The humanitarian system

Key facts


Humanitarian aid is aid designed to save lives, relieve suffering and protect human dignity during and after natural disasters or crises caused by disease, conflict and political instability. It includes efforts to prepare for such emergencies in advance.

How much is spent on aid?

  • - The world spent $28 billion on international humanitarian aid in 2015 - 21 per cent of the estimated $131.6 billion spent by governments on official development assistance.
  • - Total international humanitarian aid is only just ahead of the amount spent annually on chewing gum.

Where does aid come from?

  • - Some 78 per cent of international humanitarian aid ($21.8 billion) came through governments, ultimately from their taxpayers. The rest was from individuals’ gifts to charities, from charitable foundations and from corporations.
  • - The largest government donor to international development is the US, followed by the UK.
  • - Approximately one sixth of the UK government’s direct overseas development spending (not including contributions made through the United Nations and European Union) is used on humanitarian aid.
  • - Almost two thirds of all governments' international humanitarian aid funding was channelled through six agencies of the United Nations, or other multilateral organistions, in 2014 (the latest year for which data is available} -  64%, or $12.5 billion.

Who needs humanitarian aid?                           

  • - The number of people affected by humanitarian crisis has almost doubled over the past decade, according to the UN. In 2015, more than 76 million people from 31 countries needed assistance. 
  • - War, civil conflict and climate change have all contributed to this increase, creating growing numbers of refugees. An estimated 65.3 million people fled their homes because of conflict in 2015, more than at any time since the Second World War, and 24.5 million of them fled to another country.
  • - Half of those affected by crisis are involved in smaller-scale events that generate few international headlines.
  • - The UN has appealed for help meeting the needs of more than 95 million people across 40 countries in 2016, the highest number ever requiring humanitarian assistance in a single year. 

How should it be spent?

  • - Every £1 spent in early crisis response is as effective as £4 to £5 spent later, according to two recent studies.
  • - Less than 2% of all humanitarian funding goes directly to local and national NGOs in the affected countries, according to the 2015 Global Humanitarian Assistance report. At the World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016, there was agreement to increase this to 25 per cent by 2020.

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