Humanitarian Assistance in a Post-Pandemic World

By The Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies (NTS Centre)
S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS)
Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore

World Humanitarian Day takes place on 19th August each year to recognise aid workers who risk their lives every day to help others in the most extreme circumstances around the world. It commemorates the 2003 bombing of the United Nations Headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq, which killed 22 people. It also provides an opportunity to pay tribute to those who have fallen while helping people in need.

This year, World Humanitarian Day comes as the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic. Humanitarian workers are overcoming unprecedented access hurdles to assist people in humanitarian crises around the world. As such, this year’s campaign – #RealLifeHeroes – pays special tribute to the humanitarian practitioners on the ground who are risking their lives to continue to save and protect lives despite conflict, insecurity, lack of access, and risks linked to COVID-19.

Faced with the most significant global pandemic in a century, the humanitarian system will be forced to reconfigure itself to reach those most in need. Two broad trends appear to be developing. The first broad trend relates to the localisation of humanitarian aid. At a time when affected communities require more humanitarian support, COVID-19 lockdown measures have restricted humanitarian access to people most in need. It has forced countries to focus on containing the pandemic with national lockdown measures — at the cost of hindering humanitarian action and denying aid to many affected communities. With overseas travel restrictions severely hampering the movement of international humanitarian workers, the need to empower and strengthen local humanitarian actors becomes even more pressing. In a sense, it will accelerate the pace of the localisation agenda in many countries. The current pandemic is forcing the aid sector to adapt to a ‘new normal’ in terms of providing humanitarian assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic. When external humanitarian agencies are unable to respond, the onus falls on national and local actors – who are already on the ground – to provide assistance to vulnerable and affected populations.

Apart from recognising locally based aid workers, the #RealLifeHeroes campaign should also include a commitment towards empowering them. International aid agencies need to build equitable, sustainable partnerships with local actors, and identify areas where they can add value. The key is to build complementary structures, so that national and local actors can build up their own capabilities and take on greater responsibilities.

The second trend pertains to funding. The COVID-19 pandemic is currently creating huge challenges for countries and communities around the world. Governments have imposed movement restrictions and national lockdowns in a bid to control the spread of the virus. These restrictions have resulted in predictions of the worst global recession since the Great Depression. In times of economic crisis, international development assistance programs have always been easy targets for significant belt tightening. Even before the pandemic, the lack of funding has already been an issue within the humanitarian sector. According to UN OCHA’s Financial Tracking Service, in 2019, only 63 percent of required funding was made available to humanitarian organisations. The economic effects of the pandemic will surely lead to a decrease in aid in the near term. As of the first quarter of 2020, donor countries had only donated 13 percent of what these organisations needed for the year.

The pandemic is likely to challenge the financial balance and models of many aid organisations in the next few years. Humanitarian organisations and development agencies will be forced to scrutinise fundamental aspects of their programmes and streamline their processes to adapt to the decreased funding. However, in the midst of this pandemic, we cannot afford to allow a lapse in funding to those who are responding simultaneously to disasters and humanitarian and health crises. To this end, the humanitarian funding system needs to be more needs-based, as opposed to one that is supply-driven.

As we celebrate World Humanitarian Day, there is a need to acknowledge that the pandemic is leaving its own indelible mark on the world and the humanitarian sector. Crises pose challenges but are also moments of change. COVID-19 might just be the impetus needed to spur reform in the aid sector.