The State of the Humanitarian System, 2022 edition: key facts and figures

27 Sep 2022

This animation and the quick synopsis below highlight key points from the 2022 edition of The State of the Humanitarian System (SOHS).

Further analysis is available in the full Summary and online report.

The humanitarian system reached more people than ever before, yet is unable to address the full scale of needs caused by increasingly intense and overlapping crises.


Compound crises – including conflict, climate and COVID-19 – created economic vulnerability and displacement, and more humanitarian need.

The number of conflicts more than doubled in the decade to 2020, and even before the war in Ukraine displacement was already at its highest ever level, driven by both conflict and disasters. (While the pandemic may have temporarily limited displacement, by the end of 2021 there were an estimated 53.2 million internally displaced people and 27.1 million refugees, and conflict-induced internal displacement had reached its highest level in a decade.) The COVID-19 pandemic drastically altered the scale and geography of humanitarian need, pushing around 97m people below the extreme poverty line and greatly increasing protection risks, particularly for women and girls.  And the number of climate-related disasters has increased year on year since 2018. Global temperatures continued to climb to record levels and the IPCC found strong evidence that climate change is contributing to humanitarian crises.

The rise of hunger was a specific challenge, particularly in conflict settings.

The number of people facing acute food insecurity rose to 161 million in 2021. This was caused primarily by conflict, drought and other climate events, and a return of ‘intentional starvation’ as a conflict strategy. Declarations of famine understandably drew attention, but fewer resources and less attention were directed to protracted hunger crises, where populations remain at lower levels of emergency for longer periods of time, resulting in higher rates of excess mortality.  Even before the worsening global food security situation in 2022, food security was little more than half funded (53% in 2021) as donors failed to keep pace with growing needs.

Of 30 humanitarian response plans in 2021, 27 were for countries with active conflicts.

These long-running conflicts mean more people need humanitarian aid over longer periods: the seven largest UN-coordinated humanitarian response plans in 2021 were for countries which had appeals every year for at least the last decade. Yemen and Syria were the two largest recipients of assistance, receiving between one-third and one-fifth of all humanitarian assistance each year. Development cooperation and gains were jeopardised in some major recipient countries, including Afghanistan with the Taliban take-over, and Ethiopia with the conflict in Tigray.

The number of people recognised by UN-coordinated appeals as needing humanitarian assistance grew by 87%, from an estimated 135.8m people in 2018 to 255.1m people in 2021.

This number peaked in 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic, when UN appeals reported nearly 440m people in need and aimed to assist just over 60% of them. At this peak appeal requirements totalled $39.3bn; 51% was met. The humanitarian system does not consistently count the number of people it reaches, but in the 2021 responses where it did, it reached around 106m people: 46% of those estimated to be in need of support, and 69% of those who had been targeted to receive assistance.

The very existence of humanitarianism – providing essential support to people affected by conflict and disaster – is under direct threat.


Democratic norms were eroded by the actions of governments who flouted the human rights of their citizens and undermined humanitarian response.

Deepening tensions between Russia, China and the West paralysed the United Nations Security Council, affecting the ability of the multilateral system to uphold international laws of war. One humanitarian worker summarised these challenges: “We’re in an absolute crisis of a fight for core norms.” 

Attacks on aid workers rose by 54% between 2017 and 2020.

In 2020, national staff represented 95% of the victims of these attacks. Despite the increase in attacks, many aid workers (28% of SOHS survey respondents, the majority of them international staff) felt that bureaucratic obstacles or political interference were a far larger obstacle to accessing populations in need. 

Access constraints increased in many countries.

In Ethiopia they impeded support to people in Tigray, which saw the lowest aid recipient scores in the 15 year history of the State of the Humanitarian System report: only 9% said they had received sufficient support and only 18% said support had been timely. A fear of expulsion had a chilling effect on the sector’s collective willingness to speak out about abuses of civilians and blocks on aid, and humanitarians were criticised for choosing to remain silent in order to maintain their presence and deliver aid.

People who received humanitarian assistance emphasised the importance of aid reaching the ‘right people’.

Decisions about who gets aid remain obscure to people in crisis, and in several contexts the traditional humanitarian principle of providing aid only to those ‘most in need’ runs against cultural practices of sharing resources across a family or community, and is especially challenging in contexts where many people come close to the threshold of need. Agencies face challenges when prioritising those most in need, including pressure from governments and others to alter distribution lists and targeting criteria. 22% of affected people in our survey said corruption was the biggest problem for humanitarian assistance. This included local ‘gatekeepers’ unfairly influencing distribution, as well as aid diversion by authorities and by aid workers. Humanitarian organisations and donors have put stringent anti-corruption measures in place.

There’s not enough good quality financing for humanitarian action.


Funding plateaued between 2018 and 2020.

It rose in 2021 but only by 2.5%, compared to 10% average annual growth between 2012 and 2018. The increase in funding over the past decade has been significantly outstripped by the increase in people affected by crisis; humanitarian funding requirements have more than quadrupled over the past decade. In 2020, UN coordinated response plans put forward their biggest appeals for funding (US$39.3 billion), but also saw their biggest funding gap, with only 51% funded.

