Understanding aid dynamics: Are aid allocations truly based on need?

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25 january 2015

Guest Blog By Rob Kevlihan, Executive Director, Kimmage Development Studies Centre*

Are decisions with respect to the allocation of humanitarian aid truly based on needs?

Myself, Karl De Rouen Jnr and Glen Biglaiser attempted to answer this question by looking at assistance provided by USAID’s Office of U.S Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) to over 100 countries over a 20 year period, between 1989 and 2009. This period spans the end of the Cold War, and periods pre and post 9/11, including US led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. My own expectation, which is probably shared by most development practitioners, was that foreign policy considerations would trump measures of need as a predictor of where humanitarian aid was allocated, particularly post 9/11, despite repeated public commitments on the part of the US government to respond to natural and man-made disasters based on needs alone.

To my surprise, however, our study found that need provided a strong indicator of where US humanitarian aid was channeled by OFDA over a 20 year period.  Countries experiencing high levels of humanitarian need were more likely to receive US humanitarian aid at all in both pre and post 9/11 periods. However, we also observed a change between pre and post 9/11 periods. While in the post 9/11 period the amount of humanitarian aid allocated to disasters correlated well with both a need measure (battlefield deaths – used as a proxy for conflict caused needs, on the assumption that the more intense the violence, the greater the resulting humanitarian needs) and a measure of self interest (the extent to which a country was an ally of the US, as measured by the similarity of their voting record with the US at the United Nations).

Clearly, as with all such quantitative studies, there are limitations. Quantitative studies of this nature rely on proxy measures; in our case we used measures such as battlefield deaths, infant mortality rates and deaths and damage due to natural disasters as measures of need and US troop deployments, voting records at the UN, levels of trade and democracy to represent a range of US foreign policy interests in political, economic and military arenas.  As a consequence these kinds of studies can often simplify the often messy nature of decision making associated with particular crises.

However, what might be lost in understanding any one particular case is hopefully made up in range (assistance to more than 100 countries over 20 years).   More generally, an examination of US humanitarian assistance is only a beginning – a more comprehensive study would also examine humanitarian assistance through other channels, including aid from other donors such as the EU and other bilateral donors; it may also be that other factors – such as mediation efforts – might also have important effects of the amounts of humanitarian assistance being provided to conflict related emergencies. Nonetheless, despite limitations and further work to be done, we hope that this study can contribute to broader understandings of how the international community responds to humanitarian disasters.

* Rob Kevlihan is Executive Director at the Kimmage Development Studies Centre (www.kimmagedsc.ie ) and convener of the Development Studies Association of Ireland’s Humanitarian Action Study Group.

For further information on the study discussed above, see: