The Humanitarian Financial Crisis: Plenty of Guns and Little Butter

The tens of thousands of dead, injured and homeless in the recent earthquake in Morocco and the broken dams in Libya are the latest victims of natural disasters. Casualties in the Russia/Ukraine war add to the growing numbers of victims of armed conflicts around the world. The U.N. and partner organizations announced at the end of 2022 that 339 million people in 69 countries will need assistance in 2023. Unfortunately, at the same time the number of those in need of humanitarian assistance increases, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is in a dramatic financial crisis.

There are evident reasons for this financial crisis, such as increased global humanitarian needs and inflation, but there is no question that financing the Russia/Ukraine war has squeezed humanitarian donations. The war, according to the World Bank, is “a catastrophe” and will cut global economic growth. And the ICRC, which depends on voluntary country contributions, has been deeply affected.

The ICRC’s 2023 planned budget of $2.99 billion could face a shortfall of up to $800 million. According to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy’s Ukraine Support Date Tracker updates on Sept. 7, 2023, of aid to Ukraine between January 24, 2022, and May 31, 2023, the total military aid to Ukraine from all countries and organizations was 67.6 billion euros ($72 billion).  The ICRC’s shortfall of $800 million is 1.11 percent of the $72 billion that has been given in military aid to Ukraine.

What does the ICRC’s shortfall mean in humanitarian assistance? The ICRC recently announced that it will cut 270 jobs at its Geneva headquarters by 2024. Already in April, the world’s leading humanitarian organization and three-time Nobel Prize winner had announced that cost-cutting measures this year would result in 1,800 job losses at headquarters and in delegations worldwide. The Red Cross cutbacks will mean that offices in Mauritania, Kuala Lumpur and Greece will close. The ICRC’s presence in 26 of its 350 global sites will be scaled back. In March, ICRC director Robert Mardini pointed to underfunded operations in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Nigeria. Only Ukraine, Mardini told journalists, has a positive funding outlook.

And it is not just the ICRC that is in a humanitarian financial crisis. In its latest update, the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported on September 13, 2023, that of August 31, “Requirements for the Global Humanitarian Overview currently stand at $55.2 billion…Donors have provided $15.8 billion as of end-August… which represents 29 per cent of the total funding required this year…The gap between financial requirements and resources currently stands at $39 billion, the highest ever recorded at this time of the year.” So if you believe in duties beyond borders – the title of an award winning book by the eminent former Harvard professor Stanley Hoffmann – then you must realize how military aid to Ukraine has reduced global humanitarian aid.

The humanitarian financial crisis is not only global. If you believe only in duties within borders, especially for Americans, what about the victims of the recent Maui fire or the toxic train derailment in East Palestine Ohio? There are drastic humanitarian needs within the U.S. as well.

As Eve Ottenberg wrote last week in counterpunch: “if you average out American funds gifted to Ukrainians, they receive $3000 apiece,” which she considered disproportionate to aid given to humanitarian victims in the United States. What about around the world?

What is the relationship between duties within borders and duties beyond borders? The question is often asked about the relationship between obligations to fellow citizens and obligations to people in other countries. Professor Hoffmann put it most eloquently when he wrote:

But there is no global general will, and no worldwide ethical agreement on restraints governments should observe toward other states and strangers abroad. We cannot ignore this general distinction. And yet, unless we lower the barrier, and move toward the acceptance of restraints and of positive obligations beyond the borders, the world is doomed to remain a jungle… (italics added)

Positive obligations beyond the borders? There is something disproportionate about the amount of money for military assistance going to Ukraine in terms of the humanitarian needs within the United States and around the world. The ICRC’s proposed budget was around $3 billion. The U.S. military budget is over $800 billion. The U.S. spent roughly $47 billion in military assistance to Ukraine. The ICRC has a shortfall of $800 million. The ratio of guns to better is grossly uneven.

Closer to where I live, the Swiss Government proposed to increase its donation to the ICRC by a “one-off additional credit” of 50 million Swiss francs ($57 million) this year. Although the Swiss made a contribution of $156 million to the ICRC in 2023, this increase pales in comparison to the proposed increase in Switzerland’s military spending. Both chambers of the Swiss parliament have come out in favor of increasing military spending from $5.8 billion to $7.3 billion by 2030. Again, the justification has been a response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Perhaps it is time to turn around the infamous quotation from the Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels who said: “We can do without butter, but, despite all our love of peace, not without arms. One cannot shoot with butter, but with guns.” The millions of vulnerable around the world need assistance, including butter. A more reasonable proportion in spending between guns and butter would go a long way in the right direction.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.