Focusing on the international humanitarian system to understand how people survive and recover from a crisis is akin to viewing a large landscape through a pin-sized hole. From capital cities to villages, the survivors of crisis draw on a wide range of overlapping resource flows and support networks. These forms of support are poorly linked to, understood or even acknowledged by humanitarian actors, partly because of their informality and complexity, but also due to lack of time and motivation in the humanitarian system to understand the contexts in which it operates.87 Some staff in local and national NGOs appear aware of the challenge. As one employee in Somalia put it, ‘Now we are living in a cave. Its name is [the] humanitarian system. But if you go out of that, no one knows what we are speaking about. Are we building on and empowering those informal solutions that already exist? For sure we need to improve.’  

We are living in a cave. Its name is [the] humanitarian system.

Even if the system were to consistently consider other resource flows and forms of support for crisis-affected people, the implications for humanitarian decision-making are not clear-cut. Localisation advocates maintain that international organisations need to take account of local and national forms of support in order to better complement them and move to a less Western-dominated model of aid.88 Others emphasise effectiveness: knowing where international humanitarian funding complements other support can help target it to achieve more impact.89 Critics, meanwhile, point to alternative resource flows as evidence that humanitarian aid in its current form is redundant, or does more harm than good.90  

Fully assessing the extent, nature and value of these wider support networks is both unfeasible and outside the scope of this report. Instead, this chapter highlights some key modes of support that comprise the ‘system outside the system’. We first review the scale of formal humanitarian support compared to other resource flows in countries receiving international humanitarian assistance. We then look at five examples of support for people affected by crisis from outside the international humanitarian system: survivor/community-led crisis response (sclr91), religious organisations, the private sector, diasporas, and crisis financing from development banks.92 These are an illustrative selection of important types of support where evidence has emerged during the study period, rather than a comprehensive picture of all resource flows. Notably, given the evidence gaps, this chapter does not examine state support to their populations during emergencies.  

IHA as a proportion of resource flows to countries in crisis

Globally, international humanitarian assistance (IHA) accounts for a very small proportion of the volume of resources that flow to crisis-affected countries. At the start of the study period, IHA amounted to 1.7% of resource flows to the top 20 countries receiving humanitarian assistance.93 However, there is much wider variation in relative amounts of IHA to other funding sources by country and over time. For some countries, humanitarian aid comprises a very small proportion of total resources, while in others it is an important lifeline. For example, relative to other key sources, IHA accounted for 46% of resource flows to Yemen in 2019, compared with 1.3% in Bangladesh. Over the study period, IHA became increasingly important to countries such as Yemen and Venezuela, where remittances remained fairly low and government revenue dropped.94

Figure 17: Size of humanitarian financial flows compared to other significant financial flows in case-study countries, 2018–2021

The proportion of humanitarian aid compared to other financial flows varies greatly among the case study countries in this SOHS (Bangladesh, DRC, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Yemen and Venezuela). In some, non-grant government revenue and remittances are considerably larger than international humanitarian aid.

Sources: Development Initiatives based on: International Monetary Fund (IMF) Regional Economic Outlook (Sub-Saharan Africa; Middle East & Central Asia), World Economic Outlook (WEO) (October 2021 & April 2022) and Bangladesh: 2021 Article IV Consultation (March 2022) data for non-grant government revenues; Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Creditor Reporting System (CRS) (Downloaded: 19 May 2022) data for ODA; KNOMAD/World Bank (2022) data for remittances; and UN Budget Performance documents from the UN Digital Library on financing for peacekeeping activities.

Notes: See methodology in Annex 3. Flows to Venezuela are not depicted as they cannot be placed on the same scale as the other case study countries due to the smaller size of these flows. Data is in current prices and has been rounded up.

The resource flows that go to countries experiencing a humanitarian crisis are not of course the same as the flows that go to the people affected by crises. For example, figures for non-grant revenues represent an estimate of government income – which will not be spent primarily on addressing the impacts of crises for the most marginalised groups. Similarly, non-humanitarian official development assistance (ODA) can be used to support investments in national infrastructure programmes that may not directly benefit the populations most likely to need support in a crisis. And, despite high remittance levels to countries like Uganda and Lebanon, it is unclear how much of this goes to refugees – the majority of those in humanitarian need – as opposed to middle-income households.95 For these reasons, even if it reflects a small percentage of overall resources flowing into a country, IHA may still be a critical lifeline for marginalised populations. 

Looking at resource flows at a household, rather than national, level may provide a better sense of what support is accessed by crisis-affected people. But while this offers valuable insights, findings are highly localised and difficult to quantify. One study found that trying to assess the monetary value of support was challenging and failed to capture what people perceived to be of real value and relevance for them.95 Putting a financial figure on this net of informal support is impossible but failing to recognise it risks only valuing what can be counted. 

Figure 18: Insights from entities who also play a role in humanitarian response

Quotes from crisis affected populations and aid practitioners illustrate the importance of crisis response actors whose primary purpose is not humanitarian action.

