Cumulative and complex crises

Conflict continued to drive the majority of humanitarian need – just as it always has. Of the 30 humanitarian response plans in 2021, 27 were for countries with active conflicts, and there were a further eight refugee response plans to support people fleeing conflict.747

These conflicts are part of complex emergencies, fuelling and fuelled by stress on resources (including by climate change), chronic poverty and the collapse of state institutions. Syria, for example, saw a ceasefire in Idlib province in March 2021, but at the same time COVID-19 containment measures pushed a further 60% of people into food insecurity, while wildfires destroyed crops, livelihoods and assets.748 As multiple threats collide, for civilians living in active conflicts hunger and disease are often a greater threat to life than direct attack – of the five countries at greatest risk of famine during 2018–2021 (Yemen, South Sudan, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Ethiopia), the common driver across all of them was violent conflict. 

Despite the call for a global ceasefire following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of conflicts continued to increase. According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, by 2020 the number of conflicts more than doubled over the previous decade.749 Violence in 2020 included a record 56 state-based conflicts, eight of which had reached the scale of wars.750 In the same year, the conflict data project ACLED counted nearly 30,000 direct fatalities from violence against civilians.751 As previous SOHS reports have documented,752 the toll of violent conflict is cumulative: new complex emergencies appear faster than old ones are resolved. The past four years may have seen a peace agreement in South Sudan, but there was no end in sight for major protracted crises in Yemen, Syria and Mali. Meanwhile new or renewed conflicts in Ethiopia and Burkina Faso added to the list. The analysis in the 2015 SOHS still holds true: in the absence of political solutions to conflict, and of development approaches to support people’s welfare in protracted conflict settings, the majority of humanitarian resources continue to be directed to chronic complex crises – 80% of country-allocable funding in the study period.753

Access in active conflict

How the system responds in the hardest to reach, active conflict situations is often taken as the litmus test of the humanitarian endeavour. As we have seen in Chapter 5, the ultimate ‘metric of success’ for humanitarians is how well they meet people’s need in these most tightly constrained spaces.754

The mapping of humanitarian presence within conflicts, let alone the quality of that presence, remains imprecise, but evidence suggests a decade-long trend in which fewer international humanitarian organisations ‘respond to highly violent, conflict-driven emergencies, irrespective of funding available and the needs of the population’.755 There is also limited humanitarian presence at a sub-national level in many cases – including in areas outside state control in state-based conflicts. This was the case in Afghanistan before the Taliban takeover and was increasingly the case in Syria over the study period as cross-border options narrowed.

Despite this, aid is still finding ways to get through. As testament to this, one humanitarian leader pointed to the fact that the predicted famine in Yemen was averted. There is, however, a high price to pay for access – not only in terms of financial costs, but also in terms of principles, as we saw in the previous chapter. Beyond the amount of aid delivered or people reached there is also often little analysis of the positive or negative impacts of humanitarian action in these intense conflict settings. This is part of a wider lack of contextual understanding and conflict sensitivity on the part of many international agencies, and the conclusion in the 2012 SOHS that the international system had been ‘amateurish’ in its understanding of the conflict in Darfur resonates with emerging findings from Ethiopia and Afghanistan in 2021.

Responding in new conflicts and remaining in protracted ones

While significant advances have been made in anticipating and preparing for disasters, major escalations in conflicts remain harder to predict. In 2015, the SOHS reported the early warning and preparedness failures ahead of upsurges in violence in Mali and South Sudan but pointed to the potential of new investments in risk mapping. Seven years later, this seems to have advanced very little. While the indicators and methodologies for scoring conflict risk and fragility in indices such as INFORM may have become more refined, there is limited evidence of this translating into actionable protocols for early warning and preparedness. There were promising programmatic examples of early action, with some success, including in Northern Nigeria and DRC,756 but this was not happening at scale. In Afghanistan, most agencies had no preparedness plan in place when they knew that US troops would be withdrawing. Aid workers say that they were shocked by the speed of events and had thought they had more time to plan. This goes wider than the humanitarian system – despite warning signs, the international community as a whole was caught on the back foot by the Taliban takeover, as well as the conflict in Tigray. (see ‘Ethiopia case study: The conflict in Tigray’ section).

