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  • Report
  • 22 June 2021

Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2021: Chapter 5

Methodology and definitions

chapter 5

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What is humanitarian assistance?

Humanitarian assistance is intended to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain human dignity during and after man-made crises and disasters associated with natural hazards, as well as to prevent and strengthen preparedness for when such situations occur. Humanitarian assistance should be governed by the key humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence. These are the fundamental principles of the international Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (RCRC), which are reaffirmed in UN General Assembly resolutions and enshrined in numerous humanitarian standards and guidelines.

In this report, when used in the context of financing data, international humanitarian assistance refers to the financial resources for humanitarian action spent outside the donor country. Our calculations of international humanitarian assistance are based on what donors and organisations report as such and do not include other types of financing to address the causes and impacts of crises, which we refer to as crisis-related financing.

There is no universal obligation or system for reporting expenditure on international, or indeed domestic, humanitarian assistance. The main reporting platforms for international humanitarian assistance are the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC) and the Financial Tracking Service (FTS) of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Increasingly, data on humanitarian activities is also published according to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) Standard.[1] OECD DAC members are obligated to report their humanitarian assistance to the DAC systems as part of their official development assistance (ODA), in accordance with definitions set out by the DAC.[2] Some other governments and most major multilateral organisations also voluntarily report to the DAC.

The FTS is open to all humanitarian donors and implementing agencies to voluntarily report contributions of internationally provided humanitarian assistance according to a set of inclusion criteria determined by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee.

The analysis of international humanitarian assistance in the Global Humanitarian Assistance (GHA) Report 2021 draws largely on data reported to the OECD DAC and the FTS. Between these sources there is variation in inclusion criteria for humanitarian assistance, as well as volumes reported, so we aim to consistently explain and source the data that we use. Since the 2018 report, we have included humanitarian funding reported to FTS that has been provided by OECD DAC members as assistance to countries not eligible for ODA. We also use other sources to calculate international humanitarian assistance, including reports from UN agencies and NGOs on private humanitarian funding and data from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) on contributions from public donors; data sources and methodologies for these are also clearly marked and explained.

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Our global estimate of humanitarian assistance provided in the form of cash and vouchers in 2020 is based on data collected from 26 organisations with support from the Cash Learning Partnership. The data will be analysed in greater detail in a forthcoming publication.[3] The methodology used for these estimates builds on one developed by Development Initiatives (DI) for research in 2016. For more information on this methodology and research, see Counting cash: tracking humanitarian expenditure on cash-based programming.[4]

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Channels of delivery

We use ‘channels of delivery’ to describe the first level of organisations receiving funding for the delivery of humanitarian assistance – multilateral agencies, NGOs, the public sector and the RCRC – whether they deliver the assistance themselves or pass it on to partner organisations. Our data on channels of delivery in Figure 4.1 (see Chapter 4) comes predominantly from the OECD DAC’s Creditor Reporting System (CRS) and the FTS. For private donors’ channels of delivery, we use our own dataset (see this chapter’s section on ‘Private funding’).

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Constant prices

Our analyses of trends in financial flows are in US$ constant prices (base year 2019) unless otherwise stated. We use deflators based on OECD DAC and International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook (April 2021 release) data to convert financial data from current to constant prices. Consistent with our annual methodology, data in the Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2020 was shown in constant 2018 prices, so totals may vary between reports.

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Country and region naming conventions

Country and region naming conventions used throughout this report are based on those used by the OECD DAC or the UN. Region naming conventions are based on those used by the OECD except the Middle East and North of Sahara regions, which have been combined. The conventions used do not reflect a political position of DI.

