As this year's United Nations General Assembly draws to a close on Friday, 22 September, we need to find new resolve for a massive push to meet the 2030 deadline for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
We have heard this week how, at the halfway point of the 15-year plan to achieve these 17 targets for ensuring that our planet and all its people are protected, we are at risk of not succeeding. This knowledge must not lead to despair, but to renewed fire in our souls.
One of the ways the global community can do this is to look at how we fund humanitarian development organisations. They are at the forefront of the charge for humanity to do better.
Those of us who manage humanitarian assistance organisations face rapidly rising demands for our services at the same time as food prices and other elements of inflation are soaring worldwide. There has rarely been such a need for humanitarian assistance.
Take as an example what should be the simple act of ensuring that everyone, everywhere has enough to eat.
With climate change ravaging the world, and war and drought displacing unprecedented numbers of people, the UN estimates that this year a record 339-million people will need humanitarian assistance and protection – a significant increase from 274-million people at the beginning of 2022. That’s one in 23 people, or just under a quarter of all people alive today.
But, adequate funding remains a problem – especially if the end goal of our efforts is to see survivors of these disasters not only recover but build back stronger, and be enabled to sustainably provide for themselves, or even better, to actually thrive.
Sustainable development requires long-term funding that gives projects a real chance at being transformative.
However, philanthropic donors often prefer to fund specific projects – which are frequently short-term in nature, only meeting immediate needs or addressing a certain issue – instead of contributing undesignated or loosely designated funding towards an organisation’s theory of change and the long-term transformation of communities.
It’s easy to understand why. For donors, project-specific funding, ring-fenced and short-term, is a win. It’s easier to pinpoint exactly where the funds have gone, which is great for showcasing corporate social responsibility spending and satisfying auditors. Also, funding a particular project makes it simpler for the donor to pick an initiative that aligns with their own goals.
These advantages to project-specific funding are important to us in the humanitarian sector too, but the trend towards short-term funding that has been documented by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has downsides.
The thing is, as welcome as any funding is, the growing focus on short-term funding can inadvertently affect the ability to ensure real impact, as it often results in isolated projects that can’t be well leveraged with other interventions to ensure a multiplication of impact. Instead, if we’re not careful, short-term funding can contribute towards building bridges to nowhere, rather than building blocks to community resilience, transformation and ultimate thriving. This focus on short-term funding can also affect an organisation’s viability.
In a nutshell, while short-term funding is often good for emergency responses that save lives – and life-saving must always be prioritised – unfortunately it can fall short when it comes to saving livelihoods and creating long-lasting impacts. As the saying goes: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” For humanitarian assistance to go beyond an emergency response to truly transform lives, it needs broad-based longer-term funding – this allows us to feed those who critically need a fish to survive long enough to learn how to fish, and also allows for the fishing training to be truly effective long-term.
The ultimate aim of humanitarian assistance must always be to leave a community or individual able to live a fulfilling life without assistance. For this, humanitarian assistance organisations need long-term funding that is not ring-fenced. While it may seem a tough ask, this is the type of funding that facilitates well-planned, timely and effective responses and development interventions.
It also helps us procure and transport the resources we need to have on hand, so that when emergencies happen we’re in a better position to respond quickly and effectively. Often, time is of the essence if lives are to be saved.
In addition, once the acute phase of an emergency has subsided, we need to be able to secure the resources that will assist communities’ recovery and development, and champion interventions that have long-term impacts and that yield benefits beyond the lifetime of a project. While this can be covered by short-term funding, a timely response is also needed here – and it can take longer than you think to secure short-term funding. This makes having a reserve of general funding important for agility.
Building a stable humanitarian assistance organisation in a complex and ambiguous world such as this one is difficult, but if we are to truly empower people out of the need for assistance, organisational and financial stability is important.
To truly empower people, we need professional staff to expertly craft interventions that will deliver lasting change. These experts need to be paid commensurate salaries, and they need good facilities and equipment so that they can do their work effectively and efficiently. In the end, expert staff using good facilities and equipment can save time and money, not to mention lives and livelihoods.
Make no mistake, we cherish every cent that we get, project-specific or not, but it is the unfettered core funding we receive that truly underpins the strength and agility of organisations to provide the world’s growing numbers of vulnerable people with the services they need.
If we do our jobs well, the number of vulnerable people in the world – and thus the need for humanitarian assistance – will lessen. We should see communities sustainably providing for themselves and ultimately thriving. That is, after all, our goal.
Isak Pretorius is CEO of ForAfrika, the largest African humanitarian assistance organisation, which reached 3.1-million people across eight African countries in 2022.