The COVID‑19 pandemic drastically altered the scale and geography of humanitarian need, and the capacity of economies to support populations at home and abroad. It challenged old models of response and catalysed new ones.

By the end of 2021, an estimated 5.4 million people were reported to have died after contracting COVID‑19, and the number of people infected had reached 300 million.8 After factoring in unreported deaths and the indirect effects on societies and health systems, overall excess mortality was in fact much higher, with approximately 14.9 million people dying between January 2020 and December 2021.9

Initially, the pandemic appeared to invert assumptions of where crises happen:10 75% of reported deaths were in Europe and the Americas, and just 3% in Africa. Infection and direct mortality rates were three times higher in high-income countries,11 and wealthy countries prioritised their own populations for vaccines and response. Yet more recent excess mortality data tells a different story – that deaths in high-income countries12 represented less than one-sixth of the global death toll, the brunt of which – nearly 53% – was estimated to be borne by lower-middle-income countries.

The social and economic shockwaves of the pandemic were felt sharply across the world, in all areas of life – from education to health to domestic violence. Gains in poverty reduction were reversed, with an estimated 97 million people falling below the extreme poverty line.13 Although Western governments increased their financial contributions to address the humanitarian impacts of the pandemic, it placed pressure on support to other crises. As the fiscal fall-out reverberates and is compounded by the war in Ukraine, the future impacts on international aid may be long-lasting.

Climate and disaster 

While the pandemic spread, existing risks and threats did not abate. The planet continued to heat up – the seven years between 2015 and 2021 were the warmest on record, and average temperatures in 2021 were 1.2°C higher than in the pre-industrial period.14 As temperatures and sea levels rose, the volatility and number of extreme weather-related disasters increased: the 2022 IPCC report found strong evidence that climate change is contributing to humanitarian crises – including driving increases in displacement, food insecurity and malnutrition.15 Weather-related disasters overlapped with other risks to deepen complex emergencies, and were yet another shock for people affected by COVID-19. By September 2020, 51.6 million people globally were recorded as being directly affected by an overlap of floods, droughts or storms and the pandemic.16

Figure 2: Global frequency of climate-related disasters, 2017–2021

The total number of climate-related disasters has increased year on year since 2018. The majority of reported disasters over the last four years were related to flooding.

Source: EM-DAT, CRED / UCLouvain, Brussels, Belgium.


Protracted conflict continued to dominate the humanitarian caseload, driving up hunger and creating difficult operating contexts as the system faced the dual pressures of stretched resources and threats to humanitarian space. By the end of the study period, conflict in Syria had entered its second decade and in Yemen, its seventh year. These were the two largest humanitarian crises,17but episodic and chronic violence continued in other contexts, including DRC, Iraq, Sudan and the Sahel. In 2020 and 2021, despite calls by the UN Secretary-General for a global COVID-19 ceasefire, two major new conflict escalations – in northern Ethiopia and Myanmar – pushed millions more civilians into humanitarian crisis. In Afghanistan, over 20 years of Western military intervention ended abruptly with the withdrawal of US troops. The speed at which the Taliban subsequently seized power shocked the world and left large parts of the population – particularly women and girls – deprived of rights, basic services and livelihoods.

While the regional and global implications of events in Ethiopia and Afghanistan left international leaders reconsidering old geopolitical assumptions, this was soon eclipsed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Although the war in Ukraine was outside the period of study for this edition of the SOHS, it casts a shadow over all our findings in ways that are yet to be fully understood. In the months since it began, the conflict has created large-scale humanitarian needs, prompted a pivot in attention by Western donors away from other regions and crises, and begun a new reckoning with international norms about war.


Even before the war in Ukraine, which caused a new spike in the number of people forced to flee their homes, displacement was already at its highest ever level , driven by both conflict and disasters. The vast majority of people were displaced within their own countries, rather than crossing borders; by the end of 2021, there were an estimated 53.2 internally displaced people (IDPs) and 27.1 million refugees.18 While disasters remained the predominant cause of internal displacement, in 2021 conflict-induced internal displacement reached its highest level in a decade.