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Covid-19 pandemic response

At various points in the narrative of this year’s GHA Report and in Figure 3.7 (see Chapter 3) we include analysis on international financing to support the Covid-19 pandemic response. The primary data sources and associated download dates are as follows:

  • UN OCHA’s FTS on humanitarian grant funding available to the Covid-19 pandemic response.[5] This is both inside the Global Humanitarian Response Plan for Covid-19 as well as funding directed outside the plan to support the response. Data includes commitments in the form of legally binding funding obligations and paid contributions. Data was downloaded on 16 May 2021. Global Humanitarian Response Plan funding requirements, received funding and proportion of requirements met were downloaded separately and are as of 29 April 2021.
  • Data collated and analysed by the Centre for Disaster Protection on financial reports to the Covid-19 pandemic response from seven major development finance institutions:[6] World Bank Group (including International Development Association, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, International Finance Corporation and Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency), International Monetary Fund, African Development Bank, Asian Development Bank, Islamic Development Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and Inter-American Development Bank. This data includes concessional and non-concessional loans from these institutions, as well as grant support. Data included in this report is as of 8 April 2021.
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Crisis categories

For our analysis of crises by category, we applied thresholds to several indicators and cross-checked with other data sources. We used information from the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research’s Conflict Barometer 2020 to identify countries affected by conflict. For countries affected by disasters associated with natural hazards, we used indicators in the INFORM Index for Risk Management and Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT) data. And to identify displacement crises, we used data from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

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Disaster risk reduction

For our analysis of ODA to disaster risk reduction (DRR) in 2019 in Figure 2.4 (see Chapter 2) we include the following funding flows as reported to the OECD DAC CRS:

  • Funding reported with the purpose code 43060 ‘Disaster Risk Reduction’.
  • Funding reported with the value 2 under the ‘Disaster Risk Reduction’ marker, expressing DRR as principal objective of the associated activity.
  • Additional funding with DRR as principal objective as expressed by the project information reported to the CRS. This additional funding was identified by DI through a search for DRR keywords in the project titles and descriptions of CRS entries. The output of the keyword search was then manually screened for relevance to DRR.
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Earmarked funding

‘Earmarked’ funding comprises all non-core (‘other’) funding directed to multilateral organisations. Unearmarked funding may include softly earmarked contributions where this data was provided, for instance by region, to better reflect progress against the Grand Bargain commitment of providing more unearmarked and softly earmarked funding. Our definitions of different levels of earmarking used in our data collection reflect those in the annex of the Grand Bargain document.[7]

Our calculation of earmarking to nine UN agencies – Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Organization for Migration (IOM), UNICEF, UN Development Programme (UNDP), UNHCR, UN OCHA, UNRWA, World Food Programme (WFP) and World Health Organization (WHO) – is primarily based on data provided directly to us by each agency, based on its internal reporting or extracted from annual reports.

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Exchange rates

To convert original currency values into US$ values, we use exchange rates from the OECD DAC for currencies of DAC members and UN operational exchange rates for other currencies. The UN operational exchange rates are also used by UN OCHA FTS.

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Funding for local and national actors

Our analysis of direct funding to local and national actors in Figure 4.2 (see Chapter 4) uses data from FTS that we then ‘code’ according to a set of organisational categories. Our analysis of recipient types of funding from country-based pooled funds in Figure 4.3 (see Chapter 4) uses the funds’ own classifications of recipients, which might differ from the definitions below. For our own coding process, we use the following categories of local and national non-state actors and national and subnational state actors, as defined by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Humanitarian Financing Task Team in its Localisation Marker Working Group Definitions Paper (January 2018):[8]

  • National NGOs/civil society organisations (CSOs): national NGOs/CSOs operating in the aid recipient country in which they are headquartered, working in multiple subnational regions, and not affiliated to an international NGO. This category can also include national faith-based organisations.
  • Local NGOs/CSOs: local NGOs/CSOs operating in a specific, geographically defined, subnational area of an aid recipient country, without affiliation to an international NGO/CSO. This category can also include community-based organisations and local faith-based organisations.
  • Red Cross/Red Crescent National Societies: national societies based in and operating within their own aid recipient countries.
  • Local and national private sector organisations: organisations run by private individuals or groups as a means of enterprise for profit, based in and operating within their own aid recipient countries and not affiliated to an international private sector organisation.
  • National governments: national government agencies, authorities, line ministries and state-owned institutions in aid recipient countries, such as national disaster management agencies. This category can also include federal or regional government authorities.
  • Local governments: subnational government entities in aid recipient countries exercising some degree of devolved authority over a specifically defined geographic constituency, such as local/municipal authorities.

