In a recent speech to his governing board, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres made an intriguing but little-noticed proposal — that the humanitarian response to major emergencies should be partly funded in the future by assessed rather than voluntary contributions.
But what exactly did he mean by that?
Since its establishment in 1951, UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, has had to beg for almost every dollar that it spends in protecting, assisting and finding lasting solutions for the world’s displaced people. Each year, the organization issues a Global Appeal, asking governments and other donors to contribute to the UNHCR budget. When new and unexpected crises erupt, UNHCR is obliged to launch an emergency appeal, hoping that donor states are willing and able to provide UNHCR with additional resources.
There are a number of reasons why this longstanding system of resource mobilization has become an increasingly inadequate one.
First, emergency appeals are almost never fully funded, and in many cases the response falls well short of what is required to provide refugees and other displaced people with their basic needs. The current refugee emergency prompted by the armed conflict in the Central African Republic, for example, has received only one third of the funding requested by UNHCR. At a time when so many other crises have erupted — Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine — humanitarian funds seem certain to become even more tightly stretched.
Second, the voluntary system of funding encourages states to earmark their contributions to UNHCR. Rather than providing the organization with core funds that it can use in the way it thinks best, donor states are able to specify the countries and activities they wish to support. In 2012, for example, only a quarter of the funds received by UNHCR came in the ‘unrestricted’ category. The evident disadvantage of this arrangement is that some countries and activities are more popular with donors than others, leaving UNHCR unable to prioritize those activities which it considers to be the most urgent.
A third reason for considering alternative ways of humanitarian funding relates to the very limited number of states that make significant contributions to the UNHCR budget. According to the data from 2012, more than 70 per cent of the organization’s budget was provided by just 10 donor states, led by the United States, member states of the European Union and Japan. While the Syria crisis has prompted ‘non-traditional’ donor states in the Middle East to increase their contributions to UNHCR, the organization’s funding base remains a very narrow one.
Fourth, the voluntary system of funding for emergency operations inevitably leads to inter-agency competition within the UN system, with UNHCR vying for resources with organizations such as UNICEF and the World Food Program. While such competition arguably acts as a stimulus for operational efficiency — donor states are always looking for the best value for money from the agencies they fund — it can also hinder coordination and encourage humanitarian agencies to spend considerable amounts of time and money in the effort to gain greater visibility.
As a result of these issues, recent years have witnessed some significant developments with respect to humanitarian financing in general, especially with the establishment of ‘pooled funding’ arrangements such as the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF). Managed by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, CERF collects funds from donors on a continual basis, setting them aside for the immediate use by humanitarian agencies when new emergencies strike. As well as disbursing funds very rapidly, CERF is also able to target resources at the world’s most neglected and underfunded crises.
In his recent speech, Antonio Guterres suggested that the UN should now consider the establishment of a ‘super-CERF’ which would provide UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies with immediate funding when particularly large-scale crises erupt. As with the UN’s peacekeeping operations and other core functions of the world body, the super-CERF would be funded not by voluntary contributions, but by levies on member states based on their national income.
Such a fund would not be a panacea to the problem of humanitarian financing. As one analysis concludes, “arrears are a chronic problem for the United Nations. Many poorer nations cannot afford their full assessment. Other countries…have delayed or withheld payments for reasons unrelated to their ability to pay.”
Even so, the Guterres proposal has a number of important attractions. It would help to improve the quantity and timeliness of humanitarian funding. It would make such funding more predictable and enable the most urgent humanitarian needs to be met. And it would increase the number of states contributing to major emergency operations, thereby reinforcing the principle that the international community as a whole has a responsibility towards people whose lives and livelihoods are at grave risk.