War in Ukraine: Why Europe urgently needs to reform international aid funding

Pierre Micheletti • President of Action Against Hunger – France. Latest published book (in French): 0,03 % ! Pour une transformation du mouvement humanitaire international, Parole, 2020.

Bertrand Badie • Emeritus University Professor at Sciences Po Paris.  Latest published book (in French): Les puissances mondialisées. Repenser la sécurité internationale, Odile Jacob, 2021.


This contribution is published jointly on the Alternatives économiques website and on the website of the review Humanitarian Alternatives


The analyses and proposals contained in this column were at the centre of the discussions held at the recent meeting between Pierre Micheletti and the European Commissioner Janez Lenarčič, on the margins of the European Humanitarian Forum in Brussels (21st-23rd March 2022).

By its suddenness, its violence and the extent of the damage caused, the war in Ukraine has projected the world into a large-scale humanitarian crisis. The solidarity that it has generated has manifested itself in a strong mobilisation by citizens, associations and States – something we can only rejoice at.

But the question of the financing of this new emergency, and its potential consequences for the global humanitarian system, immediately arises. For this new tragedy comes at a time when other massive and lasting crises that tend to be forgotten currently remain unresolved. In South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Somalia, Syria, Bangladesh, Haiti, Venezuela and many other countries, between conflicts and environmental degradation, the survival of millions of people depends on international aid.

Yet, in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, financial resources had already reached an unprecedented level of deficit in terms of the funds raised. In 2020, and for the first time in ten years, the amounts deemed necessary by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) fell to only 50% of the expected amounts. Even before the crisis in Ukraine, the economic model of the global humanitarian system was already failing, if not already obsolete.

It should be noted that, over the past ten years, government funding has represented a fairly stable 75% of the financial resources mobilised to respond to humanitarian crises. However, only a small club of twenty countries contributes to the near-totality of all the sums raised.

To better understand: The United States accounts for 34% of the humanitarian aid of the top twenty high income contributors while its GNI represents 39% of the overall GNI of these same countries. In contrast, Norway is more generous: it accounts for 2.5% of the humanitarian aid of the top twenty high-income contributors while its GNI represents only 1% of the overall GNI of the same countries.

The war between Russia and Ukraine has had immediate consequences on oil and grain prices. Given that Ukraine is the World Food Programme’s main source of agricultural products, the humanitarian equation is already being affected by this: there is a scarcity of supply and a major inflation in the price of agricultural products. Meanwhile, the rise in fuel prices has led to a further spike in maritime transport costs.

Moreover, there is reason to fear that against a backdrop of economic recession, the main countries financing international humanitarian aid – which are also the most prominent political supporters of the Ukrainian government – will reduce their support for pre-existing crises to focus their efforts on the emergency in Europe. How can we not raise these concerns when we know that Yemen saw international financial support fall by 40% in 2020, and that only 10% of the amounts required for the emergency aid plan for Afghanistan for the year 2022 have been obtained so far?

The shock wave propagated by the war in Ukraine illustrates the fragility of the financing model on which humanitarian aid is currently based. On the one hand, this model exposes a permanent shortfall in the funds to be allocated. It also positions international aid as a tool based on a tradition of Western interventionism. These two mechanisms converge and contribute to the shrinkage of humanitarian spaces.

The first edition of the European Humanitarian Forum, held on 21st–23rd March 2022, was an opportunity for the European Union (EU), with its status as a major international humanitarian aid donor, to change the financing arrangements. Pierre Micheletti took the opportunity to discuss with the Commissioner for Crisis Management, Janez Lenarčič, our analysis of the situation and the basis for an evolution of the international aid financing model.

In our opinion, this urgent development can be summarised in ten proposals, which the EU can initiate and speak for:

  1. More than a hundred countries constitute the group defined by the World Bank as “high-income”. All these countries should contribute to the financing of emergency aid. The EU must therefore be mobilised to change the current funding system, starting by applying this rule to its twenty-seven Member States. The diagram in this article shows that, on the one hand, only about ten EU countries out of twenty-seven contributed to humanitarian aid in 2020 and, on the other hand, that the support of already-contributing European countries is not always correlated to their Gross National Income (GNI).

  1. We must ask the EU to take this to the United Nations, in order to extend the contributions to all the richer countries. Some major economic powers amongst the twenty countries with the highest GNI – such as China, Russia or Indonesia – do not contribute to the humanitarian aid envelope.

  1. The abolition of the system based on voluntary contributions alone must be ratified by the EU – and then the United Nations – and a mandatory contribution calculated for each country on the basis of its GNI must be adopted.

  1. There is a need to move away from the logic of “earmarked donations”, which allows a country to specifically choose the crises it intends to support. Government donations, mobilised under these new rules, will be used to create a “common humanitarian fund”, which will indiscriminately cumulate all the contributions of the various states.

  1. It will be up to a non-partisan international body (such as a tripartite commission bringing together the OCHA, the Red Cross movement and a representative of the coordination of international non-governmental organisations [NGOs]) to meet regularly in order to decide (outside of new emergencies) on the allocation of the annual financial envelope on the basis of the needs identified by the coordinated call of the United Nations.

  1. NGOs must be exempted from the application of anti-terrorism laws in order to preserve their ability to act in all crisis situations. In particular, they must be exempted from any injunction requiring them to take part in the “screening” of their programme’s aid-recipients in the name of the need to identify individuals suspected of terrorist acts.

  1. The sum of the administrative costs allocated to NGOs must be increased in the context of funding. Over the years, legitimate but costly administrative procedures have emerged (prevention of sexual violence, IT security, financial traceability in the fight against terrorism, etc.). This accumulation compromises the financial balance of NGOs and exposes them to rhythms of work and managerial practices which breed social tensions, in a logic of preserving the sums deployed towards the populations.

  1. It is urgent to implement the recommendations of the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul (2016) in a binding manner in order to develop the funds managed by local actors (to the tune of 25% of the annual financial envelope). Only those national actors who respect the fundamental principles of humanitarian aid can benefit from this envelope.

  1. A portion of the annual envelope, collected under the new arrangements, will have to be used to fund the “transfer of skills” of major international NGOs and enable them to extend their network to “sister NGOs” in emerging countries.

  1. Through the reconfigured funding system based on mandatory contributions, humanitarian organisations will be provided with the prospect of multi-year funding to address “protracted” crises.

Mobilising European civil society – based on the skills and operational involvement of international and national NGOs – is fundamental to promoting a change of model. It should be recalled that through their appeals for donations, international NGOs contribute to raising 25% of the annual budgets mobilised by humanitarian responses, and that they implement 40% of the financial envelope in the field. This financial and operational reality is the basis for their legitimacy to flag up the now well-known failures of the economic model of humanitarian action. The main aim of this advocated reform of the financing system we call for is to preserve the relief efforts and the universal principles on which their legitimacy is based. The very ones that are the essential pillars for action: humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence.

Translated from the French by Juliet Powys