In brief

By any measure, the humanitarian system has grown. Financially it is larger than ever, reaching an estimated $31.3 billion in 2021 – almost double what it was a decade before. However, the volume of funding plateaued over the study period, as some donors compensated for the contribution cuts made by others. The number of humanitarian agencies has also increased, by 10% over a decade, driven by growth in national and local NGOs. There are also more humanitarian staff working in crisis contexts – an estimated 40% rise since 2013.  

Despite this growth – and intentions to diversify – the system remains financially concentrated. Almost half of international humanitarian assistance continued to come from just five donors, and by 2021 around a third came from the US alone. Nearly half of funds allocated to organisations went to three UN agencies – the World Food Programme (WFP), UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and UNICEF. Annual fluctuations aside, this picture has changed little over the past decade, and the COVID-19 response appeared to reinforce this. Funds are of course passed on to implementing partners, but there is still a lack of data on how funding flows through the system from donor to ultimate recipient. 

National staff make up over 90% of the humanitarian workforce in emergency settings. But despite being the bedrock of humanitarian response, national staff still face a pay and power gap between them and their international colleagues, both in-country and headquartered. Staff who are nationals of countries affected by humanitarian crises are often under-represented in leadership positions, particularly at international headquarters and board level. This is part of a wider set of diversity, equity and inclusion issues. The Black Lives Matter movement prompted new calls for the system to address these problems and raised questions about racism in the sector. In response, agencies have launched initiatives and announced commitments.


Since its inception, The State of the Humanitarian System report has chosen a broad working definition of the humanitarian system – one that recognises the complexity and fluidity within it, and its connections with others. As set out in the introduction to this report, this definition of the system comprises entities that are operationally or financially related to each other and/or share common overarching goals, norms and principles. Acknowledging the imperfection of any definition, it uses this one both to set parameters for assessing performance, and to chart shifts in the boundaries and shape of the system. 

As we have seen in Chapter 1, the past four years have seen mounting pressures to redefine and reconfigure the humanitarian system. The COVID-19 pandemic – a public health and an economic crisis – brought new questions about where humanitarian action begins and ends, and who should fund it, as have the worsening effects of climate change. There were also challenges to the Western dominance of the humanitarian system and renewed attention to the decolonisation of aid. At the same time, a default to a well-established business model for channelling resources in large-scale crises served to reinforce the status quo. 

This chapter gives an overview of the configuration of the humanitarian system, looking at sources of funding, the shape of the humanitarian delivery system and the make-up of the humanitarian workforce. Recognising the critical importance of the entities and networks at the peripheries of this internationally funded system, the ‘Focus on: Support beyond the system’ section examines the shape and role of the wider sources of support for crisis-affected people. Chapter 9 examines whether any progress on localisation is changing the system.

What’s the overall financial size of the system?

There has been a huge growth in international humanitarian financing. In real terms, international humanitarian assistance has nearly doubled over the past decade; at an estimated $31.3 billion in 2021, funding is larger than ever before. However, the rate of growth has decreased. After steady and significant growth following the onset of the Syria crisis in 2012, funding plateaued in the three years between 2018 and 2020, rising only slightly in 2021 – by 2.5% compared to the average 10% annual growth between 2012 and 2018. It appears that the response to the COVID-19 pandemic offset falls in funding elsewhere, so that the overall total increased only marginally. While the volume from public donors grew by only $0.1 billion over the study period, the volume from private donors – trusts, foundations and individual giving to humanitarian agencies61 – increased by $0.7 billion. 

International humanitarian assistance has nearly doubled over the past decade.

Figure 4: Total international humanitarian assistance, 2012–2021 

Total funding for international humanitarian assistance in 2021 was nearly double what it had been a decade before, but funding largely plateaued over the four years between 2018 and 2021.


Source: Development Initiatives (DI) based on Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC), UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Financial Tracking Service, UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) and DI’s unique dataset for private contributions.

Notes: Figures for 2021 are preliminary estimates. Data on private funding is not consistently available for all organisations across all years. Data is in constant 2020 prices.

