Humanitarian aid, explained: 5 things to know
What does it mean to be a humanitarian? And why is humanitarian aid important? Here, we break down the what, who, where, when, why, and how of the work we do.Read More
Humanitarian work is complicated, even though the goals are very simple. Here, we bust 10 humanitarian myths, while noting the work that organizations like Concern are taking on to do better by the communities we serve.
Google “humanitarian aid doesn't work” and you’ll be faced with over 54 million search results. Some of the most popular arguments include:
That last bit, at least, is true. Humanitarian aid isn’t designed to be a long-term solution. It’s only meant to help communities bridge resource gaps during emergencies. Unfortunately, as more emergencies have become complex and protracted in recent years (especially due to conflict and climate change), aid work has likewise become more long-term.
Like any industry, there are efficient organizations that do meaningful work that can be measured in terms of quality and reach, and there are less-efficient organizations that do little for the communities they serve. However, the sector continues to grow and develop under the guidance and guidelines set by organizations like the United Nations and World Health Organization. Many organizations (Concern included) specialize in not creating dependencies, focusing our programming around solutions that can be carried on independently after we’ve left an area.
There are also challenges in delivering aid, including questions of access and reaching the people who need it most. You can learn more about all of this in our humanitarian aid explainer.
There’s a grain of truth in here: In the early days of humanitarian intervention, many offered assistance tied to a larger agenda, and did so without fully understanding the communities and cultures in which they were working. Tragically, we still see headlines along these lines today.
Today, however, many nonprofits — Concern included — operate with a different MO, prioritizing local and indigenous knowledge, working in partnership with local organizations, and engaging communities to be the architects of their own solutions. Many people are able to break the cycle of poverty, they simply need an organization to provide them with the right resources and support to do so. What’s more, the majority of our country staff members grew up in the communities they now serve, while also bringing backgrounds and expertise in agriculture, climate change, and maternal and child health to the table.
Finally, we also constantly evaluate our projects and programs to ensure that the goals we have for each initiative are being met in a way that can be both quantified and qualified.
It can be a competitive field: Getting funding is a challenge for most humanitarian organizations, whether it’s individual donations or government and corporate grants. As crises become more complex the longer they continue, the issues become more difficult to solve. Infrastructure collapses during protracted civil war. By the time a food shortage reaches famine levels, the health and nutrition interventions that can save lives require more resources.
It can be more expensive for a larger, international organization to enter a country. In some cases, there are even local nonprofits already addressing the needs of their communities. This is why it’s important for any organization to consider local priorities and knowledge and form a plan of action before going in and setting up a response. Concern, for instance, spent over a year collecting data and conducting studies before forming a plan of action for our work in Burkina Faso (which began in 2021).
One key thing that an international NGO can bring to a new country, however, is funding and other resources that come with being a larger humanitarian organization. Often, Concern acts as a conduit for funding — a type of proxy donor based on established relationships with governments and foundations. We can also take what we’ve learned from similar interventions in other countries, connecting regional partners that specialize in key areas (such as South Africa-based Sonke Gender Justice).
The ideal for Concern, and many organizations like us, is to eventually work ourselves out of a job in the countries we enter, turning over operations to local partners.
Again, this isn’t completely false: There are nonprofits that put a lot of their funding towards executive staff and costs of operation. However, these organizations are the exception, not the rule. It’s also helpful to look at nonprofits by sector for a true sense of numbers: many of the nonprofits with the highest-paid CEOs are in completely separate sectors like healthcare and the performing arts. (As the organization CharityWatch puts it, “high salaries do not necessarily indicate inefficiencies just as low salaries are not always beneficial.”)
Most reputable organizations, including Concern, will be transparent about their finances and how your money is spent. At Concern, for example, $0.93 of every dollar raised goes directly into our programs in 25 countries around the world.
When done right, an NGO’s budget for fundraising and marketing can pay for itself — and then some. We know that when you donate to a nonprofit, you want your money to go directly to the cause that’s being served. But in order to compete for funding in today’s market, we need to be able to put some of our funding into advertising, digital marketing, and fundraising. These costs aim to expand our funding, not take away from it.
At Concern, we use analytics, internal and external expertise, and market research to smartly invest the funding allocated for these purposes. When this goes right, the $100 put towards boosting a post on Facebook can result in $1,000 of donations. As Dan Pallotta explains in his TEDtalk, the percentage of donations that go towards administrative costs don’t take away from the cause — they are part of the cause.