Other categories of first-level recipients featured in this analysis are:

  • Internationally affiliated NGOs: NGOs affiliated to an international NGO through interlinked financing, contracting, governance and/or decision-making systems. This category does not include local and national organisations that are part of networks, confederations or alliances wherein those organisations maintain independent fundraising and governance systems.
  • Southern international NGOs: NGOs based in aid recipient countries that are not OECD members, carrying out operations outside the aid recipient country in which they are headquartered and not affiliated to an international NGO. The same organisation is classified as a national NGO/CSO when carrying out operations in the country in which it is headquartered.
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International humanitarian assistance

Our estimate of total international humanitarian assistance is the sum of that from private donors (see Figure 3.3, Chapter 3) and from government donors and EU institutions. Our calculation of international humanitarian assistance from government donors is the sum of:

  • ‘official’ humanitarian assistance (OECD DAC donors)
  • international humanitarian assistance from OECD DAC donors to countries not eligible for ODA from the FTS
  • international humanitarian assistance from donors outside the OECD DAC using data from the FTS.

Our ‘official’ humanitarian assistance calculation comprises:

  • the bilateral humanitarian expenditure of OECD DAC members, as reported to the OECD DAC database under Table 1
  • the multilateral humanitarian assistance of OECD DAC members. This comprises:
    • the unearmarked ODA contributions of DAC members to ten key multilateral agencies engaged in humanitarian response: FAO, IOM, UNDP, UNFPA, UNHCR, UN OCHA, UNICEF, UNRWA, WFP and WHO, as reported to the OECD DAC under Table 2a and the CRS. We do not include all ODA to FAO, IOM, UNDP, UNFPA, UNICEF, WHO and WFP but apply a percentage to take into account that these agencies also have a ‘development’ mandate. These shares are calculated using data on humanitarian expenditure as a proportion of the total received directly from each multilateral agency.
    • the ODA contributions of DAC members to some other multilateral organisations (beyond those already listed) that, although not primarily humanitarian oriented, do report a level of humanitarian aid to OECD DAC Table 2a. We do not include all reported ODA to these multilateral organisations but just the humanitarian share of this.
    • contributions to the UN CERF that are not reported under DAC members’ bilateral humanitarian assistance. We take this data directly from the UN CERF website.

When we report on the official humanitarian assistance of individual OECD DAC countries who are members of the EU, we include an imputed calculation of their humanitarian assistance channelled through the EU institutions, based on their ODA contributions to the EU institutions. We do not include this in our total international humanitarian assistance and response calculations to avoid double counting.

Our estimate for official humanitarian assistance in 2020 is derived from preliminary DAC donor reporting on humanitarian aid grants.

Turkey is captured and shaded differently in Figure 3.1 and Figure 3.2 (see Chapter 3) because the humanitarian assistance that it voluntarily reports to the DAC largely comprises expenditure on hosting Syrian refugees within Turkey. We do not include Turkey’s spending on Syrian refugees in Turkey in our total international humanitarian assistance and response calculations elsewhere in the report, as these include only amounts directed internationally by donors.

In this year’s report we use data from the FTS on volumes of international humanitarian assistance by recipient countries for 2020 data, which will become available in the OECD DAC CRS only in December 2021. FTS data was downloaded on 16 May 2021.