The rise in number of refugees had slowed before the crisis in Ukraine, due in part to the border restrictions imposed during the COVID-19 Pandemic. But it did not stop, with new displacement outpacing durable solutions. By far the largest population displacement during the study period was from Venezuela, which saw 4.1 million people flee the deepening crisis and made Colombia the second-largest host country after Turkey.

Developing countries still hosted an estimated 85% of refugees. Meanwhile, many high-income countries continued to find ways to shirk their responsibilities. The Ukraine war may have since altered policies and attitudes – but primarily for refugees fleeing that particular crisis. At the start of the study period, global leaders agreed to a Global Compact on Refugees to improve the sharing of responsibility. And yet soon after, borders in Europe and North America closed, exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis,19 and the world witnessed a paucity from Afghanistan, and even the political ‘weaponisation’ of displaced populations on the Belarusian border.20

Figure 3: Number of people forcibly displaced, 2011–2021 

The number of people living in forced displacement has grown every year since 2011, reaching 89.3 million in 2021. In that year, an estimated 53.2 million people were displaced in their own countries and 27.1 million were refugees.

Source: UNHCR Global Trends, June 2022.

Notes: The refugee category combines both refugees under the responsibility of UNHCR and UNRWA. Notes: ‘Venezuelans displaced abroad’ refers to persons of Venezuelan origin who are likely to be in need of international protection under the criteria contained in the Cartagena Declaration, but who have not applied for asylum in the country in which they are at present.

Complex and widespread needs 

Combined, this ‘cascade of crises’ resulted in growing humanitarian needs. As populations faced compounding threats, government capacity or political will dwindled and long-term development investments proved elusive in many fragile contexts, the number of people requiring the last resort of international humanitarian aid continued to increase. According to the UN Humanitarian Needs Overview (HNO), the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance rose by 70% in the four years between 2018 and 2021 – from 122 million people to 218 million. Of course, as we explore in Chapter 3, these can only be imperfect estimates of need: the needs the humanitarian system ‘sees’ is coloured by how, where and at what it is looking. Nonetheless, the extreme deprivation experienced by each of these millions of individuals and families cannot be underestimated and the pressure this puts on the international response is very real.

The past four years have been a period of significant global turbulence. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres grimly summarised: 

Our world has never been more threatened. Or more divided. We face the greatest cascade of crises in our lifetimes. The COVID-19 pandemic has super-sized glaring inequalities. The climate crisis is pummelling the planet. Upheaval from Afghanistan to Ethiopia to Yemen and beyond has thwarted peace. A surge of mistrust and misinformation is polarizing people and paralyzing societies.7

This turbulence has increased the demand for humanitarian action and re-emphasised the importance of international assistance. At the same time, major social and political shifts have forced a reappraisal of the relevance, purpose and identity of the models and institutions that provide it.



Geopolitical shifts both intensified these crises and rendered the international ‘community’ more impotent to prevent and respond effectively. Throughout the research for this report – in interviews with frontline workers and top diplomats and in published literature – two themes came up again and again: the decline of multilateralism and the shrinking of civil society space.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine undoubtedly created a major new rift in international relations, but divisions between Russia, China and the West were already playing out in crises around the world, from Syria to Myanmar, paralysing the UN Security Council and compromising concerted global action on climate change. If COVID-19 and the climate crisis were the litmus tests of global solidarity and unity over this period, the results were not good. Both demanded concerted global action to find responses and solutions to global problems, yet in both cases, national self-interest largely prevailed. No unified global leadership emerged to tackle the pandemic and the ‘catastrophic moral failure’ of wealthy countries to equitably share COVID-19 vaccines was one that, according to the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), was set to be ‘paid with lives and livelihoods in the world poorest countries’.21 When it came to climate change, many saw a similar lack of global solidarity in the absence of hard agreements by rich high-emitting countries to take financial liability for loss and damage in the poorer countries bearing the brunt of rising temperatures, sea levels and disasters.22

Civic space 

At the same time, autocracy and ‘strongman’ politics were on the rise in many countries.23 Our sources across the world felt that there had been a palpable shift in the extent to which national governments were emboldened to flout the human rights of their citizens and reject the norms of humanitarian action. Tracking by the Varieties of Democracy Institute found that ‘dictatorships were on the rise and harbour 70% of the world’s population’24 and that, globally, levels of democracy and freedom of expression were deteriorating.25 Democratic backsliding appeared to both be virus-affected and to go viral. The COVID‑19 pandemic provided cover for civil rights violations and restrictions in many countries.26 Meanwhile it seemed that ‘assertive governments’ were learning from one another in their tactics and positions against humanitarian norms.27  The rise in attacks and deliberate blocks on aid, detailed in Chapter 4, are in many cases testament to this.