At the same time, as existing conflicts become protracted, the international system appears to be no closer to sustainably meeting people’s basic needs through development support, supporting resolution through political means or keeping up with humanitarian requirements. As the new UN Emergency Relief Coordinator lamented, ‘Syria is in its tenth year … And in every year, the humanitarian delivery to the people of Syria gets less and less. And the poverty levels of the people of Syria gets more and more. We are failing each year more to do our job for the Syrian people. We need to look at how to move away from that’.757 As the data in Chapter 4 shows, the sufficiency of humanitarian funding for protracted crises often fluctuates over time as new crises compete for funds. For example, in 2012 the $0.8 billion appeal for DRC was 74% funded, compared to the nearly $2 billion appeal in 2021, which was only 44% funded – the volume of funding grew, but not in step with the increase in need. Although there are smaller outliers, including the Central African Republic, where funds have kept pace with rising demand, and spikes in conflict can prompt spikes in response, the trend of declining sufficiency is true across many major protracted crises.

Other sources of support also remain inadequate. The 2015 SOHS noted that development actors were starting to recognise and prioritise working in fragile contexts. This has resulted in a far greater degree of investment and engagement by the World Bank (see ‘Focus on: Support beyond the system’), but there has not been a transformative approach to ‘doing development differently’ in conflict settings, and as the response to Afghanistan in 2021 shows, there is still a pendulum swing back to humanitarian modalities when development models fail. In Yemen, the World Bank’s innovative solution of channelling IDA funds through humanitarian agencies to maintain social protection provision has had clear benefits, including addressing famine risk,758 but it also means humanitarian agencies are still, to quote the Emergency Relief Coordinator, stuck delivering long-term basic services ‘which is better done by others’.759 Part of the imperative behind the triple nexus approach was to address this problem in protracted crises but, as Chapter 12 explores, it is, at the time of writing, incipient at best and at worst, paralysed in conflict settings.

Ethiopia case study: The conflict in Tigray

Conflict broke out in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia in November 2020 following escalating tensions between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian government (supported by Eritrea). Millions of people fled their homes in the Tigray region and later in Amhara and Afar as the conflict spread.760 The conflict exacerbated pre-existing vulnerabilities, including drought and desert locust swarms. By the end of 2021, an estimated 9.4 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance.761 A joint investigation by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission and UNHCR found serious violations of human rights, humanitarian and refugee law by all key parties involved in the conflict.762

After a decade of closer cooperation and engagement with the Ethiopian government, the humanitarian system was strongly criticised for its inadequate response as it struggled to shift from development and food insecurity mode to responding to a conflict to which its long-standing state partner was a party. One senior aid worker interviewed described it as ‘the worst response in decades’.


The conflict was heavily politicised at every level, and the humanitarian system was widely felt to be naive in its response to this: too closely aligned to the government, and lacking experience and unity. National staff often held partisan views on the crisis, while many international staff had deep relationships with government officials built over many years of living in Addis. After multiple incidents of partisan social media posts and leaking of online meeting recordings, agencies had to give regular reminders to staff about neutrality and impartiality. 

Meanwhile, poor access and data quality meant it was difficult to build an accurate picture of the situation in Tigray. Between December 2020 and June 2021, the response centred on the urban areas of Mekele and Shire in eastern Tigray, but huge parts of rural eastern Tigray and the entire West Tigray zone were almost completely cut off, with just a handful of NGOs working in hospitals or conducting ad hoc activities. For months, this led to significant underestimates of the number and needs of IDPs.763 More worryingly, the available data was contested within and between agencies: reports from staff in Tigray differed from those prepared by UN agencies’ Country Directors, which tended to reflect statements from the Ethiopian government. UN headquarters staff were uncomfortable overriding the judgement of senior country staff, despite their proximity to the government as a development partner and the lack of preparedness for conflict. Several interviewees were critical of the lack of conflict experience among country leadership and one questioned why headquarters ‘were not able to intervene in a way that put humanitarian needs on the ground as a priority’.

There were daily challenges to principled engagement at the local level. With a dynamic and active frontline, NGOs were guided and escorted by parties to the conflict, to understand which roads could be used. Struggling to build relationships with different groups in order to secure access, staff found it hard to balance principles with aid delivery, with one aid worker reflecting that ‘the practice is not as easy as we say it is’. The perception that NGOs lost neutrality contributed to distorted information, a lack of trust and concerns around sharing information, as well as risks around access and targeting of aid workers.764

Scale up of funding and staff 

Donors were slow to act, with European donors held back by their historical relationships with the government, concerns about absorption capacity and slow contracting mechanisms. In 2021, nearly 80% of funding to the Northern Ethiopia HRP came from the US alone.765 While early CERF funding was deemed critical for UN agencies to act, INGO representatives told us that agencies also relied on their own flexible funding in the initial stages of the response, but that this quickly proved insufficient.

