Moving Funding to Frontline Workers Fast in the Time of COVID-19

Jens Laerke
July 03, 2020

After the publication of “Humanitarian Financing Is Failing the COVID-19 Frontlines,” the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs asked for the opportunity to publish a response on CGD’s site, presented below.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the world with a speed and ferocity that has no precedent in living memory. This has created new challenges to humanitarian action and emphasized the need for adequate funding for all parts of the humanitarian system to ensure an effective response. As CGD colleagues have noted, this includes ensuring sufficient funding for frontline workers who play a unique role preparing and responding in fragile countries affected by the pandemic.

When borders closed and movements were restricted to slow the virus, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and local organizations continued to deliver aid and lifesaving information to communities on preventing the spread of COVID-19 and staying safe. They have the deep reach, networks, and knowledge to act in places where effective engagement with communities is as important as setting up hand-washing stations and delivering clean drinking water and food.

As the pandemic began to hit fragile countries in February, the UN pushed for flexible funding arrangements that support frontline responders. This is something we have advocated for years, and COVID-19 has amplified the urgency. The goal is to allow money to reach frontline responders as fast as possible, with minimum impediments. Good progress is being made.

Pooled funds

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)-managed Country-Based Pooled Funds (CBPF) were among the first to allocate emergency funding in response to the pandemic, both to NGOs and UN agencies. The Afghanistan Humanitarian Fund announced its first allocation in February, quickly followed by Humanitarian Funds in the occupied Palestinian territory, Jordan and Sudan.

Since late February, US$144 million has been released through 16 CBPFs, of which $81.5 million (nearly 60 percent) has been granted to NGOs. Of this amount, $45.9 million has been allocated to 108 international NGOs and $35.6 million to 135 national NGOs.

Combined with the roughly $156 million for NGOs that has been reported to the Financial Tracking Service (FTS), a total of just under $240 million has thus far been directed to NGOs for their COVID-19 response.

FTS provides real-time data on humanitarian funding flows on a public website. Reporting, however, is voluntary and the platform’s data output is only as good as the data it receives. If donors, UN agencies, and INGOs were to require funding to be reported to FTS on a timely basis, it would provide a more accurate and comprehensive picture. CBPFs are able to publish real-time information on funding allocations as well as donor contributions, thereby providing, on a public website, an overall picture of funding provided to different actors, activities, and locations.

The UN’s global emergency fund, CERF, has just announced a $25 million allocation via the International Organization for Migration to NGOs for life-saving response to the pandemic in Bangladesh, the Central African Republic, Haiti, Libya, Sudan, and South Sudan. This allocation aspires to get funding to frontline responders more quickly.

The Inter-Agency Standing Committee, the world’s top humanitarian coordination mechanism, is also actively promoting more flexible and agile funding arrangements to ensure that funding quickly reaches NGOs on the ground, including when it passes through UN agencies.

Guidance agreed at the end of March, along with specific commitments to make funding to NGO partners more flexible, is being implemented. These commitments include simplified reporting, budget flexibility, and linking COVID-19 funding to existing programmes, all of which contribute to reduced administrative burdens that enable NGOs to focus on programmes on the ground. There is a collective commitment to speed up funding to partners; UN agencies are working with NGO partners to track progress.

UNHCR and UNICEF are among those leading by example, both in terms of speed and volume in getting funds to NGOs and civil-society groups. Last year, the refugee agency directed over 30 percent of resources to partners, both international and local. For UNICEF, not only has the disbursement of funds to NGOs been higher this year compared to last, but the children’s agency has also set a target to disburse funds in 20 days or less.

COVID-19 affects all countries, including the most fragile, and new hotspots continue to emerge. For this reason, donors’ own flexibility—allocating funding at a global level to be used where needs are greatest—has been tremendously valuable and is encouraged to continue.

Global plan for COVID-19 response

The Global Humanitarian Response Plan (GHRP) for COVID-19 was launched in March, and a fast donor response enabled the establishment of a World Food Progamme (WFP)-led global logistics system to transport supplies and personnel across the globe. NGOs are a key beneficiary of this shared service. Since the launch of the service on May 1, WFP has transported over 3,500 health and humanitarian personnel, over half of whom are NGO staff, to 40 frontline destinations via 300 flights. Early, centralized procurement and investment was the right approach to achieve this.

The GHRP update at the beginning of May used a bottom-up approach to identify requirements in each country, calculating these according to each cluster or response sector. As with all humanitarian response plans, NGOs played an integral role in defining the response priorities and requirements. The next GHRP update, expected in mid-July, will also be developed with the full engagement of the NGO community. More direct funding to NGOs is encouraged.

More needs to be done to get resources out fast to all parts of the system. The system is not perfect, but we’re working every day to make it better.

The UN and our NGO partners have been working towards this goal well before COVID-19. Mechanisms such as the CBPFs show real results in this respect. Let’s continue to strengthen and improve this system. The humanitarian system is saving millions of lives every year. We are committed to continue to do even better.

Jens Laerke is an OCHA spokesperson.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.