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Humanitarian Aid

COVID-19 drives drop in aid and spike in needs. Humanitarian choices become tougher

COVID-19 fuels a 40% increase in the global need for humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations. Simultaneously, the pandemic pushes rich countries to cut funding for aid. This hits countries already affected by conflict extra hard. “We are forced to leave people behind,” says humanitarian aid coordinator Margriet Verhoeven

The alarm raised by Mark Lowcock, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, during yesterday’s Global Humanitarian Overview in Geneva, was as loud as it was clear.  “The COVID-19 pandemic has put decades of human development at risk,” he says.

COVID-19 and funding cuts have a spiraling effect

For the first time in more than 20 years, extreme poverty has risen. And prospects are bleak. By the end of 2021, the UN expects the number of people facing starvation to have doubled to 270 million in 8 countries. 150 million more people, especially women and girls, could sink into extreme poverty. Barring many of them from school and education. The annual death toll due to HIV, TB, and malaria is also set to double.

What makes the future extra bleak is that, also due to COVID-19, the gap between needs and available funds keeps growing.

“Sadly, humanitarian needs continue to increase. With less funding available, the choices we need to make on who to assist become tougher by the day. The truth is that the funding gap forces us to leave people behind.”

Margriet Verhoeven, humanitarian aid coordinator 

Cordaid’s Margriet Verhoeven coordinates humanitarian responses in Yemen, Afghanistan, and South Sudan. She is all too familiar with the alarming realities raised by the UN aid chief.

Pandemic hits people in conflict-affected countries hardest

“COVID-19 has affected people and economies all over the world,” she says. “But now, reduced funding due to the pandemic hits people in conflict-affected countries extra hard. Humanitarian needs were already very high due to ongoing conflict and natural disasters. COVID-19 has worsened the situation as people in these countries don’t have reserves and are facing a severe food crisis as a result,” Verhoeven continues.

‘This is where the solidarity stopped’

In an earlier phase of the pandemic, Verhoeven saw how COVID-19 somehow encouraged global solidarity. “When the virus arrived in Europe, my colleagues in Yemen were so concerned about the situation here. They mentioned that for once they could ask us how things were going at our end of the globe,” she explains. “When the virus arrived in Yemen a little later, knowing that they weren’t the only ones was comforting to them and created solidarity. But that is where the solidarity stopped.”


Margriet Verhoeven (l) in Herat, Afghanistan, 2019


Earlier this year, the UN said that the drop in global humanitarian aid of 1.6 billion USD and the sharp global increase in humanitarian needs is creating a perfect storm for the world’s most vulnerable.

Conflict-affected countries, like the ones where Verhoeven and her colleagues are setting up responses, are in the centre of this storm. As Bashir James and Arem Deng, our colleagues working in the flooded fields near the River Nile in South Sudan can witness. “We are simply overwhelmed. Staff and resources are lacking. And if we, the aid workers, are overwhelmed, just imagine what it’s like for the families we are reaching out to”, James said recently.

Forced to leave people behind

From The Hague (the Netherlands), her lockdown base in times of COVID-19, Verhoeven’s appeal is as pressing as Mark Lowcock’s in Geneva. “Sadly, humanitarian needs continue to increase. But with less funding available, the choices we need to make on who to assist become tougher by the day. The truth is that the funding gap forces us to leave people behind,” she says.


Bashir James (l) and Arem Deng, during a needs assessment in Bor (South Sudan), where Nile River floods have upended the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. September 2020


Verhoeven calls for real solidarity. She doesn’t mean the shared feeling caused by a global pandemic, but the willingness to share with those who have been hit hardest by COVID-19. Or in the words of the UN Under-Secretary-General: “Every nation has been hurt by the pandemic. But some need more help than others to get through it.”