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UN and partners release record humanitarian response plan as COVID-19 wreaks havoc

01 Dec 2020

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A displaced woman sits in her tent at a camp in Bagoundié, near Gao, Mali, on 16 October 2020. Credit: OCHA/Michele Cattani

The shock of COVID-19 has pushed the number of people who need humanitarian assistance worldwide to a record high – up by 40 per cent compared to the same time last year.

If all those who will need humanitarian aid next year lived in one country, it would be the world’s fifth largest nation, with a population of 235 million.

The UN and its partners aim to help 160 million of the most vulnerable people who face hunger, conflict, displacement, and the impacts of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Local and global humanitarian organizations stand ready to save lives and livelihoods and respond to the special needs of women and children as well as people with disabilities and mental health needs. They need solidarity and funding from the rest of the world.

The Global Humanitarian Overview (GHO) 2021 sets out 34 response plans covering 56 vulnerable countries. It is being presented today in Geneva at an event with opening remarks from UN Secretary-General António Guterres and UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock, and the participation of donor representatives and national and international NGOs. Subsequent presentations will take place on the same day in Berlin, Brussels, London and Washington, D.C.

“The humanitarian system again proved its worth in 2020, delivering food, medicines, shelter, education and other essentials to tens of millions of people,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

“But the crisis is far from over. Humanitarian aid budgets face dire shortfalls as the impact of the global pandemic continues to worsen. Together, we must mobilize resources and stand in solidarity with people in their darkest hour of need.”

The lives of people in every nation and corner of the world have been upended by the impact of the pandemic. Those already living on a knife’s edge are being hit disproportionately hard by rising food prices, falling incomes, interrupted vaccination programmes and school closures. Extreme poverty has risen for the first time in 22 years. Multiple famines loom on the horizon.

UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said: “The rich world can now see the light at the end of the tunnel. The same is not true in the poorest countries. The COVID-19 crisis has plunged millions of people into poverty and sent humanitarian needs skyrocketing. Next year we will need $35 billion to stave off famine, fight poverty, and keep children vaccinated and in school.

“A clear choice confronts us. We can let 2021 be the year of the grand reversal – the unravelling of 40 years of progress – or we can work together to make sure we all find a way out of this pandemic.”

International donors gave a record $17 billion in 2020 for collective humanitarian response. Data show that 70 per cent of the people targeted for aid were reached, an increase compared to 2019. But as needs are rising, funding remains less than half of what the UN and partner organizations asked for. Next year, the estimated cost of response is $35 billion.

The full Global Humanitarian Overview 2021 can be accessed via its new online platform

Commenting on the launch of the report, Kevin Watkins, CEO of Save the Children UK, said: “This has been a year like no other, and the UN’s prognosis for humanitarian assistance in 2021 is bleak at best. But the numbers only paint part of the picture. To understand the cost of conflict, climate change and COVID-19 on some of the world’s most vulnerable people, you have to see the face of a hungry child whose mother is coping with two failed harvests and rising food prices, unable to even breastfeed because she lacks enough nutritious food to eat herself.

“Years from now we will look back at 2020 and assess whether our decisions created a better world for everyone, whether our shared humanity prevailed. Ensuring every child everywhere has access to nutritious food and can grow up healthy, surely, must be a good place to start.”

Masood Ahmed, president of the Center for Global Development and a former World Bank official, said: “The broad health, economic and financial setbacks from COVID-19 will be significant worldwide, but with the UN’s helpful clarion call in the Global Humanitarian Overview, wealthy nations have urgent reason to act in order to protect lives and preserve the global development gains that have led hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and toward better health care and economic and educational opportunities.”

Along those lines, Lord Nicholas Stern, IG Patel Professor of Economics and Government at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said: “This shocking report outlines how the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly increased the need for humanitarian assistance in developing countries, and has created the first rise since the 1990s in the number of people in extreme poverty.

“The damage to lives and livelihoods from the pandemic will be deep and long-lasting if the rich countries fail to honour their responsibilities and commitments to invest in and support economic rescue, recovery and transformation packages in the developing countries. If the rich countries are to become more resilient to the global threats of infectious diseases, biodiversity loss and climate change, they must also help to tackle the vulnerabilities of poor countries.”