Earlier this week, John Ging, director of operations for the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), returned from a four-day trip to Mali to remind governments that the world's relief agency is short of funds for its life-saving work in Mali.
The U.N.'s humanitarian agency's 2013 appeal for $373 million, he said, has resulted in only $17 million in commitments.. That money came from only four countries -- Britain ($8million), Canada ($3.5 million), Saudi Arabia ($2 million), and the United States ($1.15 million) and the European Commission and United Nations). The U.N.'s remaining 189 countries have pledged nothing.
"We need the generosity of the international community," Ging said. "Unfortunately although Mali is in the center of media global attention the response for our appeal has been very poor.... We have not been able to mobilize the effective humanitarian response on scale of what is needed."
So, what are we to make of this shortfall?
Has the world gone cold-hearted in the face of an unfolding human tragedy in the Sahel, one which has subjected civilians to the hardships of hunger and the brutality of Islamic extremists imposing severe penalties on civilians, while Malian soldiers carry out reprisals against their suspected backers?
Have the major donors, dogged by persistent economic stress, become too poor to give generously to every cause? Or is the U.N. playing the ritual "shame game" to get countries to dig deeper into their pockets for yet another humanitarian crisis?
Humanitarian aid specialists say that the U.N.'s request for funding in Mali has simply come at a bad time, upping the competition for a limited pot of money at a time when governments are already being asked to contribute elsewhere, including roughly $1 billion to support peacekeeping efforts in Mali and more than $1.5 billion to ameliorate the severe humanitarian crisis in Syria. Meanwhile, large-scale humanitarian operations in places like Somalia, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, show no sign of abating.
"With respect to Mali -- the humanitarian appeal definitely came at a bad time given the implicit competition between it and the peacekeeping appeal, and Syria is definitely sucking all the air out of the room as well," said Jeremy Konyndyk of Mercy Corps, whose organization has been forced by poor security and limited access to suspend distribution of relief in northern Mali.* Konyndyk noted that food supplies in the conflict areas in the north have been dwindling, and supply routes have been shut down. "Needs are extremely high in Mali now, and in the north needs will be higher than in 2011-2012."
"The Mali crisis in West Africa remains a much less accessible issue for most policy makers," said Michel Gabaudan, the president of Refugees International. But he said he expects the money will start flowing as news stories converge with the realization of the political imperative to respond. "I'm not too worried that we don't see an immediate massive response after the appeal was just launched."
Complicating matters is that the sudden surge in new humanitarian crises, he said, is coming at a time "when governments are all constrained by the economic crisis."
Indeed, a look at the U.N.'s financial tracking system shows that appeals for humanitarian assistance remain chronically undersubscribed. A $6.2 million U.N. appeal for aid in Afghanistan has generated less than 1 percent in commitments. While only tiny portion of international spending on Afghanistan goes through the U.N., countries that rely heavily on the global body for assistance are also seeing shortfalls, including Mali's neighbor, Niger, where the U.N. has secured only 2 percent of the nearly $6 million in funds it has sought.
In January, Ging rang the alarm bell on Syria, warning that governments had failed to meet the country's humanitarian needs. A week later, foreign governments, including previously frugal Gulf states, met in Kuwait and pledged to spend more $1.3 billion, according to U.N. estimates. So far, only $308 million -- about 20 percent -- has been funded.
But the U.N. has been unable to generate the same kind of momentum for Mali.
A Turtle Bay-based diplomat from a country that contributes to U.N. humanitarian efforts said that the numbers can be a bit misleading, providing an incomplete picture of the humanitarian money that flows into a place like Mali (which, along with other countries in the Sahel region, has been the beneficiary of large sums of assistance in recent years). He said it doesn't reflect the fact that governments' budget cycles in many foreign capital begins later in the year, making most U.N. appeals appear woefully underfunded now.
So, does that mean that the necessary money will inevitably flow into Mali as the needs grow increasingly clear? Not likely. Global aid trends show a mixed picture.
In the years following the peak of the economic crisis, humanitarian assistance has climbed, from $12.4 billion in 2007 to $17.1 billion in 2011, according to the Global Humanitarian Assistance report. Two massive natural disasters -- the Haiti earthquake and the Pakistan floods -- saw spending reach as high as $18.8 billion in 2010. But the level of unmet needs -- measured by the percentage of U.N. humanitarian aid appeals that go unfunded -- has grown by 10 percent between 2007 and 2011, meaning that the U.N. is falling further and further from its aid targets. One reason, said Konyndyk, is that the U.N. appeals are more comprehensive than they have been in the past.
But there are signs that funds may be hard to secure.
Earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry informed Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, that the upcoming sequestration cuts would slash "about $200 million from our humanitarian assistance accounts at a time when we face growing needs in Syria, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel."
Konyndyk said Washington's priorities favor Syria, which has raised some concern that scarce resources will need to be redirected from other worthy crises, including Mali.
And recent history provides a worrying model. In February 2010, the United States Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance was forced to temporarily redirect as much as 40 percent of assistance to trouble spots like Somalia in order to ensure funding for the Haiti operation, my colleague Josh Rogin reported at the time.
Konyndyk voiced concern that the coming federal cuts will force the administration to make the painful choices they made in Haiti. "There is a real squeeze. I think we could see under sequestration some similar choices being made in order to make sure Syria is funded. There is huge pressure on the administration to increase aid even further in Syria and I don't see anything like that with respect to aid for Mali."
*(An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Mercy Corps had to shut down all its programs in Mali. The relief group only suspended distribution of goods in the north. Turtle Bay regrets the error
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.