Misinformation bolstered social polarisation and the populist agendas of many autocratic regimes – and social media continued to hasten the pace and reach of this. Governments were found to be increasingly using misinformation to manipulate opinion at home and abroad, and polarisation rose to ‘toxic’ levels in 40 countries, contributing to the empowerment of anti-pluralist leaders.28 A combination of government surveillance and technology firms’ models of ‘surveillance capitalism’29 has affected both the incidence of humanitarian crises and the acceptance of international humanitarian efforts. Studies and testimonies have made the link between Facebook’s algorithms, which reward and promote extreme content, and ethno-political conflicts in Cameroon,30 Ethiopia and Myanmar, where social media was used as a tool ‘for command and control, intelligence, denunciation of traitors, and attacks against adversaries’.31 Social media also became a means of spreading distrust and misinformation about international humanitarian actors, making it more difficult and dangerous for them to operate.

According to Civicus, the global civil society alliance, even while the last decade has seen sustained crackdown on and constriction of civil society space, so it has also seen the rise of new forms of civil society action. From Extinction Rebellion to Black Lives Matter movements to protests in Myanmar, Malawi and Hong Kong, new generations of activists are mobilising new forms of mass action and resistance.32 As the ‘Focus on: Support behind the system’ explores, new networks and new forms of community-based action arose as a result of the pandemic, with community support stepping in to meet people’s needs.


If the last SOHS covered a period of big summits and global agreements, this SOHS covers the period in which those words were put to the test. In a burst of multilateralism between 2015 and 2018, global leaders signed a suite of agreements intended to reduce deprivation, disasters and displacement and boost the international community’s ability to work together to address them. These included the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the Sustainable Development Goals, the Sendai Framework on Disaster Risk Reduction and, most crucial to the humanitarian system, the Global Compacts on Refugees and Migrants, the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) and the Grand Bargain on humanitarian financing. Yet, despite calls from affected populations, governments and civil society, wholesale change did not materialise. As the system turned to implement these commitments, it invested significantly and made progress in some areas, while neglecting other reforms or finding them much harder to realise than expected, prompting some to wonder ‘Did anyone actually read what they’re signing up to?’.33 In the absence of strong monitoring systems for the WHS, progress was mainly assessed by self-reporting of activities against commitments rather than outcomes achieved.34

If the last SOHS covered a period of big summits and global agreements, this SOHS covers the period in which those words were put to the test.

But the world did not stand still as signatories attempted to deliver on their commitments: external events catalysed calls for the system to change more profoundly and quickly. Reignited discussions of racism and colonialism prompted critical questions about the roots, function and working models of Western-led humanitarian action. As Chapter 2 explores, these challenged the system to address power imbalances and discrimination within and between organisations and in relationships with crisis-affected populations.  

Crisis-affected people35 articulated their own expectations of what crisis support should look like, asking for more assistance in maintaining or improving livelihoods, education and other aspects of their lives beyond short-term survival. New attention to improving the ‘nexus’ between humanitarian, development and peace support sought to address this, but in the absence of other investments, humanitarians continued to be called on to provide basic services and address chronic vulnerabilities – balancing this against immediate life-saving response. Agencies were also challenged to reconcile resources and mandates with a greater demand for services like cash and protection that crossed agencies and sectors. This was part of a set of wider changes in expectations of the humanitarian system, which have been accumulating over the past decade, raising questions about the scope and focus of the humanitarian ambition.  