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Multi-year humanitarian funding

Data on multi-year humanitarian funding for 2019 and 2020 was collected in May 2021 in support of the Quality Funding Grand Bargain workstream from government and inter-governmental donors that are Grand Bargain signatories. The definition applied to multi-year humanitarian funding in the survey and our analysis reflects that in the Definitions guidance summary by the Quality Funding workstream, referring to funding with a duration of 24 months or more based on the start and end dates of the original formal funding agreement.[9] 15 government donors provided data on their volumes of single- and multi-year humanitarian funding as part of this data collection exercise.

This data for 2019 and 2020 was combined with data for 2016 to 2018, which was also directly collected by DI from donors between April and August 2019 and published in DI’s previous research on multi-year humanitarian funding.[10] Ten government donors and the EU provided data for 2016 to 2018, and eight of these government donors also provided data for 2019 and 2020 as part of this year’s data collection.

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We refer to two poverty lines in this report: the international extreme poverty line of $1.90 a day and a higher poverty line of $3.20 a day; both of these poverty lines are expressed in 2011 purchasing power parity dollars. We use international poverty lines with most recent estimates for 2020 in this year’s report to provide comparable, up-to-date analysis. Estimates are based on data from World Bank PovcalNet, World Bank Data Bank, International Monetary Fund World Economic Outlook (April 2021), United Nations World Population Prospects and national sources. In order to produce estimates for 2020 based on existing poverty data sources, DI utilises the estimation approach detailed by the World Bank.[11] To produce comprehensive estimates from multiple comparable sources, DI uses its own methodology.[12]

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Poverty and food security

We estimate the number of people living in poverty in areas of acute food insecurity based on household data available from demographic health surveys (DHSs) and multiple indicator cluster surveys (MICSs). Acute food insecurity classification data is from the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC).

Adapting an established methodology developed by DI, we use the most recent DHS or MICS survey for countries with IPC data between 2019 and 2021 to estimate the number of people living below the $1.90 extreme poverty line and $3.20 poverty line – expressed in 2011 purchasing power parity dollars – in each subnational administrative region where representative poverty data is available.[13] Food insecurity phase and poverty data is aggregated to the lowest common administrative subnational level with representative household data. Where subnational data does not align exactly, the closest match is used, and where no representative subnational poverty data exists at any matching level, the national average is used (this accounts for 3% of the population covered by IPC data).

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Private funding

We directly request financial information from humanitarian delivery agencies (including NGOs, multilateral agencies and the RCRC) on their income and expenditure to create a standardised dataset. Where direct data collection is not possible, we use publicly available annual reports and audited accounts. For the most recent year, our dataset includes:[14]

  • a large sample of NGOs that form part of representative NGO alliances and umbrella organisations such as Oxfam International, and several large international NGOs operating independently
  • private contributions to IOM, UNDP, UNHCR, UNICEF, UN OCHA, UNRWA, WFP and WHO
  • the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Our private funding calculation comprises an estimate of total private humanitarian income for all NGOs, and the private humanitarian income reported by the eight UN agencies, the IFRC and the ICRC. To estimate the total private humanitarian income of NGOs globally, we calculate the annual proportion that the NGOs in our dataset represent of NGOs reporting to UN OCHA FTS. The total private humanitarian income reported to us by the NGOs in our dataset is then scaled up accordingly.

Data is collected annually, and new data for previous years may be added retrospectively. Due to limited data availability, detailed analysis covers the period 2015 to 2019.

Our 2020 private funding calculation is an estimate based on data provided by four organisations that receive large volumes of private humanitarian funding year on year, pending data from our full dataset. These are: Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Plan International, Catholic Relief Services and Save the Children International. We calculate the average share that these four organisations’ contributions represent in our private funding figure for the five previous years (2015–2019) and use this to scale up the private funding figure gathered from these four organisations to arrive at an estimated total for 2020. In previous years, we only used MSF’s data on private funding to estimate volumes for the most recent year, given that the share of MSF’s private funding remains relatively consistent year on year (ranging between 25% and 29% of the total amount over the last five years). However, due to 2020 being an exceptional year and the likelihood that an unusually large volume of private humanitarian funding might have been provided for MSF’s health response to the Covid-19 pandemic, we estimate 2020 private funding data based on data gathered from more organisations, representing a greater average share of total private funding (37%) between 2015 and 2019.