There is wide variation in funding between crises.

40% of IHA in 2021 went to five countries (Ethiopia, Syria, South Sudan, Yemen and Afghanistan), and there was a significant gap between the best and worst funded appeals in 2021 (the Afghanistan flash appeal versus the Nepal COVID-19 appeal). Funding gaps had a real effect on crisis-affected people. Just 39% of SOHS survey respondents said they were satisfied with the amount of aid they received, compared with 43% in the previous study period.

Unpredictable funding flows hindered effective and efficient planning and action.

Unearmarked funding rose to $3.4 billion in 2020, before falling in 2021 to $2.7 billion, well below 2018 levels.

Anticipatory aid has been a success, and should be scaled up.

Providing support prior to a predicted crisis appears to be more effective and efficient than reactive funding. There is strong evidence that preparedness improves the speed and effectiveness of response, and emerging evidence that anticipatory action improves the outcomes for aid recipients. These mechanisms still occupy a very small proportion of overall humanitarian assistance.

Power and resources remain concentrated despite efforts to localise and calls to ‘decolonise’ humanitarian aid.


There is an increasing tendency towards resources being provided by a very small group of donors and going to a small number of international agencies.

In 2021, 57% of international humanitarian assistance came from just five public donors (USA, EU institutions, Germany, UK, Japan). Around one-fifth continues to come from private sources, mostly individual giving. Almost half of IHA goes to three UN agencies (WFP, UNHCR and UNICEF), a concentration that is relatively unchanged from previous SOHS editions.

Despite a lot of rhetoric about localisation, diversity and equity, meaningful change has been limited.

Policies aimed at prioritising diversity, equity and inclusion have not led to observable system-wide structural improvements. The humanitarian system relied on local and national NGOs to deliver during the height of COVID-19 restrictions, but this did not result in a permanent rebalancing of power. Direct funding to local actors remained extremely low as a share of international humanitarian assistance, fluctuating between a high of 3.3% in 2018 and a low of 1.2% in 2021. More indirect funding is available, but this is slow to arrive and often of poor quality, with strenuous conditions attached.

We’re still waiting for the 'participation revolution'.


Accountability practices have not led to improvement in the eyes of aid recipients, despite being linked to better performance.

People consulted about the aid they receive were 2.2 times more likely to say that aid addressed their priority needs, 2.7 times more likely to say that the aid they received was of good quality, and 2.5 times more likely to say that the amount of aid was sufficient. Despite agencies’ efforts, since 2018 there has been no observable improvement in feedback and accountability practices in the eyes of aid recipients, and COVID‑19 restrictions and access difficulties during conflict made it harder for humanitarian actors to engage in person with affected people.

In many crises, while people found humanitarian support useful, it didn’t necessarily meet their most important needs – and the gap between what the system offered and what people wanted seemed to widen.

Only 34% of surveyed aid recipients felt the aid they received met their most important needs, down from the last period. The number one improvement in the humanitarian system requested by nearly a third of aid recipient survey respondents was ‘providing what was most needed’.

There were meaningful improvements in how the system prevents the sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) of crisis-affected people.

Following two high profile scandals, there were big changes in how agencies share information about recruitment, and how they collect and respond to reports of SEA. Country-level systems for coordinating to prevent SEA were strengthened. But assistance and restitution for survivors is still ad hoc.

The humanitarian system has provided a vital lifeline for millions, but it requires ongoing change if it is to be fit for future crises.


Although it is limited, the available data suggests that humanitarian aid is generally effective at achieving positive outcomes for people in crisis.

Despite significant disruption in the past four years, the system has established a track record of slow evolution.

Debate continues about how ‘realistic’ it is to expect quick and significant reforms, but the system will need to change more quickly to cope with the global challenges ahead.

We can expect to see shifts that fall into three headings: caseload, crises and contexts.

  1. Caseload: Right-sizing the humanitarian system for the future demands more than increasing its resources and increasing its efficiency. It may also demand re-evaluating the scope of its ambitions and its role in relation to others. The system continues to link poorly to the efforts of other actors in crisis response, such as diaspora or development actors.
  2. Crises: The system has made several improvements to help it deal with higher rates of cascading crises: joint assessments, multi-dimensional analysis related to the humanitarian/development/peace ‘nexus’, investments in systems thinking, and anticipatory action. But it’s not clear that these advances truly prepare the system for what could be a profound increase in the number and scale of humanitarian crises.
  3. Contexts: Just as the world is facing a tipping point in preventing future cascading crises driven by climate change, it is also facing a precipice in adherence to basic norms that enable people affected by conflict and disasters to receive impartial support.  While humanitarian agencies hold little sway over the contexts in which they operate, they will need to drastically increase their appetite and ability to influence the terms and extent of humanitarian access, as well as address the speed and manner in which they can shift power to local actors to better navigate the varied challenging contexts of conflict and disaster.