The decision by the Nobel Committee to award its 2020 Peace Prize to one of the largest humanitarian agencies, the World Food Programme, was an important, albeit brief, affirmation of the moral necessity of humanitarian aid and principled humanitarian action. This was a high-point for humanitarian public relations in a period where the system struggled to tell the best story about itself, or to adjust its traditional narrative, which increasingly came under attack for being tone-deaf in its victimisation of crisis-affected communities.36 In the course of our research, many people suggested that renewed questions about the place of humanitarianism were resulting in heightened confusion within the international humanitarian community, and antagonism towards it. As one policy expert put it, this was ‘missing the point about international solidarity, solidarity between people and helping each other being a fundamental part of the humanitarian endeavour’. Another explained that, while questions are important, it is more imperative than ever to have clarity on the essential purpose of humanitarian action as part of a social contract for a fair, global society: ‘It is part of the social contract. And the social contract is breaking. I am very worried about it.


 UN Secretary-General’s Address to the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly (New York: United Nations, 2021).


 WHO, Weekly Epidemiological Update on COVID-19, 28 December 2021 (World Health Organization, 2021).


 WHO, Global Excess Deaths Associated with COVID-19, January 2020 – December 2021 (World Health Organization, 2022).


 Another study found that fragile states were less affected: Yuqi Duan et al., ‘State fragility and the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic: An ecologic analysis of data from 146 countries’, Global Health Journal 5, no. 1 (2021): 18–23.


Ariel Karlinsky and Dmitry Kobak, ‘The World Mortality Dataset: Tracking excess mortality across countries during the COVID-19 pandemic’, preprint (Epidemiology, 2021).


Carolina Sánchez-Páramo et al., ‘COVID-19 leaves a legacy of rising poverty and widening inequality’ (Blog), World Bank, 7 October 2021.


 IPCC, Summary for Policymakers – Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge, UK/New York, US: Cambridge University Press, 2021).


IPCC, Summary for Policymakers – Climate Change 2022 Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability Working Group II Contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2022).


Dan Walton and Maarten van Aalst, Climate-Related Extreme Weather Events and COVID-19: A First Look at the Number of People Affected by Intersecting Disasters (Geneva: IFRC, 2020).


At least in terms of the size of country/regional humanitarian appeals.


UNHCR (2022) Global Trends. Forced Displacement in 2021.


 Glyn Taylor et al., Joint Evaluation of the Protection of the Rights of Refugees during the COVID-19 pandemic (Geneva: UNHCR, 2022).


 Mark Galeotti, ‘How Migrants Got Weaponized. The EU Set the Stage for Belarus’s Cynical Ploy’, Foreign Affairs, 2 December 2021.


 WHO, ‘WHO Director-General’s Opening Remarks at 148th Session of the Executive Board’, 2021.


See, e.g., Saleemul Huq, ‘Why COP26 Failed to Address Loss and Damage from Climate Change’, OECD Development Matters, 25 January 2022.


 Gideon Rachman, The Age of the Strongman: How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy Around the World (Vintage Publishing, 2022).


 Vanessa A Boese et al., Autocratization Changing Nature? Democracy Report 2022 (University of Gothenburg: V-Dem Institute, 2022).


 According to the definitions elaborated and measured by the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute at the University of Gothenburg. Boese et al., Democracy Report 2022.


According to Alizada et al. (2021), ‘Most democracies acted responsibly but 9 democracies register major and 23 moderate violations of international norms; 55 autocratic regimes engaged in major or moderate violations and 2/3 of all countries imposed restrictions on the media’ (Nazifa Alizada et al., Autocratization Turns Viral: Democracy Report 2021 (University of Gothenburg, V-Dem Institute, 2021).


Global key informant interview.


 Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (London: PublicAffairs, 2019).


 Jane Esberg, ‘What the Facebook whistleblower reveals about social media and conflict’, International Crisis Group, 18 November 2021.


 Stein Tønnesson, Min Zaw Oo and Ne Lynn Aung, ‘Pretending to be states: The use of Facebook by armed groups in Myanmar’, Journal of Contemporary Asia 52, no. 2 (2021): 200–225.


 Andrew Firmin, Inés Pousadela and Mandeep Tiwana, State of Civil Society Report (Johannesburg: CIVICUS, 2021).


Jessica Alexander, ‘Renewing the Grand Bargain, Part 2: Old Goals, a New Path’, The New Humanitarian, 11 June 2021.


 ALNAP, The State of the Humanitarian System 2018 (London: ALNAP, 2018).


 According to interviews for this study.


New York Times Editorial Board, ‘Foreign Aid Is Having a Reckoning’, New York Times, 13 February 2021.