By the end of 2021, the COVID-19 response had waned, and the fiscal shocks of the pandemic reverberated in donor economies (only to be worsened in 2022 by the economic impact of war in Ukraine). These financial constraints, combined with marginal increases in humanitarian aid over the past four years, prompt questions about whether the system can continue to grow to meet new and compounded consequences of crises (which we explore in Chapters 1 and ‘Is the system fit for the future?’ section). The Ukraine response has shown that funding can still be responsive to high-profile spikes in humanitarian need, but what effect this will have on funding to other crises remains to be seen. 

Funding from government donors

Consistent with previous periods, around 80% of international humanitarian funding comes from public funds. The bulk of this continued to come from a handful of public donors – in each year from 2018 to 2021, at least 50% of total funding came from the five largest annual donors. The US remained the largest donor and was the only major donor to increase its funding every year over the study period. Its share of total humanitarian aid provision also rose: in 2021, nearly a third of humanitarian aid came from the US. By contrast, rises in funding from the UK, which saw it become the second-largest donor in 2019, were reversed in 2020 following the decision to suspend its 0.7% aid commitment.62 The 39% reduction in UK humanitarian assistance meant that it provided almost $1 billion dollars less funding globally in 2021 than in 2018.  

There was also volatility among the smaller of the top donors. After two years of decline, Japan doubled its humanitarian aid in 2021, making it one of the five largest donors, while year-on-year reductions in funding from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) saw it fall out of this group. The combined decrease in reported assistance63 from Saudi Arabia and UAE over the period – a 62% reduction – runs counter to the hopes of growth from this region reported in previous SOHS editions.

Figure 5: Proportions of total international humanitarian assistance provided by the five largest donors and all other donors, 2018–2021 

Since 2018 at least half of all international humanitarian funding has come from just five donors each year. Around a third of total funds came from the US in 2021.


Source: Development Initiatives based on Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC), UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Financial Tracking Service, UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) and their unique dataset for private contributions.

Notes: Government donor contributions for Figure 5 do not include imputed humanitarian assistance through EU institutions, which is shown as a separate public donor. If you read the 2022 SOHS report between 7 September and 2 October, please be aware that this figure has since been updated to more clearly reflect the contributions of institutional donors.

Figure 6: International humanitarian assistance provided by largest donor countries, 2018–2021

Funding levels from the largest donor countries showed major changes between 2018 and 2021. As US contributions grew year on year, the UK’s declined sharply. ‘Smaller’ donors also experienced shifts over the study period, with Japan’s contributions rising sharply in 2021 and the UAE seeing a steady decline.

Source: Development Initiatives based on Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC), UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Financial Tracking Service and UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF).

Notes: Imputed contributions by government donors through EU institutions are included in individual government donor totals, and are therefore not directly comparable with the totals shown in Figure 5. Contributions from EU institutions are included in Figure 6 for comparison but shaded differently to distinguish from bilateral government donors and to indicate that there is a degree of double counting with the contributions shown here from EU member states. Figures for 2021 are preliminary estimates. Data is in constant 2020 prices. If you read the 2022 SOHS report between 7 September and 2 October, please be aware that this figure has since been updated to more clearly reflect the contributions of institutional donors.


Funding from private sources 

As Figure 5 shows, the estimated volume of funding to the system from private sources has grown since the start of the study period – from $5.7 billion in 2018 to $6.4 billion in 2021. However, this has not been steady growth: as private funding responded to changes in high-profile crises, levels have varied between years and the provisional 2021 total is similar to that seen in 2015. Private funding peaked in 2020, suggesting a high level of mobilisation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly from foundations and the private sector, whose contributions more than doubled from the previous year – while that from individual giving shrank slightly. 

The vast majority of private funding to humanitarian organisations continued to come from individuals, even though this share reduced slightly when the pandemic hit. Individual giving continued to be an essential and flexible part of their income for some NGOs, including Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), for which it largely enabled independence from government funding. Several INGO representatives interviewed for this edition of the SOHS noted their surprise that individual giving had continued at similar levels given the impact of the pandemic on household budgets. It is likely that future reports will show a new peak in individual giving prompted by the war in Ukraine. 

Figure 7: Proportion of international humanitarian assistance provided by private sector and private donations, 2018–2020

In 2020, international humanitarian assistance from private donors reached a record $6.5 billion. Contributions from individuals continue to account for the vast majority of this private funding. But while individual giving fell in 2020, contributions from philanthropic foundations and companies both grew.

Source: Development Initiatives, Global Humanitarian Assistance (GHA).

