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UK bilateral spending on humanitarian aid has steadily increased over the past seven years, with a particularly rapid increase around 2013-14. The vast majority of this spending goes on emergency response (94% in 2016), although the amounts going into both reconstruction and disaster prevention and preparedness have also been increasing in recent years.

There was controversy in late-2017 when the UK could not count its support to Overseas Territories affected by Hurricane Irma as aid spending. However, following UK Government lobbying within the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee, this looks much less likely to happen again in future.

In September 2017, DFID published an update of the UK Government’s 2011 humanitarian policy. Now called the ‘Humanitarian Reform Policy’, then Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel said in the foreword:

The global humanitarian system helps enormous numbers of people and saves millions of lives. But it is clear that it is being stretched to breaking point. Conflict is currently driving the largest population movements since World War Two. We are living in the age of protracted crisis with 142 million people now in need of humanitarian aid. We need to break the cycle of dependence and despair for millions of people displaced by years of conflict, persecution, violence and human rights violations.

Need is great and growing, but resources have not grown at the same pace and there is now a funding gap of $14 billion. Being good enough is not going to be good enough given the scale and severity of the challenge ahead. We urgently need a more efficient, effective humanitarian system for the 21st Century that can meet vulnerable people’s long-term needs. This needs to be a global effort.

At the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, the world agreed a clear vision for a radically improved humanitarian system where our responses are faster and more effective. I have encouraged the UN Secretary General to pursue an ambitious UN reform programme, and humanitarian reform is at the heart of that agenda. Britain is a great, global nation. This policy sets out the UK’s vision for change on humanitarian action. It describes innovations in the UK’s humanitarian response and how we will take forward an ambitious agenda to reform the international system. It will help build a more secure and more prosperous world, which makes our own country safer and stronger as well.

Responding to the new policy, the Overseas Development Institute welcomed many elements but expressed concerns about others. It set out these concerns as follows:

  • A renewed commitment to work through ‘neutral and independent partners’ will continue to constrain funding to local responders. For a local actor in the midst of a long-running conflict, it is difficult to imagine what neutrality and independence would look like and how such an actor could operate under a strict interpretation of these principles. As research by the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) indicates, UK anti-terror measures aimed at curbing funding to proscribed organisations has imposed stringent beneficiary and partner vetting requirements in places like Syria and Somalia. In the effort to reduce the risk of aid falling into the wrong hands, many international non-governmental organisations have decided that partnerships with local actors are not worth the risk, limiting the funding options of those best-placed to respond.
  • There is a danger that the emphasis on building the resilience and preparedness of affected people will be lost under the policy’s objective to make UK responses ‘bigger, better and faster’. Permanent bodies such as Emergency Medical Teams (EMTs) feature prominently: just one of a growing number of cross-governmental initiatives intended to utilise UK capacity and expertise to respond rapidly to crises. Yet while offering additional support, there is a risk that with such a ‘hammer’, very different humanitarian contexts start to look like a series of ‘nails’ that can receive a standardised intervention. If the UK is truly committed to reform, it must also demonstrate a greater willingness to ‘let go’ of areas of humanitarian action it currently dominates, to allow local actors to take a lead in organising their own response.
  • The policy’s welcome focus on displacement is undermined by the language of containment: of keeping affected people within their own regions. Initiatives such as the Jordan Compact and Wilton Park Principles – that address the issue of protracted displacement – present a persuasive case for using long-term, developmental approaches in support of host communities and countries. But the absence of any mention of the UK and its own responsibilities as a potential host country stands in stark contrast. Migration is presented as a regional issue and ironically, on the issue of the European migrant crisis where the UK itself is a ‘local’ humanitarian actor, there are few commitments.

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