Humanitarian aid is facing a budget problem. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ (UNOCH) 2020 report on aid requirements included a staggering $28.8 billion funding request. There is a massive funding gap, with only $15.96 billion received of its $29.7 billion request last year.
Instead of struggling and failing to meet these rising humanitarian aid costs year after year, we need to rethink how we approach disaster response, targeting the root causes of disaster rather than responding to the disaster after the fact with humanitarian relief. Studies show that every $1 spent on disaster risk reduction and prevention can save $15 in post-disaster recovery efforts. Despite this, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) received less than $36 million in funding 2019, just .2% of UNOCH funding for the same year. The lack of attention paid to disaster prevention is driving a long-term increase in humanitarian relief needs.
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The locust swarms terrorizing the Horn of Africa and Yemen this year illustrate this problem. The region has been experiencing historic swarms: Kenya’s worst in 70 years and the worst for Ethiopia and Somalia in 25 years. The impacts of these swarms can be devastating: A swarm measuring just 1km2 can eat the same amount as 35,000 people daily. In February, local Kenyan news reported a swarm of 2400km2.
These swarms exacerbate already alarming levels of food insecurity in the region, with over 27 million people in East Africa classified as Crisis level or worse, along with another 3.2 million of this designation in Yemen. The combination of these factors will lead to a spike in emergency humanitarian relief costs, but more importantly in the loss of countless lives.
The economic costs of waiting until disaster strikes are stark: In West Africa and the Sahel region, which is at high risk of swarm spreads but not currently in crisis, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization has estimated a $50-70 million requirement to curb the spread of locusts, safeguard livelihoods, and build coordination and preparedness in 20204. For the same efforts in the Horn of Africa and Yemen region, that required amount has risen to over $231 million. These costs do not include that of crop and livestock loss, nor the wider economic impacts of population loss and rising agricultural prices on the world market. While the World Bank has estimated that potential damage to crops and livestock could reach $8.5 billion, there is in general a dearth of hard data on the levels of destruction, direct or indirect, being caused by these locust swarms.
It doesn’t have to be this way. By February 2020, the FAO had only received $52 million after its appeal for $138 million to deal with the locust problem. If organizations and donors focus their efforts on adequately funding disaster prevention measures, they will have to spend far less on humanitarian aid in the future. Emphasis needs to be placed on disaster-prevention research as well. The only current viable means of locust prevention involves the use of pesticides, which themselves have a myriad of negative environmental and human impacts. Further funding of research into alternative prevention methods such as biological control could more efficiently manage locust populations while lessening the need for harmful pesticides. This need for disaster prevention research is applicable to a wide variety of issues, not just locus swarms. Finally, sufficiently funded mechanisms to gather data, provide early warnings, and facilitate cooperation across borders are crucial to managing problems before they devolve into disaster. The lack of precise information about the sizes of locust swarms and the damage they are causing makes it even more difficult to deal with the disaster.
Humanitarian aid will always have an important role to play. Given the massive funding gap for humanitarian aid and the unlikeliness of new consistent funding sources, however, we need to pursue alternative ways to close that gap. Funneling time and investment toward disaster prevention and research can achieve that goal.
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 L Brader et al., “Towards a More Effective Response to Desert Locusts and Their Impacts on Food Security, Livelihoods and Poverty Multilateral Evaluation of the 2003–05 Desert Locust Campaign,” n.d., 96.
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