The COVID-19 pandemic appeared to trigger an increase in resources from the private sector, which doubled from $0.3 billion in 2019 to $0.6 billion in 2020. As Focus on: Support behind the system’ explores, the international and domestic private sector also provides an important source of support to crisis-affected populations, outside of the resources it channels through the humanitarian system. International humanitarian agencies continued to seek to improve their partnerships with the private sector, to mobilise financial, in-kind and technical support. OCHA’s Connecting Business Initiative, launched in 2016 to integrate the private sector into disaster response, worked with 17 national private sector networks in 2020, reaching approximately 15.5 million people.64 Several agencies adopted new or revised existing private sector engagement strategies, including WFP, the UN Environment Programme and the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Some donors, such as the Finland Ministry for Foreign Affairs and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), have also sought to improve their private sector engagement policies.65 However, some relationships with the private sector raised ethical concerns, as the high-profile data protection issues explored in Chapter 7 highlight.66 

What’s the shape of the humanitarian delivery system?

Numbers of humanitarian organisations 

Although a relatively small number of agencies comprise the first-line recipients of international humanitarian financing, they are part of a much larger system of operational agencies that either make up the ‘long tail’ of direct recipients or receive funds further down the transaction chain. 

According to figures collated by Humanitarian Outcomes, there were an estimated 5,000 organisations in the humanitarian system in 2021, roughly 10% higher than estimates a decade ago. This is due to a marked growth in the number of of international NGOs (INGOs) and local and national NGOs (L/NNGOs), which have increased by around a fifth and a third respectively (though at least in the case of L/NNGOs this may be more a reflection of improvements in data gathering than actual growth). While the largest humanitarian agencies are a well-established part of the international system, many smaller ones – particularly L/NNGOs – come and go as crisis situations escalate and subside, along with the funding and international partnerships that they bring. This is especially true in the case of large-scale sudden-onset emergencies, such as the 2021 Haiti earthquake, 2013 Typhoon Haiyan and Ebola in West Africa (2014–2016).

Figure 8: Estimated number of humanitarian organisations, 2021 

The estimated number of humanitarian organisations has increased by 10% over the past decade. The majority are L/NNGOs, although the apparent rise might be due to better data availability.


Source: Humanitarian Outcomes, Global Database of Humanitarian Organisations (GDHO).

Notes: See methodology in Annex 3. L/NNGOs/INGO figures for 2012 may be higher as 19% of a total 4,400 NGOs in the GDHO database were not categorised

Figure 9: Channels of delivery of international humanitarian assistance from public donors, 2012–2021

Over the past decade, close to 60% of funding from government donors went to UN agencies (multi-lateral organisations) and 20% went to NGOs. Compared to other government donors, OECD DAC member governments have a more consistent preference for channelling their aid in this way.

Source: Development Initiatives based on UN OCHA FTS data.

Notes: Data is in constant 2020 prices and values have been rounded up to the nearest hundred. Figures include first level recipient data from government sources (DAC and other governments) and EU institutions as reported on FTS. ‘Pooled fund’ refers to funding to CERF, CBPFs and other pooled funds. ‘Public sector’ refers to funding to national governments and inter-governmental organisations. The following categories of: Academia/think/research, Foundations, Other, Private individual/organisation, Private organization/foundation, Private sector corporations and Undefined have been merged under ‘Other’. RCRC is the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

While the number and diversity of NGOs has grown over the past decade, the bulk of humanitarian aid continues to flow – in the first instance – through UN agencies. On average, between 2012 and 2021, 56% of public humanitarian assistance went to UN organisations, compared to 18% via NGOs and 9% through the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Although there have been some annual fluctuations, this funding model appears to be firmly established.  

This is certainly the case for the funding from OECD DAC donors, which provide over 90% of reported humanitarian aid from governments.67 However, funding from government donors outside the DAC group does not appear to follow the same pattern. Instead, these donors showed significant year-on-year variation in how they channel their funds, largely driven by irregular funding behaviour and reporting among Gulf states. Compared to their DAC counterparts, other government donors gave to a smaller selection of recipients, a smaller and declining share to UN agencies (36% on average over the decade) and a greater and increasing share to national governments and inter-governmental organisations (22%). As noted, this runs counter to previous hopes that Gulf donors might plug the international system’s financing gap. While their contributions to pooled funds did spike in 2021, this was specifically due to donations from the UAE and Saudi Arabia to the Yemen Famine Relief Fund.68 

Of course, these patterns only show where funding was channelled in the first place; there is currently no systematic tracking of how money travels down the transaction chain to reach crisis-affected people. Clearly, however, there was significant pass-through, from UN agencies to NGO partners, and from INGOs to local and national NGOs, as Chapter 9 explores. UN agencies in particular are themselves donors as much as implementers, and gatekeepers as much as recipient organisations. 