Source: ALNAP and The Research People.

Notes: The size of the circles in this visualisation are not to scale and are therefore not representative of each entity’s role or importance in the system.

How well does the system engage with other forms of crisis support?

Survivor/citizen/community-led support  

Whether it is a neighbour offering a place to sleep, a friend loaning money, or a relative sharing food, crisis-affected people and the communities around them are often their own first responders. Alternatively called ‘survivor/citizen/community-led crisis response’ or ‘mutual/autonomous aid’, these are efforts to respond to humanitarian need that are ‘led and managed specifically by survivors and communities from crisis-affected populations themselves.’96 Sclr has overlaps with locally led humanitarian assistance and participatory humanitarian action, but is unique in that it includes efforts that are not part of an institutionalised humanitarian programme or supported by official humanitarian funding.  

Trying to get a global picture of sclr inevitably reveals a patchwork of diverse, often context-specific stories.. In Bangladesh and Yemen, aid recipients explained that, before coming into contact with a humanitarian agency, they did as much as possible themselves to repair shelter and other infrastructure, with the help of neighbours and friends. Community members were the first responders in the earthquake-hit southern region of Haiti, where international presence was limited; and when the Ethiopian government limited access for international agencies, communities provided shelter to hundreds of thousands of displaced people from Tigray.97 In Vanuatu, the response to Tropical Cyclone Harold in April 2020 was primarily community-led, through disaster committees and the National Council of Chiefs.98 After the Izmir earthquake in October 2020, Turkish civil society actors mobilised substantial donations from private citizens and the private sector to support community-led disaster response.  

The COVID-19 pandemic made some agencies pay greater attention to community capacity, as they found themselves relying on it to maintain services. Around the globe, people commonly portrayed as ‘beneficiaries’ or ‘victims’ took leading roles in providing public health messaging, enrolling neighbours in mobile money systems, delivering food and non-food items (NFIs), and supporting the delivery of basic health services.99 The pandemic provided momentum to ongoing attempts to capture and reflect sclr efforts through databases100 and studies.101 

But outside the pandemic, with the possible exception of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement’s volunteer network, humanitarian agencies were slow to routinely recognise, much less actively support, sclr. For instance, local and international staff involved in the 2021 Haiti earthquake response reported a lack of engagement by international actors with local people and networks, including missed opportunities on preparedness planning, despite this being a key lesson from the 2010 earthquake response.

A small number of international agencies intentionally invested in addressing this – for example, in 2018 the Start Network supported the creation of four ‘grassroots’ innovation labs in Bangladesh, Jordan, Kenya and the Philippines, providing small grants and training to crisis-affected people.102 The Local to Global Protection network continued to document and share examples from its partners’ work on sclr, which included support to L/NNGOs in Haiti to undertake participatory projects in which community members co-managed funds.103

Around the globe, people commonly portrayed as ‘beneficiaries’ or ‘victims’ took leading roles in providing public health messaging, enrolling neighbours in mobile money systems, delivering food and non-food items (NFIs), and supporting the delivery of basic health services.

But the lack of deeper efforts to take account of and support sclr has been disappointing to advocates within the system, not only because it reflects a failure to uphold commitments to be more local, complementary and participatory, but also because of the wider recognition that, as one study noted, this ‘is not a radical request: rather, it is a common-sense invitation to become part of an inspiring and long-overdue process of promoting and strengthening proven ways of working that support the remarkable humanity, capacity, initiative and collective compassion of people in crisis.’104 

Religious organisations  

The international humanitarian system has had mixed experiences with supporting and connecting to religious organisations. Faith-based international NGOs have long worked with local networks and religious leaders to provide a timely response and to connect with communities.105 For example, Caritas Myanmar worked with diocesan networks to create a COVID-19 preparedness and response plan, supported by long-standing INGO partner funding. These connections helped the system reach hard-to-access populations: Pastoral Social Caritas Bolivia provided prisoners with food and hygiene supplies during the pandemic when most organisations were denied access.106 Secular agencies also applied lessons from the West Africa Ebola response by more consciously engaging religious and traditional actors during recent Ebola outbreaks and the COVID-19 pandemic.107  

Religious actors have also been important from a funding perspective: interviews indicate that individual donations from Christian and Muslim religious communities in high-income countries remained surprisingly strong during the pandemic, helping several faith-based INGOs to maintain their operations in the face of cuts to institutional donor funding. Zakat and Islamic social financing were an increasingly important resource for humanitarian efforts both inside and outside the system throughout this period. Zakat was estimated to be worth between $550 billion and $600 billion in 2019, with estimates of the portion of this that went to some form of humanitarian assistance ranging between 23% and 57%.108 In recent years international organisations explored how to harness some of this potential – organisations including Islamic Relief and IFRC have been working with different forms of Islamic social funding, and UNHCR has sought to solicit zakat donations, with over $23.6 million received for its Refugee Zakat Fund in 2021, which targeted over 687,000 refugees or displaced people in 13 countries.109  

Several barriers remain to effective system-wide engagement with local faith actors, including limited religious literacy among many humanitarian actors and concerns that faith-based actors may discriminate against some crisis-affected populations.110 Concerns go both ways: often, there is little incentive for local faith-based organisations to work with cumbersome aid agencies and structures. Counter-terrorism laws also affected the ability of humanitarian actors to engage with some religious groups, with several INGO interviewees reporting difficulties in passing funding to Muslim organisations.  

