COVID-19 Derailed Humanitarian Aid. What Will it Take to Get it Back on Track?

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the international community identified the importance of addressing the needs of the most vulnerable peoples and countries already facing food insecurity, conflict, lack of hygienic resources, and lack of access to healthcare.

The pandemic risks making these long-standing disparities even worse. As a result, in March 2020, the UN launched a “COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan” (GHRP), which asked for US$9.5 billion in its July 2020 update, to address the needs of the most vulnerable in 63 countries. As of February 2021, funding for the GHRP has only reached US$3.73 billion.

The GHRP consists of several UN and non-UN entities, including the Food and Agriculture Organization, United Nations Development Programme, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNICEF, World Food Programme, WHO, and the Red Cross. These entities have stepped up to address the most urgent humanitarian and socioeconomic needs caused by the pandemic. Despite their efforts under the GHRP in 2021, two-thirds of countries with an inter-agency Humanitarian Response Plan have received less humanitarian funding compared to 2020, despite the more severe waves of the pandemic in most of these countries in 2021.

Not only has the pandemic affected humanitarian operations, it also reversed numerous positive gains in sustainable development across UN program countries. Although Yemen has experienced more than five years of a deteriorating economic and humanitarian situation – in which about 80% of its population relies on humanitarian assistance – the UN withdrew numerous personnel due to COVID-19 and has had to reduce or close many programs because of a lack of funding. Consequently, Yemen is very close to total disaster.

Jordan is stuck in a similarly dire situation; it is one of the most water-scarce countries in the world and, as a humanitarian hub hosting the largest refugee population per capita of any country, Jordan’s resources are further strained.

The United States Agency for International Development has categorized Jordan’s water supply and sanitation standards as “severe”. Jordan’s dismal water supply and sanitation standards exacerbated the effects of the country’s drastic lockdown measures, which were designed to limit exposure to COVID-19 in highly concentrated refugee camps. For that reason, UNHCR had to reduce their operations teams within camps to minimize exposure while maintaining the necessary work.

According to the findings of “COVID-19 and its Effects on Humanitarian Aid,” which focused on Jordan, some humanitarian aid workers either found their work completely shut down or had to move to remote work. Some international organizations saw staff unable to start positions in the field or leave on mission due to border closures. Select NGOs (and local organizations) had government permission to continue activities during the lockdown, but some were forced to freeze operations that were not deemed essential.

Some interventions were able to continue through adaptation, such as partnering with different local organizations to conduct risk assessments virtually and with organizations that have the capacity to reach vulnerable populations. The collaboration between the Jordanian government, humanitarian aid organizations, local NGOs, the private sector (e.g., media and telecommunications companies), and Community Based Organizations, has been invaluable to the continued efforts of delivering aid to hard-to-reach communities and building the capacity of these local organizations.

The humanitarian aid workers participating in the aforementioned study explained that their organizations had been receiving less and less funding over the last couple of years. With the economic impact of COVID-19, it is expected that NGOs will have trouble attracting new donors and may have to depend on previous donors. One of the study’s participants revealed that their organization has not been able to attract any new donors since the onset of COVID-19.

As in the past, decreased funding has triggered greater competition between humanitarian organizations—a development not exactly sustainable, or conducive, to providing aid to the most vulnerable populations.

Yemen and Jordan bring to light the need for the international community to step up more than they have over the past 17 months to sustain humanitarian aid through COVID-19 recovery. Although the IMF has temporarily doubled the access to its emergency facilities to be able to meet increased demand for financial assistance from member counties during the crisis and has extended debt service relief among other actions, without the necessary scale up of humanitarian aid and the continuity of humanitarian programs or interventions, these actions will not have a positive impact as expected. As a middle power, Canada needs to step up as the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance reaches new highs.

What Has Canada Done?

With its G20 partners, Canada helped to design, and endorsed, the G20 Action Plan. This plan provides relief to the least-developed countries, with G20 and Paris Club members agreeing to suspend bilateral debt services payments for these countries. Since May 2020, Canada has provided more than $70 million in temporary debt service relief for the poorest countries with the possibility of providing an additional $33 million in relief through this initiative.

Canada joined other global leaders to launch the “COVID-19 Global Response,” which aims to help researchers and innovators develop solutions to test, treat, and protect people from the further spread of COVID-19 through a pledge of over $850 million. And recently Canada co-led a high-level event that looked ways to mobilizing the financing needed for COVID-19 response and recovery.

Through Canada’s “COVID-19 Economic Response Plan,” the federal government committed $180 million to help developing countries address the immediate humanitarian and development impacts of the pandemic.

Canada’s Budget 2021 allocates an additional $165 million in 2021-’22 to Global Affairs Canada to provide humanitarian assistance to vulnerable countries, including $80.3 million over two years to respond to the Venezuelan migrant and refugee crisis and $288.3 million (over three years) to respond to the Rohingya genocide.

This is in addition to the $1 billion increase to Canada’s loan commitment to the IMF’s Poverty Reduction and Growth Trust. Furthermore, to help alleviate financial strains from COVID-19, and enable the African Development Bank to maintain support for its client countries through the recovery, Budget 2021 commits to accelerate and complete Canada’s purchase of shares of the African Development Bank in 2022-‘23, rather than in 2027-‘28.

The dire state of humanitarian aid highlights the need for the international community to further its collective efforts, and to revive the positive gains made before the pandemic.

Even though Canada has contributed to responding to the COVID-19 crisis and to meeting growing humanitarian needs around the world, its contribution is minimal in comparison to the vast needs of developing countries. Significant contributions from other developed countries are needed for the best outcomes.


Blandine is a recent graduate of Carleton’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. She also holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Political Science from Carleton University.

Photo Credit: Basil D. Soufi

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