Over the past four years, almost half (47%) of humanitarian aid reported to the Financial Tracking Service (FTS) was initially absorbed by just three UN agencies: WFP, UNHCR and UNICEF. Of these, WFP was the largest, receiving 28% of funding compared to UNHCR’s 12% and UNICEF’s 7%.69 While the shares of these three agencies stayed fairly stable over the four years, there was a little more variation among the group of top-20 recipients over the period – though the UN agencies and ICRC consistently featured in this group, their share of the total fluctuated year on year. Among NGOs, the Norwegian Refugee Council was consistently the largest, with Save the Children, Catholic Relief Services and the Danish Refugee Council featuring in the top 20 every year. 

Figure 10: Concentration of funding received by agencies from institutional donors, 2018–2021

Nearly half of humanitarian aid each year goes to just three organisations: WFP, UNHCR and UNICEF. Around 80% is received by only 20 organisations, but these are not the same every year.

Source: Development Initiatives based on UN OCHA FTS.

Notes: Figures are based on shares of net organisation-allocable funding. This includes all funding that has been newly received by all organisation minus the funding each organisation in turn provides to partners in the same year. Data is in constant 2020 prices.

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted a slight increase in the share of funding absorbed by the 20 largest agencies, with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the Global Alliance on Vaccines and Immunization featuring in the group for the first time. However, as donors favoured agencies that were able to deliver at scale, the top-three UN agencies also absorbed a greater than usual share of COVID-specific funding. 

The figures for how much funding agencies received from institutional donors do not map neatly onto how much they spent on operations. Humanitarian organisations’ expenditure comes from a combination of direct and indirect funds from institutional donors and private individuals, and they may also dip into reserves to scale up or maintain delivery in periods of funding uncertainty. Based on available budget figures, the estimated humanitarian expenditure reported by operational organisations grew by an average of 16% despite the minimal increases in funding reported by international donors over the study period; however,- these estimates should be treated with caution given they may not fully capture all sources of organisational income and there may be time-lags in reporting.70  

The expenditures of the largest humanitarian organisations increased by a far greater degree than the rest. Between 2017 and 2020, UN agencies saw a growth in expenditure of 24% in real terms, and IFRC and ICRC, of 17%. Expenditure by the five largest INGOs grew by 22%, compared to the average decrease of 4% among all NGOs. The same five international NGOs remained the largest in the humanitarian INGO landscape. Together, MSF, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Save the Children International and World Vision International (WVI) accounted for just over a quarter of total NGO expenditure71 in 2020, a share which grew by 4% since the last SOHS. Notably, two NGOs (MSF and WVI) do not feature in the largest recipients of institutional humanitarian aid, given that their income largely comes from private individuals. 

At the other end of the spectrum some L/NNGOs may have seen a bigger rise in their spend, which was much more in line with the growth of their larger international counterparts. For the roughly 100 L/NNGOs (across 26 countries) for which data is available, overall programming budgets grew on average by 28% over the period – an average that masks considerable variation between organisations. This suggests an important feature of localisation: that despite poor progress towards commitments on channelling funding to local and national organisations ‘as directly as possible’, they received much more indirectly and via other channels as the system relied heavily on them for delivery in places where internationals found it too dangerous or difficult to operate,72 particularly in the COVID-19 era of remote programming.

Figure 11: Humanitarian expenditure by organisation type, 2018–2020

UN agencies accounted for the majority of humanitarian expenditure, and this grew significantly between 2018 and 2020. Expenditure by the five largest NGOs grew marginally, while that of all other NGOs declined.

Source: Humanitarian Outcomes, Global Database of Humanitarian Organisations.

Note: Values have been rounded up.


