reliant on local aid – than those displaced elsewhere in the country. People in Mosul have access to different sources of support depending on political affiliation and ethno-religious identity.

Perceptions of support can also matter as much to affected people as monetary value: in Nepal, flood-affected families appreciated the solidarity demonstrated by rapid support from neighbours even if the equivalent monetary value was less than the international assistance that arrived later.

We don’t know what we don’t know

While this research has gathered insights into the wider resource picture, it has also highlighted that data on this wider set of resources is very sparse, inconsistent and difficult to compare. It is also unlikely to be in a form that changes the way decision- and policy-makers respond.

Data may not be available at the moment it’s needed – particularly in a rapid-onset crisis – or be perceived as incomplete if, for example, only a subset of remittance flows is reported (in Uganda there is no data on what proportion of the estimated $1 billion in remittances flows to refugees in the country, for example). Aid agencies need to do more to collect the right kind of data.

Implications for the formal humanitarian system

Why does this matter? If international aid is only a small percentage of what people receive, then it needs to focus on where it can really help those who cannot access other resources. This means shifting our perspective from one with international resource flows at the centre to one where households and affected countries are at the heart of how responses are planned and measured. Aid should be used not just to respond to gaps in need, but also to catalyse better and more effective use of alternative flows in ways that support the priorities of affected communities.