Looking for a flood of aid
October 04, 2010
The recent floods in Pakistan remind us how important it is for humanitarian agencies to have the ability to respond swiftly and sufficiently to crises. In one of the worst natural disasters to hit Pakistan in decades, the international community was slow to respond with aid, funding just 36 percent of the United Nations' emergency relief operation two weeks after flooding began. Because humanitarian agencies have limited flexibility to act until donations are made, they rely on the media to accurately portray the situation's magnitude and donor governments to commit funds quickly. This can lead to slower-than-ideal response times, affecting millions of people in need.

Financial tools can help. In Feeding the World's Hungry: Fostering an Efficient and Responsive Food Access Pipeline, we examined the issues that humanitarian agencies confront again and again -- how to get assistance to those who need it the most in the fastest and most efficient way possible. The unpredictability associated with when donations will arrive and how much will be available prevents agencies from using their funds most efficiently.

Making funds more predictable could go a long way toward improving the current system. We suggested increasing predictability by modeling funding for humanitarian assistance after the International Funding Facility for Immunisation (IFFIm), which issues bonds backed by donor commitments so funds are available immediately when need arises. Other solutions, including the institution of a multi-year funding structure (like that used by the World Bank's International Development Association) or getting donors to guarantee a certain level of funding, could go a long way toward increasing the flexibility of these agencies' operations and improving their ability to act quickly.

The need for humanitarian assistance is unlikely to wane in the years ahead. Climate change is expected to exacerbate weather patterns, causing more people to be affected by droughts and natural disasters than ever before. Given all of the other obstacles to delivering assistance (including political issues and logical challenges), it is critical that we do what we can to relieve suffering as quickly as possible.