  UN agencies* % change (prior yr) Top 5 INGOs** % change (prior yr) All NGOs (est.) % change (prior yr) ICRC and IFRC
2018 $15.3 billion -4% $3.9 billion   $15.9 billion   $1.6 billion
2019 $19.0 billion 24% $4.5 billion 10% $17 billion 7% $1.8 billion
2020 $21.0 billion 11% $4.5 billion 0% $17 billion 0% $2.1 billion
2017 (prior to SOHS period) $16.0 billion   $3.5 billion   $16.8 billion   $1.7 billion
% change 2017–2020 31%   29%   1%   24%



Source: Humanitarian Outcomes, Global Database of Humanitarian Organisations.

Leadership, staffing and pay

Size and distribution of the humanitarian workforce in humanitarian settings 

Figure 12: In-country humanitarian personnel, by organisation type, 2010–2020

The number of humanitarian staff working in crisis-affected countries has more than doubled over the past decade according to SOHS estimates. Since 2015, NGO staff have accounted for a growing majority of this in-country workforce.

Source: Humanitarian Outcomes, Global Database of Humanitarian Organisations.

Notes: The corresponding years for the above estimates are: 2010 (SOHS 2012); 2013 (SOHS 2015); 2017 (SOHS 2018); and 2020 (SOHS 2022). The estimates published in the SOHS Report 2012 (for 2010) differ from these above, due to changes in methodology of estimating humanitarian personnel in multi-mandated organisations and increased availability of data in later years. Figures for Red Cross/Red Crescent comprise combined employees of ICRC, IFRC and National Societies in middle- and low-income countries. The first figure for Red Cross Movement staff, is from 2012 rather than 2010, as it is the first year for which adequate data is available. Values have been rounded up.


The estimated number of humanitarian staff working in emergency contexts rose by 11% since the last study period, and by 40% since 2013 estimates.73 This stands to reason given the growth in humanitarian funding over the period, the rising scale of needs and the number of countries with a coordinated international humanitarian response. While increases in staff numbers bring more operational capacity, they also present challenges, including more exposure to risk – such as attacks on aid workers – and the need for greater investments in management and training to ensure quality and safeguarding standards

Since 2013, both NGO and UN field staff numbers have increased by over 50% – the estimated number of NGO field staff grew by approximately 57% between 2013 and 2020, compared to a 50% rise in the number of UN staff. But the four-year period studied is notable in two ways: first, the number of UN staff rose much less than NGO staff – a 6% increase for UN agencies compared to 18% for NGOs; and second, the overall rise in staff numbers was not commensurate with the rise in agencies’ income or expenditure. There is no conclusive evidence to explain these trends, but they may in part be due to factors observed in the research for this report – the constraints on access that curb the presence of large numbers of international staff, pass-through to partner organisations and an increase in cash programming, which is less staff-intensive.74  

Figure 13: In-country humanitarian personnel, national and international staff, 2020 

More than 630,000 humanitarian staff were estimated to be working in countries with humanitarian crises in 2020. Over 90% of these staff were nationals of the countries they were working in.

Source: Humanitarian Outcomes, Global Database of Humanitarian Organisations.

Notes: Estimate for National NGO (NNGO) staff is based on the estimate of 1585 national and local NGOs working within the humanitarian system in 2020, compiled from OCHA 3Ws data pulled from

National staff make up over 90% of the estimated humanitarian workforce in emergency settings. In 2020, nearly 93% of humanitarian field staff were nationals of the country they were working in. Although this high proportion is somewhat driven by the estimated staffing numbers of national NGOs and national societies of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, the overwhelming majority of international organisations’ in-country staff are also national.75 While national staff are the bedrock of the humanitarian response, they are – as the next section shows – extremely under-represented in the leadership of the international system, both in-country and at headquarters. 

National staff make up over 90% of the estimated humanitarian workforce in emergency settings.


Aid worker salaries vary significantly depending on the type of organisation they work for. Comprehensive global pay scales are not publicly available, nor are the benchmarks and considerations behind these, but data for a small sample of agencies and countries collated by Humanitarian Outcomes for this edition of the SOHS76 suggests that, on average, UN staff were paid more than double their INGO peers, and staff of international organisations as a whole were paid on average six times the salary of L/NNGO staffers. The differences appear even starker when seen at a country level – in South Sudan, for example, the average mid-range salary for L/NNGO staff was in the region of $11,300, compared to $30,600 for INGO staff and $91,600 for UN staff. At an equivalent level in Bangladesh, L/NNGO staffers from our sample organisations earned on average $10,800, compared to $16,500 for INGOs and $93,600 for UN staff. Although international organisations need to consider pay parity across their global operations, the impact of these pay differentials are very real for local job markets, perceptions of aid workers and staff retention in local organisations. 