Poverty and its causes are political. For an organization working to end extreme poverty, remaining un-opinionated or apolitical is an impossibility. That doesn’t mean that we will throw our hat into the ring on every topic, or align with a certain political agenda. We also don’t show any political bias when delivering humanitarian aid.
However, we recognize the role that politics at the local, national, and international level play in both maintaining poverty and — ultimately — ending it. Our solutions to hunger, for example, can only go so far at the program level. Conflict is one of the leading causes of hunger and poverty today, and ending that will require political action to forge peace and maintain stability. Likewise, issues like gender equality — which have become politicized over the years — are equally non-negotiable when it comes to sustainably breaking down the systemic barriers towards everyone having the ability to live with economic independence and financial stability.
Concern works at both the community and collective level with regards to advocacy and equity. While we respect local traditions, that doesn’t mean that we don’t challenge discriminatory beliefs in the communities we serve. Programs like our Graduation model have gender equality training built into the process. Likewise, we have a dedicated team of advocacy professionals who speak to governments in the United States, United Kingdom, and Ireland about the work we do and the need for higher-income countries to invest in proven solutions to assist lower-income countries.
It’s not that we set out to fail. But not every solution we propose for a given challenge will be a 100% success. Humanitarian aid and development work are scientific experiments. There are plenty of projects (most of which are small scale) we’ve tried in given communities that didn’t lead to the expected results, even with robust research, data, and expert guidance on our side. This doesn’t mean we’re harming the people we work with, we just might not see the change in their situations that we expected. Sometimes an initiative that’s a success in one country or community is a bust in another.
However, we aren’t going to be able to make real progress towards ending poverty if we don’t have room to experiment and break with tradition. In the late 1990s, for example, the traditional health center-based approach to treating childhood malnutrition was, at the time, the best option we had. But it still wasn’t working as well as it could be. Concern co-developed what was, at the time, a revolutionary — and controversial! — alternative. This was a bold experiment, one that was initially shunned by experts at the UN level. However, it received early support from partners like Malawi’s Ministry of Health. Today, Community Management of Acute Malnutrition (aka CMAM) is now recognised by the UN as the gold standard in malnutrition treatment and has saved the lives of millions.
We may all be vying for the same donations, but more often than not, humanitarian organizations and NGOs work together in the work that we do, based on individual expertise. For example, with CMAM, Concern initially partnered with Dr. Steve Collins and his humanitarian research organization, Valid to design a solution to the traditional model. In addition to other operational partnerships such as UNICEF, the success of CMAM was largely dependent on funding from IrishAid and USAID, as well as partnerships with several national ministries of health.
While NGOs officially operate independently of any government, the efficacy of our work relies on our solutions being sustainable and scalable. This is why we often engage with government ministries like health and education when piloting new programs and solutions. In some cases, solutions that were initially developed within Concern, such as Chipatala cha pa Foni — a hotline and text messaging service for pregnant women and families of babies and young children in Malawi — have now been taken over by governments in order to be more widely available.
We often talk about forgotten humanitarian crises, many of which disappear from newspapers shortly after they begin. But even emergencies that are consistently on the front pages and in the forefronts of our minds can suffer from crisis fatigue. This is when donations (at both an individual level and on the level of government and corporate grants) begin to lag in response to an emergency
It’s a common marketing strategy for nonprofits to ask for a donation by contextualizing it as just pennies a day to save a person’s life. In some ways, this isn’t untrue: A course of treatment for acute child malnutrition, for example, costs a little under $50 and could save a child’s life. If you were to make an annual donation of $50 to Concern, that would amount to just under $0.14 per day.
But numbers don’t always tell the whole story, and it’s easy to lose the meaning in reducing a donation down to the smallest amount possible. We’ve seen this happen so often in humanitarian ads that we’re now seeing parodies of those ads. There are real costs to ending hunger, poverty, and the issues that cause them, even at the individual level. And no amount of support at the individual and family level will truly solve these issues if there isn’t also substantial support coming from governments.
In that context, it’s understandably hard to believe that your individual donation may affect change. $50 is a drop in the bucket when it comes to setting a new standard or creating a new government service. But even a small donation can have an impact and save lives, whether it’s providing a course of treatment for malnutrition or even a simple mosquito net.
The solutions to poverty run both ways. A multi-million-euro investment can create a new system for managing a chronic issue over the long term. But even a few dollars can change someone’s life by funding school supplies or the seeds to start a kitchen garden, and these solutions can get delivered more quickly. We need both to succeed in ending poverty.