The UNHCR’s commitment to support refugees around the globe is rising.
Formally established in 1950 as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), this is the UN agency “dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights and building a better future for refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people.”
The UNHCR is one of the few UN agencies relying almost entirely on voluntary contributions.
The donation-based model.
Unlike other UN Specialized Agencies, the UNHCR tends to receive just 2% of its funding through the general budget and instead sustains operations through donations “from governments, UN and pooled funding mechanisms, intergovernmental institutions and the private sector.” This dependence on voluntary contributions restricts the agency’s ability to respond to dynamic crises characteristic of refugee situations.
Coupled with the reliance on voluntary contributions is the tendency for donors to earmark the contributions they make. Earmarking further restricts the agency’s ability to address emerging humanitarian situations or to respond in rapid time when priorities shift. For example, several donors earmarked contributions to the conflict in Syria this past year, but when unforeseen events arise or escalate (e.g., the coup d'état in Myanmar, February 2021), the flexible redistribution of funds can be complicated with a tightly-earmarked budget.
Consider a recent story from this past week: on March 22, 2021, a fire erupted without warning at the Kutupalong Balukali camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. This location houses tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees who were displaced from neighboring Myanmar. The fire decimated over 10,000 structures and killed 15, injured 560, and left 400 missing. The UNHCR is providing blankets, solar lamps, kitchen sets and mosquito nets, and helping facilitate water and sanitation services, but no funds earmarked for other purposes can help in this effort. Thankfully the UN has tapped its Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) for $14M in response.
Unrestricted funds go further.
Beyond helping in times of crisis, unrestricted contributions also allow the UNHCR to prop up underdeveloped programs, invest in new or innovative ideas, pay their support staff, and help lesser-known operations within the agency to flourish. For example, did you know the UNHCR supports programs in 135 countries including Kyrgyzstan, Eritrea, El Salvador, and Vanuatu?
The number of refugees is growing, but funding isn’t.
By the end of 2020, the number of forcibly displaced persons surpassed 80 million worldwide. That’s roughly 1% of the world population. Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 has acted as a “force multiplier,” exacerbating the needs of those already vulnerable, cutting employment opportunities and incomes, and producing devastating side effects “on education, mental and physical health, food security, gender-based violence, community relationships and beyond.” In addition, while countries like the US have seen high vaccination rates through the first quarter of 2021, many around the globe remain without access. Some refugee camps may not receive vaccinations until next year.
Coming out of the year 2020, the takeaway message is that the needs of displaced persons will continue to grow. And without parallel increases in financial support, the UNHCR will be asked to do more with less.
The US donates more than any other nation, with earmarks.
The US is a major supporter of the UNHCR. They were the greatest contributor in 2020 at $1.9B, more than double the next highest donor (the EU at $522M). However, the United States contributed no unrestricted funds last year. It softly earmarked 18% ($346M) of its contributions, earmarked 81% ($1.6B), and tightly earmarked 1% ($20.5M). And over the past several years, earmarking has increased.
It’s clear that unrestricted funds are a better way to support refugees by allowing the UNHCR to operate as they see fit. Still donors may want to earmark funding so they can later claim their money went to a specific cause with a known name, date and time. That feels more satisfying than adding to a faceless budget or helping with administrative costs. But organizations need support staff, and they need administration, and those funds are just as vital to refugee aid work.
If the US were to lift restrictions on some percentage of the funds they contribute, it would make a big difference given the magnitude of their past gifts. This is similarly if not more true of the European Union, who have tightly earmarked 100% of their contributions since 2018. Interestingly, several EU member states were among the top unrestricted contributors last year: Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany and the UK.
More contributions of this kind will allow the UNHCR help as many people as possible over what promises to be a tough year ahead.
You can donate to UNHCR here, and read more about the UNHCR’s financial requirements for the 2020-2021 year here.
Author Note: This article was originally published on April 2, 2021 through the website The Arithmetic of Compassion.