Helena Neave

Helena Neave

Former Private Client Advisory Manager

Charities Aid Foundation


How can donors best respond during humanitarian emergencies?

Current trends suggest that more people, especially those in developing countries, will continue to experience humanitarian crises. They’re becoming more frequent and complex due to unplanned urbanisation, underdevelopment, poverty and climate change. This leads us to ask ourselves how best we can respond.

Determining which emergency 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 has gained. Either way, it’s helpful to consider those communities that are often neglected compared to the scale of the issues they are facing.

Not all crises receive the same media attention. Many don’t get the attention of the international community, which limits their ability to attract donations. This is often related to geography and access issues, and results in big differences in how humanitarian aid is allocated.

Take a look at recent disasters listed on Relief Web, which of these were you aware of? All caused vast amounts of damage and affected the lives and livelihoods of thousands.

We should also be aware of the role that our behavioural biases may play in influencing which crises we respond to.

A common bias is the ‘bandwagon effect’. It’s a very human response but can raise questions about whether the response is proportionate to the crisis. The Notre Dame fire in Paris is one example. High profile individuals each pledged millions, spurring donations from the public and businesses. Ten days after the fire, the appeal had raised at least £650 million, with some suggesting the donations could surpass the cost of repairs. In turn, there was criticism that this money could be better spent on other issues.

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

It is also worth taking a moment to question your reasons for supporting an appeal. This can help identify if you have inadvertently jumped on a bandwagon that might not necessarily be the best fit for your giving goals.

Identifying the type of support needed

Well reported crises usually prompt an immediate outpouring of volunteering and donations of in-kind goods. The war in Ukraine was no exception to this. But this might not be the best way to support those in need.

When looking for appeals to support, we suggest checking to see whether their response incorporates any of the following.

Cash-based programmes

Humanitarian aid has traditionally been through in-kind payments: goods like food, water, medicine and tents.

But 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 evaluated humanitarian tools in recent years. Evidence has shown that those in crisis spend cash sensibly, and not 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 local markets are too weak and cash transfers may lead to inflation. If this is the case the charities will offer other options.

Transitional shelter

Shelter is a key component that not only provides a family a temporary home, but security, dignity, and protection from ill health and poverty. But emergency shelter should not just be life-saving, but set the path for sustainable reconstruction.

With that in mind, transitional shelters are a solution to the challenge 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, allowing survivors to use local knowledge to improve shelters over time.

Providing adequate and appropriate shelter is not a one-size-fits-all approach. We recommend supporting organisations providing shelter based on the local conditions and capacities, type of disaster, scale, and resources.

Gender based violence (GBV)

Gender-based violence (GBV) is common in humanitarian emergencies of all kinds. This is because chaos in conflict and emergencies can exacerbate existing gender inequalities.

The impact of gender-based violence on long-term mental and physical health is recognised as an international public health issue. This does not take into consideration the societal impacts on victims due to the associated negative stigma they may face. It is a systematically underestimated and underreported issue, with limited reliable data. This in turn leads to a lack of investment in programmes addressing gender-based violence.

We recommend supporting organisations incorporating prevention and response to gender-based violence in their immediate emergency response strategy.

Monitoring and evaluation

Monitoring and evaluation has become more prominent as donors and governments call for an increase in accountability amongst humanitarian aid agencies. Monitoring and evaluation are important in tracking progress, enabling effective decision making, identifying best practice, and learning from mistakes.

We recommend not restricting your funding solely to a charity’s programme or appeal, but also towards monitoring and evaluation. In doing so, you will allow organisations to learn and adapt, helping them to be better prepared for future disasters.

Supporting global or local organisations

Many people can be 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.

Local organisations are usually the first responders. But it is important that they continue to play a role in all stages of humanitarian response. They have better access and networks with those affected, and a better understanding of the history, culture and geopolitical realities.

An international response is required when local agencies lack capacity or technical expertise. International agencies should work to increase investment into those already on the ground, and improve coordination between local and international relief efforts.

When a crisis hits, knowing how to support those affected can seem overwhelming. But by supporting organisations that incorporate the above measures, you can provide the best possible support in times of need.

You can also think about incorporating long-term emergency response into your giving strategy.

If you’d like help with developing your giving strategy or identifying which organisations to support, we’re here to help.