Defining humanitarian assistance

‘Humanitarian assistance’ is aid and action designed to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain and protect human dignity during and in the aftermath of emergencies. The characteristics that mark it out from other forms of foreign assistance and development aid are that:

  • it is intended to be governed by the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence
  • it is intended to be short-term in nature and provide for activities in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. In practice it is often difficult to say where ‘during and in the immediate aftermath of emergencies’ ends and other types of assistance begin, especially in situations of prolonged vulnerability.

Traditional responses to humanitarian crises, and the easiest to categorise as such, are those that fall under the aegis of ‘emergency response’:

  • material relief assistance and services (shelter, water, medicines etc.)
  • emergency food aid (short-term distribution and supplementary feeding programmes)
  • relief coordination, protection and support services (coordination, logistics and communications).

But humanitarian assistance can also include reconstruction and rehabilitation (repairing pre-existing infrastructure as opposed to longer-term activities designed to improve the level of infrastructure) and disaster prevention and preparedness (disaster risk reduction (DRR), early warning systems, contingency stocks and planning). Under the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC) reporting criteria, humanitarian assistance has very clear cut-off points – for example, ‘disaster preparedness’ excludes longer-term work such as prevention of floods or conflicts. ‘Reconstruction relief and rehabilitation’ includes repairing pre-existing infrastructure but excludes longer-term activities designed to improve the level of infrastructure.

Humanitarian assistance is given by governments, individuals, NGOs, multilateral organisations, domestic organisations and private companies. Some differentiate their humanitarian assistance from development or other foreign assistance, but they draw the line in different places and according to different criteria. We report what others themselves report as ‘humanitarian’ assistance but try to consistently label and source this.

Global humanitarian assistance

The term ‘global humanitarian assistance’ is used within the context of the Global Humanitarian Assistance (GHA) programme to mean:

  • international humanitarian response (i.e. humanitarian assistance from governments and private contributions)
  • domestic response (provided by governments in response to crises inside their own countries)
  • other types of assistance that go to people in humanitarian crises which fall outside that captured in the data on ‘international’ or ‘domestic’ humanitarian response (e.g. peacekeeping and other official development assistance (ODA) activities such as governance and security).
International humanitarian assistance

International humanitarian assistance (or ‘international humanitarian response’) is used to describe the contributions of:

  • international governments
  • individuals, private foundations, trusts, private companies and corporations.
Humanitarian assistance from governments

Our definition of government funding for humanitarian crises comprises:

  • the humanitarian assistance expenditure of the 24 OECD DAC members – Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European institutions – as reported to the OECD DAC as part of an annual obligation to report on ODA flows
  • expenditure by ‘other governments’ as captured by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) Financial Tracking Service (FTS).

Our labelling of ‘governments’ is driven by the way in which they report their expenditure – i.e. those that report to the OECD DAC as DAC members and those that do not. ‘Other governments’ are sometimes referred to as ‘non-DAC donors’, ‘non-traditional donors’, ‘emerging donors’ or ‘south–south development partners’.

Note: For OECD DAC donors, we make an adjustment to the DAC-reported humanitarian assistance figure so that it takes account of each donor’s multilateral (core and totally unearmarked) ODA contributions to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and the World Food Programme (WFP) – see ‘total official humanitarian assistance’ below.

Private contributions

Private contributions are those from individuals, private foundations, trusts, private companies and corporations.

In our overall estimates of international humanitarian response, private contributions are those raised by humanitarian organisations, including NGOs, the UN and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Data for the period 2006–2011 was collated directly from a sample of organisations and complemented by figures from annual reports. The study-set for this period included five UN agencies (UNHCR, UNRWA, WFP, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)), 62 non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and seven Red Cross national societies (Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, France, Sweden and the United Kingdom). Data for 2011 is provisional.

Where we need breakdowns of where the money is spent and how it gets there, data is taken from UN OCHA’s FTS (a disaggregation of NGO, Foundations and Red Cross/Crescent reporting in the FTS plus private contributions from individuals and the private sector).

Total ‘official’ humanitarian assistance

Total ‘official’ humanitarian assistance is a sub-set of ODA. We use it when making comparisons with other development assistance. It takes account of humanitarian expenditure through NGOs, multilateral UN agencies and funds, public-private partnerships and public sector agencies – and, in order to take account of multilateral ODA contributions to UN agencies with almost uniquely humanitarian mandates, we make the following calculations:

  • humanitarian assistance as reported in DAC1 Official and Private Flows, item I.A.1.5 (net disbursements)
  • total ODA disbursements to UNHCR, UNRWA and WFP, as recipients, reported in DAC2a ODA disbursement (we do not include all ODA to WFP but apply a percentage in order to take into account the fact that WFP also has a ‘developmental’ mandate).

Notes: (1) All of our humanitarian assistance categories include money spent through humanitarian financing mechanisms such as the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) and country-level pooled funds. Where necessary, we impute amounts spent through the CERF in specific countries back to the donor (for example, if Norway contributed 10% of CERF funding in 2009 and the CERF allocated US$10 million to Afghanistan, US$1 million would be added on to Norway’s other humanitarian expenditure on projects in Afghanistan). (2) The European Commission (EC) functions both as a donor agency and as a multilateral recipient of EU member state funds. It provides direct donor support to developing countries as well as playing a ‘federating’ role with other EC institutions and EU member states. We treat the EC as a donor within our DAC donor analyses. However, totally unearmarked (‘multilateral’) ODA to the EC is a core component of some donors’ overall ODA/humanitarian assistance contributions – so we calculate the EC’s humanitarian assistance (including its own unearmarked multilateral ODA to UNHCR, UNRWA and WFP as a donor) and apportion a share of this to each DAC EU member state – Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.