The humanitarian aid elephant: helping refugees in need | International

The humanitarian aid elephant: helping refugees in need | International

The leaders of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) are worried about the sharp rise in refugee spending by donor nations using Official Development Assistance (ODA) funds. DAC’s president, Danish diplomat Carsten Staur, called this issue “the elephant in the room,” and says it’s a significant hurdle for current global aid policies that require more focus.

Recent data on ODA trends in 2022 in the 31 DAC countries reveals a threefold increase in costs for caring for refugees and asylum seekers in their first year, rising from 4.6% in 2021 to 15% in 2022. This growth, unprecedented in humanitarian aid history, surpasses even the Syrian refugee crisis of 2016, and raises doubts about whether international aid policies are adapting quickly enough.

The driving force behind this is the war in Ukraine, which has significantly impacted development cooperation policies in two distinct ways. First, there has been a notable increase in resources from all donor countries allocated to Ukraine, making it a major aid recipient. The most recent data indicate that Ukraine received $17.8 billion, with $1.75 billion designated for humanitarian assistance. In 2022, Ukraine received 8% of all international aid from DAC donor countries.

The significant increase in aid allocation for the war in Ukraine is mainly due to the rise in refugee aid spending by donor countries. Specifically, the expenditure peaked at $31.75 billion in 2022, representing 15% of global ODA. Western countries, particularly those in the European Union, played a crucial role by swiftly implementing the European Temporary Protection Directive to assist Ukrainian refugees. This directive benefited 4.2 million Ukrainians in European countries.

While aid for refugees varies among countries, the Czech Republic, Poland and Ireland allocate over 50% of their total development aid budgets to refugees. The United Kingdom spends 28.9% of its ODA on refugees; Switzerland allocates 28.2%; and Spain allocates 23.5%, which amounted to $990 million in 2022.

Spain’s refugee aid

Analyzing recent data on Spain’s development aid reveals a lack of detailed reporting from the European Union, and from Spain’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Agency for International Development Cooperation. The most recent data was published in 2019. The Spanish government released a brief document about its ODA in 2022, with five generic charts and a table in English copied from CAD.

According to recent OECD DAC statistics, Spain’s development aid has seen a slight increase from 0.26% of gross national income (GNI) in 2021 to 0.30% in 2022. However, this still falls below the DAC average of 0.36% and the E.U. average of 0.57% for the same year. Spain ranks 20th out of 30 donor countries in ODA relative to its GNI, indicating a significant commitment shortfall.

The growth in Spanish aid during 2022 is precarious because it relies heavily on temporary measures like pandemic-related spending and emergency support for refugees on Spanish soil, especially Ukrainian refugees. Spain has allocated $305 million for Covid-19 and $990 million for refugee assistance, totaling $1.295 billion in 2022. This amounts to 32% of Spain’s Official Development Assistance and 60% of its bilateral ODA. About a third of Spain’s development aid in 2022 went to caring for refugees on Spanish soil, which is quite concerning.

Strict reporting criteria

Aid to refugees in Spain has surged despite a lack of clear criteria, documentation and transparency on its implementation. Requests for information have been denied, including details on how the money was spent. This is alarming since refugee aid has become a major Spanish bilateral cooperation and development initiative, despite no mention in recent legislation on international cooperation.

The OECD Development Assistance Committee standards state that only the first-year cost of covering temporary living expenses for refugees and asylum seekers can be considered exceptional expenses. Costs related to rejected asylum seekers, forced transfers and detentions are not included in the definition of exceptional expenses.

Based on this criteria and current data, it appears that Spain has included ineligible items in exceptional expenses that require attention, especially when the CAD Secretariat has demanded strict oversight over refugee aid. In fact, there have been suggestions to prioritize other areas, like aiding less developed countries or combating poverty. Germany and Austria, for instance, have opted not to include those ineligible items in their refugee aid reporting.

The war in Ukraine has shifted focus and resources away from initiatives to tackle poverty, support war victims, address climate change impacts and deal with migration triggered by the climate crisis. According to international aid guidelines for refugees, aid allocation may decrease in 2023 under the first-year rule. It’s crucial to monitor this to prevent a drop in aid during ongoing crises like famines, setbacks in key sectors like early childhood education and healthcare, and worsening climate chaos that disproportionately affects vulnerable populations.

To ensure the effectiveness of development aid as a crucial resource in addressing global challenges like poverty, violence, and inequalities, it’s vital to protect its integrity. Balancing this aid with other priorities, such as refugee assistance in Western nations, is a key discussion that Spain needs to have if the country intends to stick to its commitments and principles.

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