The pay gap between local and international staff has been previously documented within organisations in the wider international aid system. A 2016 study of 200 humanitarian and development organisations working in six countries found that local staff were paid around four times less than their international colleagues who had a similar level of responsibility and experience.77 While these findings were prior to the period studied in this research, and do not uniquely include humanitarian contexts, they do reflect long-standing concerns within the sector around how to balance fair pay with labour market considerations and efficient use of funds. In 2015, the CHS Alliance joined a global alliance on Fairness in Aid Remuneration (‘Project Fair’), established to explore and address this complex issue  through, among others, a set of principles and standards for fair reward. A 2020 review of implementation across 13 INGO members of Project Fair found varied levels of organisational commitment and practical measures to improve fairness, with the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement prompting some renewed attention.

Diversity, equity and inclusion

The murder of George Floyd in 2020 sparked a surge in awareness of systemic racism in all areas of public life. For the humanitarian system, this catalysed a new level of debate about power and diversity, connecting to the ongoing push for localisation and giving new vigour to previously marginalised discussions about decolonisation. In his annual Nelson Mandela lecture in August 2020, the UN Secretary-General said: ‘The creation of the United Nations was based on a new global consensus around equality and human dignity. And a wave of decolonisation swept the world. But let’s not fool ourselves. The legacy of colonialism still reverberates’.78 

While these discussions raise a much wider set of challenges to the legitimacy of the Western-led humanitarian endeavour,79 there are also specific questions about the profile of its staffing and leadership. Like the #AidToo shockwaves reported in the last SOHS, questions about the culture and identity of the system gave a vocabulary, framing and urgency to long-standing misgivings harboured by many aid workers. What had been a side-lined critique suddenly became a headline governance and operational issue. As one advocate noted, the very recognition of racism was a step forward: ‘I do feel like we’re travelling in the right direction because of organisations thinking, understanding that they have a problem, right? Some time ago, I think a lot of people would be like “but we’re the good guys, right?”.’ Heads of humanitarian organisations stated their personal commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, moving these from tick boxes to ‘part of our DNA’.80  

It is not clear whether these commitments have resulted in real shifts in the staffing, leadership and workplace culture of humanitarian organisations – policy statements often did not include targets, baseline data was poor and new information hard to obtain. When The New Humanitarian surveyed 21 international organisations about diversity in 2020, only nine responded.81 Original research conducted by Humanitarian Outcomes for this edition of the SOHS encountered similar difficulties in gathering information, suggesting that many agencies are not collecting information or are reluctant to share what they find (while several organisations were quick to provide sensitive data, there was not enough to form a representative sample).82 Organisations also define diversity differently, encompassing various combinations of racial diversity and gender parity as well as sexual identity and class, which makes  clarity and comparisons difficult. 


Many major INGOs have put in place policies, strategies and training programmes to increase the diversity of their staff and address the systemic issues hindering recruitment, retention and respect in the workplace. Staff interviewed for this edition of the SOHS gave examples of a range of recently launched initiatives, including nominating diversity champions, putting in place ‘reverse mentoring’ schemes, widening outreach for internship schemes and undertaking large-scale consultations. Some reported proactive changes to hiring practices in order to meet their new targets. Others mentioned addressing the structural prejudices that are baked into the reliance on unpaid or poorly paid internship schemes, noting that ‘operating off the back of some level of free labour from hungry graduate students’ prevented a diverse workforce from stepping onto the humanitarian career ladder. 

What these agency-specific initiatives amount to and whether these efforts result in a change in the profile of the humanitarian workforce may become clearer in coming years – if agencies are able to share more data on this. However, what is clear is that there is a high degree of scepticism about the system’s capacity to change. In a Bond survey of British development INGOs, only 11% of respondents strongly agreed that organisations were committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, and that high levels of racism still prevented People of Colour from joining and progressing in the sector.83 Similarly, two-thirds of respondents to a survey by The New Humanitarian felt that the response to demands for greater racial justice was inadequate, and 85% said that actions had not resulted in changes in personal experience in the workplace. In the same survey, 13% said that they had considered leaving their job in the previous year due to discrimination.  


