How relevant is humanitarian aid?

When asking affected communities about the relevance of humanitarian aid, most respondents say that they do not feel their needs are being met by the aid they receive. Whether respondents ask for different aid or more of the same, their primary needs are basic: cash, food and shelter top the list of unmet needs. The specific needs keep changing dynamically within and across countries, making it difficult to generalise across crises or population groups and underlining the importance of an ongoing dialogue between humanitarian agencies and affected people.

09 Jul 2019
Kenya 1 UNHCR Brendan Bannon

Never before have governments and individuals put so many resources towards humanitarian action. And rarely before has the inadequacy of this action to deal with crises been so visible. Some observers are calling for a “back to basics” approach to humanitarian aid that focuses on saving lives and restoring dignity, while others embrace a resilience paradigm and call for a broadening of the humanitarian mandate into areas traditionally held by development or peacebuilding actors.1

What people tell us during surveys, on the other hand, demonstrates that humanitarian organisations don’t always know what the affected population needs.

The data

Ground Truth Solutions wants to let crisis-affected people judge the relevance of aid. To that end we have analysed 8,400 responses from people in seven countries to the questions “Does the aid you receive cover your most important needs?” and “What are your most important needs that are not met?” For six of the seven countries, data is available for both 2017 and 2018.2

Key findings

In all countries and in both years, more than 50% of respondents say the aid they receive does not meet their most important needs. This might not come as a surprise to many observers who point to a funding shortfall of some $10 billion compared to what was requested by UN-coordinated appeals in 2018.3 Indeed, expecting humanitarian action to cover all needs would be unrealistic. But asking affected people for their opinion helps to understand whether the $27.3 billion that went towards humanitarian action last year has been used according to affected people’s own priorities.4

Graphic 1 for policy brief
Legend for graphic 1 for policy brief

Cash, food and shelter top the list of unmet needs, followed by healthcare and education. It should be noted that non-basic needs are ranked rather low, livelihood support only coming in seventh, followed by energy and information. That protection is mentioned least frequently does not mean that people care less about their safety. A more likely explanation is that most people we interviewed in 2018 do consider their protection needs met where they are. In fact, 70% percent of respondents across all countries report feeling safe in their day-to-day lives.

Unmet needs overview2

Our data shows that respondents report different unmet needs from one year to the next in almost all countries. In Afghanistan in 2017, communities reported that their most important unmet needs were shelter, energy and food. By 2018 these had shifted to food, protection and cash. Similarly, in Uganda in 2017, WASH, food and cash topped the list of unmet needs. In 2018 these were replaced by shelter, food and healthcare.

Half of those who are dissatisfied with the aid they receive ask for more of the same aid. The other half ask for different kinds of aid, which is common amongst people who receive cash assistance: 75% of cash recipients who say this doesn’t cover their most important needs ask for something other than (more) cash.

Young people are more likely to feel that their needs are being met than older respondents. This general pattern was present in all countries, though not consistently statistically significant.

While men and women assess relevance differently in some countries, the differences cannot be generalised across countries. For example, in Iraq in both 2017 and 2018 men responded more negatively to the question of whether their most important needs were being met and reported more unmet needs than women. In Bangladesh, women named food, protection and shelter as their main unmet needs, whilst men asked for more cash and protection. On the other hand, some countries exhibited no reliable gender differences, like Haiti in 2018.


Much humanitarian aid does not pass the relevance test from the perspective of affected people. This underscores the importance of involving them in decisions about the design and implementation of aid programmes.

Where Ground Truth Solutions has discussed findings with aid actors around the world, many are wary that more dialogue will unnecessarily raise expectations and that affected people will ask for things outside the humanitarian realm. Our data questions this concern and shows how basic, live-saving needs are most pressing. At the same time, within the spectrum of basic needs, agencies don’t always get it right, as frequent requests for different types of aid demonstrate. Finally, aid actors should remember that getting needs right once is not enough. Our data shows how needs change quickly within countries and between population segments. Only ongoing dialogue paired with adaptive programming will ensure more positive scores across all crises in the future.


[1] Hilhorst, D. “Classical humanitarianism and resilience humanitarianism: making sense of two brands of humanitarian action” (2018)

[2] Data is available for 2017 and 2018 from Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, Somalia, Uganda, Lebanon and for only 2018 from Bangladesh

[3] Swithern, S. “Underfunded appeals: understanding the consequences, improving the system” (2019)

[4] Development Initiatives, Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2018 (2018)

[5] This was a follow-up question asked to those who responded negatively to the question on whether the aid they received covered their most important needs. Categories were not mentioned to respondents, but their open responses were coded during analysis according to categories commonly used in the sector.

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Photo source: UNHCR