In the 21st century, human misery has become something of a growth industry. Conflicts have driven the number of displaced people to an all-time high; last December, the United Nations launched a record appeal for humanitarian aid; three months later, citing impending famines in several African countries, it said the world faced the “largest humanitarian crisis” since the UN’s founding.
Given the growing demands placed on top donor nations, they could be forgiven their fatigue. What’s badly needed are not only new donors to close the funding gap, but reforms to make current contributions go further.
The three top donors provide half or more of all humanitarian assistance, and the roster rarely varies (the U.S. on top, followed variously by the European Commission, Germany, and the U.K.). That the top 10 countries account for nearly three-quarters only points to how much more other developed countries could be doing. If President Xi Jinping wants to advance China’s aspirations to global leadership, he could step up his country’s paltry humanitarian assistance ($14 million thus far in 2017, versus $1.3 billion from the U.S.). Russia, another permanent member of the UN Security Council, has given even less.
Yet none of this justifies President Donald Trump’s plans to slash U.S. humanitarian aid. Although the U.S. is the top donor in dollar terms, its contribution ranked 19th as a proportion of national income. The president ought to bear in mind that effective humanitarian relief is more than a mission of mercy: The countries on the UN’s most recent famine watchlist, for instance, also top the leagues for incidences of terrorism or conflict.
The case for more funding must be pressed — less than 20 percent of this year’s UN appeal has been met — but reform must accelerate, too. Donors can streamline their checklists and reporting requirements to speed the flow of aid. There needs to be less earmarking and more aid funneled through local organizations (which channeled less than one percent of assistance in 2015). With displacement now lasting for an average of 17 years, more humanitarian aid needs to go toward education — one of many areas where the boundaries between humanitarian and development aid need to be reset.
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The U.S. bears a special responsibility for reform, not least because its generosity has been subverted by special interests. If the Trump administration feels it must cut humanitarian aid — and it shouldn’t — it should also support bipartisan legislation to ease, if not eliminate, requirements that food aid must be exclusively produced in the U.S., with at least half of it shipped on U.S.-crewed merchant ships. These rules cost dollars and lives.
The U.S. should also end “monetization,” which requires 15 percent of all food donations to be sold for cash, with the money then used to fund development projects. This practice is wasteful and can disrupt local markets. The U.S. should also allow greater use of vouchers and debit cards to purchase local or regionally procured commodities.
No government program should ever be immune from scrutiny, and U.S. aid money could certainly be spent more effectively. But putting America first shouldn’t mean putting the world’s most desperate people last.