The sector appeared to be doing better on the representation of women in senior positions. In the sample of UN agencies and INGOs that provided information, an analysis by Humanitarian Outcomes showed that 49% of the highest-paid jobs in UN agencies were held by women, and 61% in INGOs. Our review of publicly available information also suggests that the boards of major INGOs are moving towards parity in gender representation (44% of board members were women). However, others felt that this should not be grounds for complacency: as one humanitarian leader noted, ‘if that doesn’t happen at the very top, what do you expect to happen further down? Go to New York and look on the wall of the Secretary-Generals. We have, what is it, 80 years of male Secretary-Generals?’ 

When it comes to leadership positions for people from countries receiving humanitarian aid, progress appears to be more limited. This is supported by the findings of a recent survey of 15 prominent international NGOs by the Center for Global Development,84 which found fewer than 20% of board members were from countries eligible to receive official development aid. It concluded that ‘currently, even superficial representation is rare. Only 2% of board members we assessed reported having any lived experience in a refugee or humanitarian context. Of the 2%, none represent populations currently experiencing crisis’. One inquiry, by Foreign Policy, specifically criticised UN OCHA for the lack of diversity in its senior ranks. It noted that the majority of senior staff are recruited from the countries that fund it, rather than the regions and countries in which it operates. As well as its head role being de facto reserved for British candidates, the analysis identified a glass ceiling for other senior roles: ‘Members of the African country blocs account for 23% of overall posts [at OCHA] but they are largely invisible in the agency’s top ranks at UN headquarters. The Asian, Latin American, and Eastern European blocs fared even worse, accounting for only 16% , 4%, and 3% of OCHA staff, respectively’.85 In response, Martin Griffiths, the newly appointed Emergency Relief Coordinator, noted the tough questions that the agency was starting to ask itself, and the improvements it needed to make, recognising that ‘It’s going to be a generational change … adapting to the fact that the world shouldn’t be run by the North, that OCHA shouldn’t be run by someone like me’.86 

It’s going to be a generational change … adapting to the fact that the world shouldn’t be run by the North.

While agencies employ a large number of national staff, it appears that only a minority make it to country director level, let alone to HQ leadership positions. Among the small sample of UN agencies and INGOs that responded to Humanitarian Outcomes’ questionnaire for this edition of the SOHS, an average of less than 20% of country director posts were occupied by national staff. One respondent to our global survey of aid practitioners expressed their frustration with this disparity: ‘I’m not sure why there is this dependence on internationals to lead humanitarian interventions – so many excellent national staff could do so much better’. Organisational policy and practice on national leadership varies widely: while some UN agencies have a tradition of rotating international staff into their country representative posts, some INGOs have a policy of recruiting country directors from the countries they work in, and others intentionally avoid recruiting national directors where this would put them or the organisation’s operations at risk.  

Figure 14: Humanitarian expenditure by organisation type, 2020

The top-three UN agencies (WFP, UNHCR and UNICEF) and the top-10 INGOs together accounted for more than half of all humanitarian expenditure in 2020.

Source: Humanitarian Outcomes, Global Database of Humanitarian Organisations (GDHO).

Notes: See methodology in Annex 3. Values have been rounded up.

Figure 15: In-country humanitarian staff by organisation type, 2020 

Nearly half of humanitarian staff in countries with humanitarian crises were working for international NGOs according to estimates in 2020.

Source: Humanitarian Outcomes, Global Database of Humanitarian Organisations (GDHO).

Notes: Estimated numbers of staff, rounded to the nearest thousand. See methodology in Annex 3. Red Cross/Crescent figure combines staff (employees) of ICRC, IFRC and National Societies in middle- and low-income countries. Values have been rounded up.

Figure 16: International humanitarian assistance received, by agency type, 2021 

Most funding goes to UN agencies in the first instance. In 2021, they received two-thirds of direct international contributions to humanitarian assistance.

Source: Development Initiatives based on UN OCHA FTS.

Notes: Figures are based on shares of net organisation-allocable funding. This includes all funding that has been newly received by all organisation minus the funding each organisation in turn provides in the same year. Data is in constant 2020 prices and values have been rounded up.


See methodology in Annex 3 for a full explanation of the private funding dataset compiled by Development Initiatives from which this analysis is derived.