It was five months until the UN scaled up its response. It took the deployment of the acting humanitarian coordinator in April 2021 to establish a cluster team for the crisis and then publish the first response plan. By this point, an estimated 4 million people needed urgent food assistance.766

Progress remained limited in the face of government-imposed bureaucratic impediments to deployments. These put huge pressure on staff already in the country, who faced a lack of logistical support, basic equipment and security guarantees. Organisations struggled to manage the risks to their national staff – during 2021, 23 humanitarians were killed and three disappeared. An additional 10 UN staff were in prison. Staff described the need to internationalise the response in order to protect and support their national colleagues, but recruitment was challenging; into the start of 2022, staff shortages remained across the response, particularly at senior level.

Negotiations for access 

UN agencies were slow to start negotiations especially with the Eritrean military and the TPLF, only beginning in earnest in early 2021. Negotiations were difficult: an interim government was installed in Tigray and personnel were regularly rotated while the Eritrean military proved hard to engage. Nevertheless, following deployment of senior negotiators between March and June 2021, access – albeit it constrained – was secured into Tigray, allowing in vital convoys and pre-positioning of supplies across northern Ethiopia. 

In mid-2021, the Ethiopian government imposed a physical and bureaucratic blockade on humanitarian aid. Negotiations stalled, and by the end of the year there was almost no movement of food or essential supplies: staff travel, telecommunications, electricity supply, banking and logistics were effectively blocked, as was information-gathering on human rights violations.767 According to OCHA reports, by the end of the year only 1,317 trucks had entered Tigray, providing supplies to address just 13% of the critical humanitarian needs in the region.768 Seven senior UN staff were made persona non grata, including some of those responsible for negotiations. 

As the crisis moved into its second year, at the start of 2022, the UN estimated that more than 40% of the population in Tigray – 4.6 million people – were food-insecure, with 9.4 million people across northern Ethiopia in need of food assistance. The capacity of the humanitarian system to overcome external and internal barriers to reaching them remained in doubt.


This is an increase from the start of the study period – in 2018, there were 24 HRPs for conflict affected countries, and 4 RRPs.


 Data provided by Development Initiatives


OCHA and UN Foundation, Charles Petrie Speaking at the 2021 Global Humanitarian Policy Forum. From Checkpoints to High Politics: Humanitarian Access Negotiations in Action (online, 2021).


M. Turnbull, L. Moriniere, and A.T. De la Poterie, ‘Start Fund: Evaluation of Crisis Anticipation’ (Start Network, 2020).


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


WFP and World Bank cited in Cited in FAO, DI and NRC, ‘Development Actors at the Nexus: Lessons from Crises in Bangladesh, Cameroon and Somalia’ (Rome/Bristol/Oslo: FAO, DI and NRC, 2021).


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


IOM Displacement Tracking Matrix, ‘Ethiopia Emergency Site Assessment 7 (1-26 June 2021)’ (IOM Displacement Tracking Matrix, June 2021).


OCHA, ‘Ethiopia - Northern Ethiopia Humanitarian Update Situation Report’ (Ethiopia: OCHA, December 2021).


EHRC and OHCHR, ‘Tigray Conflict: Joint UN Human Rights Office-Ethiopian Human Rights Commission Investigation Report’ (Geneva: Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC)/Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), 2021).


Key informant interview Ethiopia


Key informant interview Ethiopia


According to OCHA FTS, data downloaded June 2022


USAID, ‘Tigray Crisis Fact Sheet’ (Ethiopia: USAID, O4 2021).


Key informant interview Ethiopia


OCHA, ‘Northern Ethiopia Humanitarian Update. Situation Report’ (Ethiopia: OCHA, 2022).


OCHA, ‘Syria Humanitarian Fund 2020 Annual Report’ (Syria: OCHA, 2020).


This includes the categories of one-sided violence by the state, state-based violence, and non-state violence. In 2010 there were a total of 83 such conflicts. See data here: Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), n.d. program.


According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, state-based armed conflict is defined as involving use of armed force between two parties, of which at least one is the government of a state, results in at least 25 battle-related deaths in one calendar year. War indicates the scale of this – reaching at least 1000 battle related deaths in a calendar year. Pettersson et al., ‘Organized violence 1989–2020, with a special emphasis on Syria, (UCDP: 2021). on-syria. However there is no single definition – for examples, the Heidelberg Institute uses different definitions with different figures see HIIK, ‘Disputes Non-Violent Crises Violent Crises Limited Wars’ (Heidelberg, Germany: Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research (HIIK), 2021). disputes-non-violent-crises-violent-crises-limited-wars-wars.


ALNAP, ‘The State of the Humanitarian System.’, ALNAP Study (London: ALNAP, 2015).