While the drastic cuts are likely not come to pass, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made clear, American values of compassion and caring are being eroded. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned other countries to provide a larger share of assistance, suggesting a U.S. retreat. Perhaps in a sign of what is to come, in the first quarter of 2017 US contributions to humanitarian appeals decreased by one-third from the level for 2016 (from 30% in 2016 to 15% in 2017 as of the end of March 2017, since increasing to 20%). And even small cuts to humanitarian assistance are more than the world’s most desperate people can afford, with UN humanitarian appeals already routinely underfunded.
The consequences of less funding would likely be measured in untold thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of avoidable deaths. There is another path, though: an international community that uses a public health crisis to mobilize political will and sustainable funding. Rather than weakening the United Nations, the United States should help enhance its capacities. The United Nations needs a major influx of funds for food, clean water, and other humanitarian relief, and for protecting its staff and supply lines when delivering aid within conflict zones.
A hunger crisis of historic proportions
The current hunger crisis encompasses South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, and northeastern Nigeria, all experiencing severe droughts. Yet the disaster’s primary drivers are armed conflicts and outright war. Health risks extend well beyond starvation, with waterborne illness such as cholera, a major threat. This is the largest humanitarian crisis since the United Nations came into existence.
The origins of the hunger and the obstacles to relief assume their own dynamic in each country, though the basic storyline is shared: ineffective, unaccountable, or malevolent political leadership, violence and conflict, and a dearth of humanitarian funding turning droughts and rain that does not fall into the catastrophes now unfolding.
Secretary Tillerson’s claim that the US provides a major share of disaster assistance is true, but disingenuous. The United States may have been the largest contributor to the World Food Programme in 2016, providing 34% of contributions. But with the food agency falling more than $2 billion short of the $8.6 billion it required, and U.S. contributions representing less than one-quarter (24%) of the need, the United States suddenly look far less generous. Worse, the U.S. share of 30% of overall UN humanitarian funding last year, beyond food assistance alone, was only 20% of what needed. And even the large share of what countries actually contribute represents the United States coming up short. The U.S. gross national income (GNI), a standard economic measure, is 36% of high-income countries’ overall GNI. The Secretary is right that other countries do need to step up, but so does the United States.
U.S. humanitarian assistance should also be seen in the context of overall development assistance, where relative to the size of the American economy, the United States falls far short of most wealthy countries. The major donor nations contributed an average of 0.30% of their GNI to official development assistance in 2015. Nineteen countries provided more than the 0.17% of GNI that the United States contributed, a level that was about four times less the long-standing 0.7% UN target. And that was before threatened cuts.
The General Assembly has the authority to establish assessments for UN members for “expenses of the Organization,” as laid out in Article 17(2) of the UN Charter. The General Assembly already sets assessments for peacekeeping. Why not also for the world body’s role in stemming humanitarian emergencies, another central function of the United Nations?
Since 2001, the peacekeeping assessments have been based on the assessments of the regular budget, adjusted to have premium (higher) contributions by Security Council members and discounted (lower) assessments for other UN members, linked to per capita gross national income. Assessments for humanitarian appeals could follow a similar model, with regular budget assessments as a starting point, and perhaps a premium for a defined set of wealthiest nations (based on income alone, or tracking members of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development’s Development Co-operation Directorate, typically viewed as members of the international assistance donor community).
Given the frequent link between hunger and other humanitarian disasters and conflict, another fund or initiative is surely in order, one focused on conflict prevention, with the longer-term, less headline-grabbing work of building community trust and resilience, promoting non-violent conflict resolutions and fair resource allocation, and other such approaches.
Gaining the political will for stable, sufficient funding for emergency response and conflict prevention will be difficult. In 2015, the World Health Organization established a Contingency Fund for Emergencies, following the Ebola epidemic, with a modest target of $100 million. Yet well over a year later, through March 2017, it had received only $38 million.
All of this would be too late for people facing immediate need in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and Nigeria. For now, the international community must use standard practices to meet funding needs. The UN Secretary-General should urgently convene a donor conference to address the hunger crisis, or a member state could take the lead, as the Netherlands did in response to the Trump Administration resurrection and expansion of the Global Gag Rule, prohibiting U.S. health assistance to organizations that provide abortion services or counseling.
Towards political resolutions
Beyond this, the conflict dimensions of these crises remain fundamental. The roots – and solutions – of the hunger in all four countries are ultimately political, requiring political solutions. Some immediate steps are possible. In Yemen, for example, the United States should step up pressure on Saudi Arabia, including by suspending all arms sales to and military cooperation with Saudi Arabia, a major American munitions purchaser.
Meanwhile, the UN Security Council strengthened the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan last December, instructing the UN force “to use all means necessary to” protect and deter violence against civilians, including gender-based and sexual violence, and to enable “the rapid, safe and unhindered access of relief personnel to all those in need in South Sudan.” Yet this has not stopped the government’s war on civilians. The Security Council will need to continually assess cooperation and further empower the UN force to carry out its mandate, while member states ensure sufficient troops and equipment. More political pressure is needed, from an arms embargo – which failed to win Security Council support last December, with Russia leading the opposition – to referring South Sudan for investigation by the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. The Security Council and international community need to consider more forceful, and even controversial, possibilities, from a willingness to engage combatants that are obstructing the delivery of humanitarian aid to a dramatic proposal for temporary UN and African Union stewardship of South Sudan.
Leadership from below
Even as more creative, forceful, and engaged leadership is needed, the world’s most powerful country is pulling back. Some of the world’s most desperate people will continue to suffer unthinkable trauma, and more will lose their lives. In the absence of political leadership, health and humanitarian advocates will have to press elected officials to act, insisting that they not be blind to the atrocities and human cost of what is occurring, and contributing to humanitarian organizations. Civil society cannot compensate for missing billions or a shortage of political will by those holding the levers of power, but it can raise its voice – and each of us can raise our voice – on behalf of millions of people who are now mostly alone, helping some to survive.
The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.