The commitment to provide a volume of ODA equivalent to 0.7% of GDP was reduced to 0.5%.


Note that historically Gulf donors have tended to be less consistent and comprehensive in their reporting to OCHA FTS, so the apparent changes in funding may partly also reflect changes in reporting.


OCHA, ‘Connecting Business Initiative’, n.d.


R. Zetter et al., ‘Evaluation on Forced Displacement and Finnish Development Policy. Final Report’ (Finland: Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, 2019).


Nathaniel Raymond, Laura Waker McDonald and Rahul Chandran, ‘Opinion: The WFP and Palantir controversy should be a wake-up call for humanitarian community’, Devex, 14 February 2019; Zara Rahman, ‘The UN’s refugee data shame’, The New Humanitarian, 21 June 2021.


Aggregate funding from OECD DAC donors accounted for 92% of all international humanitarian funding from public donors reported to FTS over the 10 years 2012–2021.


A total contribution of $405 million which accounted for almost all contributions from non-DAC donors to pooled funds in 2021 and over a quarter of all contributions from those donor governments overall.


Figures are derived from OCHA’s Financial Tracking Service, which does not capture all funds from private individuals, which are a more significant form of fundraising for UNICEF and UNHCR than WFP. Therefore, these proportions may look slightly different if the full scale of these private funds were factored in.


Reporting to the FTS does not fully capture all funding to organisations from private funds, indirect funding and sub-grants, and core funding to multi-mandate organisations, which may end up being used for humanitarian expenditure.


Given that large NGOs often subgrant to smaller partners, some double counting is inevitable when summing expenditures across NGOs. However, this means that the market share of the largest INGOs is even larger than it appears here.


See, for example, E. O’Leary, ‘Principles Under Pressure. The Impact Of Counterterrorism Measures And Preventing/Countering Violent Extremism On Principled Humanitarian Action’ (Oslo: Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), 2018). and the published findings of Humanitarian Outcomes’ research programmes, SAVE (link) and CORE (link).


The methodology (see Annex 3) provides an estimate of staffing in emergency settings rather than global staff including in regional hubs and headquarters. Additional research conducted for this edition of the SOHS into a small sample of UN agencies and INGOs, suggested that this field workforce makes up the bulk of humanitarian personnel. It also suggested that UN agencies are much more top-heavy than INGOs, having on average double the proportion of their staff in HQ as opposed to working at the country level (12% for UN agencies as opposed to 6% for INGOs in our sample). This would be explained in part by the more coordination-oriented role that UN agencies play in humanitarian response.


According to FTS, COVID-19 funding included roughly $100 million of cash assistance.


According to the figures in this table, nearly 79% of UN staff were nationals; 92% of INGO staff; 73% of IFRC staff; and 86% of ICRC staff.


See methodology in annex 3


Stuart Carr and Ishbel McWha-Hermann, ‘Mind the Gap in Local and International Aid Workers’, The Conversation, 18 April 2016. This study surveyed 1,300 staff working in around 200 organisations in India, China, Malawi, Uganda, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.


António Guterres, ‘Address by the UN Secretary-General at the 18th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture 2020’, Nelson Mandela Foundation, New York, 18 July 2020.


There are multiple dimensions and interpretations of decolonisation. It includes meaningful localisation – which recognises the power and capability of locally led action and divests power and resources to it. We focus specifically on this in Chapter 9.


The New Humanitarian, ‘Aid Agency Actions on Racial Injustice Inadequate, Aid Workers Say’, 2021.


The New Humanitarian. (Ibid) Seven organisations did not respond to the TNH questionnaire, two declined to respond and three shared statements instead of responding to questions.


See methodology in annex 3.


L. Bheroo, P. Mafethe, and L. Billing, ‘Racism, Power and Truth: Experiences of People of Colour in Development’ (London: BOND, 2021).


R. Worden and P. Saez, ‘Shifting Power in Humanitarian Nonprofits A Review of 15 NGO Governing Boards’, Note (Washington DC: Centre for Global Development, 2021), 5.


C. Lynch, ‘The UN Has a Diversity Problem’, Foreign Policy, 2020.


M. Griffiths, ‘Rethinking Humanitarianism: An Interview with the UN’s Humanitarian Chief Podcast’, The New Humanitarian, 2022.