By Nick Cumming-Bruce
The United Nations has cut its appeal for humanitarian aid in the coming year by nearly 20%, saying that it has to focus on only the most urgent cases, even as the number of people facing conflict and climate emergencies grows sharply.
The move comes as the U.N. has so far received only about a third of the funding requested for this year. Against that backdrop, the organization says it has been forced to focus its appeal for 2024 on aid for those in only the most life-threatening circumstances.
About 300 million people will require urgent humanitarian assistance next year, according to calculations by U.N. agencies and about 1,900 partner organizations. Nonetheless, the U.N. on Monday asked for a total of $46 billion, compared with the $57 billion it sought in 2023.
“It’s not because there is no need,” Martin Griffiths, the U.N. aid chief, said of the reduced aid request. “The necessary support from the international community is not keeping pace with the needs.”
The number of people forced from their homes by conflict or climate emergencies is at record levels for this century, the U.N. said in its appeal. Some 258 million people in 58 countries who are facing armed violence, flooding or severe drought are now acutely short of food, including nearly 14 million children at imminent risk of death.
But despite extreme natural disasters this year, including earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, and Cyclone Freddy in Southern Africa, as well as wars in the Gaza Strip, Sudan and Ukraine, countries have failed to donate anywhere near the $57 billion target. Although donations always fall short of the total requested, funding for U.N. aid programs actually dropped in 2023 for the first time in 13 years — through the end of November, they had received a total of $20 billion, $4 billion less than the previous year.
That leaves the United Nations with impossible choices. In Syria, where a 13-year conflict is grinding on, the organization’s food program has cut the number of recipients by 40% and halved the rations provided. In Afghanistan, which is grappling with an economic crisis, the number of people receiving aid fell from 13 million to 3 million between May and November.
“The consequences are tragic,” the U.N. said in announcing the latest appeal.
After decisions that Griffiths acknowledged had caused sleepless nights, the United Nations and partner agencies produced a reduced budget for 2024 that will target only the most crucial, lifesaving needs.
High among priorities for 2024 will be Gaza, where Israel’s war with Hamas has displaced most of the enclave’s 2.2 million people and destroyed much of its housing and civilian infrastructure.
Fighting in Sudan, where 10 months of war have left 30 million people in need of support, means that country and the Middle East are expected to swallow close to a third of the total aid budget for the coming year.
The U.N. appeal also calls for $3.9 billion to aid Ukraine; $4 billion for Ethiopia, which is emerging from a civil war in the Tigray region; $3.2 billion for Afghanistan; and close to $1 billion for Myanmar, where conflict has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
Griffiths said that cutting the aid budget to address the most life-threatening cases required a commensurate effort from governments and other multilateral agencies, such as the World Bank, to meet wider humanitarian needs.
“If we do this, first of all, you need to respond as well,” he said in a briefing for reporters. “We can’t have an optional partnership with the development community.”
The United Nations opened its appeal in Doha, where the United Arab Emirates is hosting the COP28 climate conference, a move that underscored Griffiths’ hopes of widening the pool of donors and finding new sources of funding to take on some of the needs previously included in the U.N. humanitarian appeal. An agreement at the conference this month to set up a loss and damage fund to compensate the poorest and most vulnerable countries for the effects of climate change drew pledges of about $700 million in its first week.
Fundraising for the United Nations still promises to be a struggle. Funding for climate adaptation dropped 15% in 2022, the U.N. environment program reported last month. An event last week for the U.N.’s Central Emergency Response Fund that sought $1 billion for 2024 has so far led to pledges of just $419 million.
That figure points to the growing challenges of raising money for multilateral aid programs. European and North American countries typically make up the top 10 donors to the emergency response fund, and in 2023, they accounted for more than 80% of received contributions. China, the world’s second-biggest economy after the United States, gave under half a million dollars to the response fund, less than half the contribution of Iceland, with Beijing preferring to concentrate on bilateral pledges that give it diplomatic leverage. Saudi Arabia had promised, but not delivered, $1 million, and Singapore, one of the 15 wealthiest countries, gave $50,000.