Helena Neave

Helena Neave

Private Client Advisor
Charities Aid Foundation

E: philanthropy@cafonline.org


How can donors best respond during humanitarian emergencies?

As events unfolded in Beirut, Lebanon, in August 2020, the issue of how best for donors to respond to humanitarian emergencies came once again to the fore. Current trends suggest that more people, especially those in developing countries, will continue to be affected by emergencies as they become more frequent and complex owing to unplanned urbanisation, underdevelopment, poverty and climate change.

How to determine which emergency to support?

Humanitarian emergencies often prompt several appeals by different organisations but how do you decide which to support?

For some a prior connection to a region or country will guide them, while for others it may be  the scale of media and public attention that the emergency is garnering  Either way, it is helpful to consider those  communities or countries  which are often neglected relative to the scale of the issues that they are facing. 

Humanitarian emergencies do not all receive the same media attention. Many true disasters do not garner the attention of the international community, in turn affecting their ability to draw donations. . This is not infrequent and is often related to geography and access issues, but it does result in big differences in how humanitarian aid is allocated.

To look at recent disasters listed on Relief Web, which of these were you aware of? All caused billions of dollars of damage and affected the lives and livelihoods of thousands:

  • A polio outbreak in Sudan in August 2020
  • An oil spill in Mauritius in August 2020
  • The Beirut port explosion in August 2020

We also need to be aware of the role that our behavioural biases may play in influencing the appeal or humanitarian emergencies to which we respond.

A notable bias is the ‘bandwagon effect’, a very human response but one that raises questions about whether the response is proportionate to the crisis. The Notre Dame fire in Paris is a recent example, as high profile French businessmen each pledged millions, in addition to the other donations from the public and other businesses. Ten days after the fire, at least £650 million had been raised, with suggestions raised that the donations could surpass the actual cost of repairs. In turn, there was criticism that this money could be better spent for other issues.

With this in mind, it is always best practice to consider how well funded a crisis is in relation to the scale of the problem. Resources like Relief Web can help identify your decision-making.

It is also worth taking a moment to interrogate your reasons for supporting an appeal to determine if you have perhaps inadvertently joined a bandwagon that does not necessarily provide the best fit for what you hope to achieve in your giving.

What type of support is needed?

Whenever well reported humanitarian crises occur, they invariably prompt an outpouring of volunteering and donation of in-kind goods. The explosion in Beirut in August 2020 was no exception to this, nor is the refugee crisis in Southern Europe. We suggest that when looking at which appeals or organisations to support, you check to see whether their response incorporates any of the following.

Cash based programs

Traditionally, humanitarian aid provided in crisis-affected areas has been through in-kind payments via physical commodities such as food, shelter, water, tents, and more.

However, the nature of humanitarian crises are changing, leaving more people in need for longer periods of time. Cash transfers can be delivered safely, efficiently and accountably. They are one of the most studied and rigorously evaluated humanitarian tools of the last decade. Evidence has shown that beneficiaries spend cash sensibly, and are not likely to spend it on temptation goods such as alcohol or tobacco. Despite this, cash based programmes currently only account for 6% of humanitarian aid.

Charities responding to these crises will also know if, as in some situations, local markets are too weak or supply cannot respond, in which case cash transfers may not be appropriate and can lead to inflation.

Transitional shelter

Shelter is a key component that not only provides a family a “home”, but it also security, dignity, and protection from ill heath and poverty. However, emergency shelter should not just to be life-saving, but also set the path for sustainable reconstruction and be suitable for local conditions. With that in mind, transitional shelters are a solution to this challenge that humanitarian aid agencies have struggled with for years. They fall between a tent and a full house and last up to three years. They also use local materials and building techniques, which allows disaster survivors to improve shelters over time as they will be familiar with the materials and construction techniques.

Providing adequate and appropriate shelter is not a one size fits all approach. We recommend supporting organisations that focus on providing shelter that are based on  the context in the country, type of disaster, local capacities, scale, and resources.

Gender based violence (GBV)

Gender based violence (GBV) is common in humanitarian emergencies of all kinds as existing gender inequalities are exacerbated by chaos and in conflict emergencies.

GBV’s impact on longer term mental and physical health is recognised as an international public health issue. This does not take into consideration the societal impacts on the victims due to the associated negative stigma they may face after they have suffered GBV.GBV is systematically underestimated and underreported and reliable data  limited, which in turn leads to a lack of investment in programs addressing GBV.

We recommend you support organisations that incorporate prevention of and response to GBV in their immediate emergency response strategy.

Monitoring and evaluation (M&E)

Monitoring and evaluation (M&E) has become more prominent throughout the humanitarian aid sector as donors and governments have called for an increase in accountability amongst humanitarian aid agencies. M&E are two important components t hat enable progress to be tracked, facilitate effective decision making, identify best practice, and mistakes to be learned from.

We recommend that when supporting your organisation of choice, that you do not restrict your funding solely to the programme or appeal, but also toward M&E. In doing so, you will allow organisations to learn and adapt, which will enable them to be better prepared for future disasters.

Is it better to support global or local organisations?

When it comes to supporting emergency appeals, many clients are torn between supporting local organisations, or large international aid agencies. It can feel like there is a choice, or that one is better than the other. In reality, both types of organisation have a role to play.

Unsurprisingly, local organisations are usually the first responders. However, it is important that local actors continue to play a role throughout all stages of humanitarian response because they invariably have better access and deeper networks with those affected, and a better understanding of the history, culture and geopolitical realities.

However, an international response is required when local agencies lack capacity or technical expertise. The goal of international agencies and those who support them , should be to increase the investment into those already on the ground locally and improve partnerships and coordination between local and international relief efforts.

Some Final Thoughts

Our aim here is to offer some guidance when considering your giving plans in response to a humanitarian crisis.  By taking a moment to review elements such as transitional shelter, cash transfers or whether to support a local or international relief effort, you will hopefully emerge well prepared to offer the best possible help to communities in their time of dire need.

Your Private Client Manager, and the Private Client Advisory Team, are always ready to help you identify organisations that meet these criteria if you wish. Our CAF Global Alliance offices in over eight countries have local contact and networks on the ground that we can tap into when relevant.

Contact us on 03000 123 028 or email privateclients@cafonline.org