What do the numbers say? Three key stories from the 2022 State of the Humanitarian System report

6 min readSep 6, 2022

By Jennifer Doherty

The 2022 edition of The State of the Humanitarian System report draws upon a range of qualitative and quantitative data to describe the size and shape of the humanitarian system and to assess its performance between 2018 and 2021. The report also compares that performance to the 15-year period over which ALNAP has been systematically assessing the system. As a result, it is a rich text covering multiple important themes. In this blog, we zoom out to see what the numbers tell us about system performance in three key stories.

Story 1: There are more people in need of humanitarian assistance, but plateauing funding and access challenges are making it harder to meet their needs

The number of people needing support in this period grew at a high rate due to conflict, climate-related disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic. Figure 1 shows that based on UN-coordinated appeals, from 2018 the number of people in need grew by 87% to 255.1m people in 2021, with a COVID-19 induced peak in 2020. While there were new conflicts, such as the Tigrayan crisis in Ethiopia, a significant amount of people in need reside in countries affected by protracted crises. Twelve countries have had humanitarian appeals every year from 2012 to 2021, with the total financial requirements more than doubling over the period for these protracted crises.

Figure 1: Number of people in need, 2018–2021

While needs have been high, not all people affected by crises have been reached by humanitarian aid. In 2021 the humanitarian system reached around 106m people — 46% of those estimated to be in need of support, and 69% of those who had been targeted to receive assistance.

Some of those gaps in coverage were caused by funding constraints. Figure 2 shows the disparity between the financial requirements of UN appeals and what has actually been funded. At the 2020 peak of people in need of humanitarian assistance, appeal requirements totalled a hefty $39.3bn but only 51% was met.

Figure 2: Requirements and funding, UN-coordinated appeals, 2012–2021

Indeed, while overall international humanitarian assistance has almost doubled from $16.4bn in 2012 to $31.3bn in 2021, we have seen a plateauing of funding in recent years and finances are not keeping up with the growth of needs. The annual rate of growth between 2012 and 2018 averaged at 10%, by 2021 this had reduced to 2.5%. These global figures, however, hide variations in funding by appeal — as displayed in Figure 7 below — the needs of crisis-affected people in some countries are better funded than others.

In addition to financial constraints, this period saw practical challenges stopping humanitarian aid from reaching some of the people who needed it most. A rise in authoritarianism, COVID-19 restrictions, anti-terrorism laws and conflict all made reaching and supporting affected populations more challenging. One grim manifestation of these challenges is the rise of attacks on aid workers as shown in Figure 3. The number of reported victims of attacks on aid workers has grown every year from 2015 to 2020. The majority of these victims — 95% in 2020 — were national staff.

Figure 3: National and international victims of attacks on aid workers, 2015–2020

Story 2: The range of actors involved in humanitarian action is evolving but the international system is slow to create meaningful change

The COVID-19 pandemic reduced the presence of international staff in crisis affected countries and made the international humanitarian system much more aware of the vital role played by local actors who had typically been conceived as on the periphery of the system. Some of these entities are displayed in the yellow circles in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Insights from entities who also play a role in humanitarian response

Yet a stronger recognition of these different actors and a greater reliance on local/national NGOs during the pandemic has not led to meaningful change in the system. Commitments made in the Grand Bargain to provide more direct funding to local and national NGOs have largely not been met as Figure 5 demonstrates. The proportion of direct funding to local and national actors remained low between 2018 and 2021. It peaked at 3% in 2020, as COVID-19 increased the reliance of international actors on local capacities, and fell to a low of 1.2% in 2021.

Figure 5: Proportion of direct funding to national and local actors compared with other organisation types, 2018–2021

While more funding reaches local and national NGOs indirectly via international organisations — as shown in Figure 6 — this remains both limited and hard to assess due to lack of accurate records. Available data indicates that indirect funding followed a similar pattern to direct funding, with a peak during the COVID-19 pandemic and a decrease in the following year.

Figure 6: Total direct and indirect funding to national and local NGOs, 2018–2021

Coupled with slow progress on sharing resources with local actors, meaningful shifts in decision-making and power structures were also lacking. Only 27% of surveyed humanitarian practitioners thought the extent of local and national NGO power sharing in decision-making forums was ‘good’ or ‘excellent.’

Story 3: The voices of affected populations are key to assessing the system and paint a mixed picture of performance

Figure 7 provides a view of the estimated financial need per person in different crises and the extent to which the system reached that target. While recognising the cost of reaching crisis affected populations in different countries will vary (based upon level of need, access, market conditions and the way agencies make these estimations), we can see that the system also varied in its ability to meet those costs in different contexts.

Figure 7: Requirements per person targeted and funding per person reached in UN-coordinated appeals by country, 2021

Yet this chart gives us only financial values and does not tell us how effectively people’s needs were covered in reality and whether the type of aid provided was actually what people needed and wanted. For those questions, we need to understand the perspectives of those people. Our survey of crisis-affected populations revealed that gaps in need and satisfaction remained despite receiving some aid. While 56% of respondents said they were satisfied with the quality of aid:

  • just 34% thought aid met their most pressing needs
  • only 40% thought the aid they received was enough
  • just 36% thought aid reached the people who needed it the most.

These figures clearly indicate that from the experience of crisis affected people, the system has significant room for improvement.

The State of the Humanitarian System 2022 looks at the period from January 2018 to December 2021, as well as drawing comparisons with our previous editions to take a 15-year long view. It assesses the size, shape and performance of the humanitarian system against key criteria over time. It is independent and based on evidence from frontline practitioners, crisis-affected populations, academics, policy-makers and donors. It draws on a mixture of qualitative and quantitative data from primary and secondary sources, including evaluation syntheses, quantitative reviews, surveys, interviews and focus group discussions, and longitudinal analysis of our unique 12-year dataset. Feedback and research outputs from affected populations form a significant part of the report.




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