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Protracted crisis countries

Our definition of protracted crisis countries includes countries with five or more consecutive years of UN-coordinated appeals, as of the year of analysis. The types of appeals and response plans used to determine this classification are outlined in the ‘UN-coordinated appeals’ section in this chapter.

We have chosen this approach to give an indication of the countries that have consistently, for a number of years, experienced humanitarian needs at a scale that requires an international humanitarian response. Those needs can be limited to specific geographical regions or populations (such as forcibly displaced people).

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There may be minor discrepancies in some of the totals in our charts and infographics, and between those in the text, because of rounding.

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UN-coordinated appeals

We use this generic term to describe all humanitarian response plans and appeals wholly or jointly coordinated by UN OCHA or UNHCR, including strategic response plans/humanitarian response plans, flash appeals, joint response plans and regional refugee response plans. We use data from UN OCHA’s FTS and UNHCR for our financial analysis of UN-coordinated appeals.

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Data sources

Centre for Disaster Protection
Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters
EM-DAT: International Disaster Database
Université Catholique de Louvain, Brussels, Belgium
DHS Program
Demographic and Health Surveys
Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research (HIIK)
Index for Risk Management
INFORM COVID-19 Risk Index
INFORM Severity Index
Integrated Food Security Phase Classification
Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre
Global Internal Displacement Database
International Aid Transparency Initiative
International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)
IFRC’s appeal reports
International Monetary Fund
World Economic Outlook Database
Debt sustainability analysis
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
OECD.Stat Extracts
Development finance data
OECD States of Fragility Platform
OECD Creditor Reporting System
Our World in Data
UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
Population Statistics Reference Database
Mid-Year Trends, Global Trends reports, response plans’ funding snapshots
UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA)
Central Emergency Response Fund
Financial Tracking Service/FTS
Country Based Pooled Funds Data Hub
UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)
UNRWA in Figures reports
Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys
World Bank
World Development Indicators
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Acronyms and abbreviations

3RP Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan for Syria
CAR Central African Republic
Cat DDO Catastrophe Deferred Drawdown Option
CBPF Country-based pooled fund
CERC Contingent Emergency Response Component
CERF Central Emergency Response Fund
CDP Centre for Disaster Protection
CRS Creditor Reporting System (DAC)
CRW Crisis Response Window
CSO Civil society organisation
CVA Cash and voucher assistance
DAC Development Assistance Committee (OECD)
DI Development Initiatives
DPR Korea Democratic People's Republic of Korea
DRC Democratic Republic of the Congo
DRR Disaster risk reduction
ECHO European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations
EU European Union
FAO Food and Agriculture Organization
FTS Financial Tracking Service (UN OCHA)
GBV Gender-based violence
GHA Global Humanitarian Assistance (programme by Development Initiatives)
GHRP Global Humanitarian Response Plan
GNI Gross national income
HRP Humanitarian response plan
IATI Internationall Aid Transparency Initiative
IBRD International Bank for Reconstruction and Development
ICRC International Committee of the Red Cross
IDA International Development Association
IFRC International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies
IMF International Monetary Fund
INFORM Index for Risk Management
IOM International Organization for Migration
IPC Integrated Food Security Phase Classification
NGO Non-governmental organisation
MDB Multilateral development bank
MSF Médecins Sans Frontières
OCHA Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN)
ODA Official development assistance
OECD Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
PEF Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility
PPP Purchasing power parity
RCRC International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement
RRP Regional response plan
SDR Special Drawing Rights
UAE United Arab Emirates
UK United Kingdom
UN United Nations
UNDP UN Development Programme
UNFPA UN Population Fund
UNHCR UN High Commissioner for Refugees
UNICEF UN International Children’s Emergency Fund
UNRWA UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East
US United States
WFP World Food Programme
WHO World Health Organization

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