The private sector  

In addition to the contributions to IHA outlined in Chapter 2, private sector actors – particularly domestic businesses in crisis-affected countries – provide other forms of support outside the humanitarian system. While this support can be significant, its full scale is difficult to estimate. There are no organisations or platforms that track or enable reporting of these resource flows, and if there were, they would be challenged to gather data from the thousands of small to mid-size domestic private sector actors on efforts ranging from supporting governments' logistics capacity, to local corner stalls providing free meals. The influencing power of the private sector can also be very effective but is similarly diverse and difficult to monitor.111  

The COVID-19 pandemic shed some light on the importance of local private sector actors. A global survey of humanitarian actors found increased mobilisation of local private sectors during the pandemic compared to previous responses in most of the study countries.112 They provided resources, including PPE, and supported food and cash provision, sometimes in collaboration with humanitarian actors and sometimes independently.113 In the Philippines, for example, local NGOs and government coordinated with the private sector to deliver PPE and health messaging without international humanitarian funding, and in Vanuatu, the Vanuatu Business Resilience Council was critical in the initial response to Cyclone Harold when the pandemic made it difficult for international humanitarian actors to gain access.114  

While there were new efforts to engage with the private sector over the study period, there is little evidence that international humanitarians are engaging with the private sector beyond as a potential funding source. Almost half (45%) of humanitarian aid practitioners in the SOHS survey rated their current relationship with the private sector as poor and were ambivalent about future engagement. Many humanitarians see the potential value of more strategic partnerships, but the incentives driving private sector actors remain poorly understood in the humanitarian space, leading to ongoing concerns about ethics or resource competition.115 This is not limited to the humanitarian space: despite private sector mobilisation being more of a core aspect of development assistance, key development actors have also noted that ‘a knowledge gap remains concerning which approaches and instruments are effective in engaging the private sector in fragile and conflict-affected setting countries’.116  

Development actors have also noted that ‘a knowledge gap remains concerning which approaches and instruments are effective in engaging the private sector in fragile and conflict-affected setting countries'.


People who no longer live in their country of origin are an important source of support for their families and former co-nationals affected by crisis. One of the most significant ways diaspora networks contribute to crisis response and recovery is by sending money to their contacts in crisis-affected countries. Other forms of diaspora support include skills sharing, advocacy, political engagement and volunteering.117 

In 2021, remittances to low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) were estimated at $605 billion, over 10 times higher than the total amount of IHA, and a nearly 15% increase from 2018.118 While remittances to LMICs were expected to fall significantly in 2020 due to the economic impacts of COVID-19, they instead increased by a smaller rate that year (0.8%), and rebounded with an 8.6% increase in 2021, akin to pre-pandemic growth rates.119 While these remittances include transfers to people in a wide range of circumstances, studies suggest that substantial amounts do pass to people in some crisis-affected countries.120 For example, in 2020, the $7 billion of remittances accounted for the largest financial flow into Lebanon, despite a decrease of over 40% between 2019 and 2020.121 Concurrently, there is recognition that remittances are not a substitute for humanitarian assistance, as they are typically available to individuals who are better off, and who can access money transfer mechanisms in urban areas.122 

Figure 19: Estimates of remittance flows to low- and middle-income countries, 2018–2021

Remittance flows to low- and middle-income countries have increased by nearly 15% since 2018, to an estimated $605 billion in 2021. This is 10 times higher than the total amount of international humanitarian assistance.

Source: KNOMAD/World Bank staff; IMF Balance of Payments Statistics.

Notes: 2021 remittance figures are estimates. All figures are based on current US$.

Outside of remittances, diaspora communities relied heavily on social media to connect with crisis-affected people in their countries of origin. For example, WhatsApp groups have been used to assess needs,123 the Syrian diaspora used online crowdfunding to support underground hospitals124 and the Somali diaspora used social media platform Somali Faces to provide funds to implementers via local bank accounts and fund managers.125  

Humanitarians have attempted to better engage with diaspora groups at different levels. For example, USAID sought to connect diaspora communities to humanitarian responses through national cluster systems, engaging them in funding efforts for specific crises – a televised collaboration for Haiti is one recent example – and working with networks across response, risk reduction and resilience initiatives.126 Elsewhere, however, humanitarian agencies’ attempts at coordination with diasporas have been limited – in part due to difficulties identifying representative actors among diaspora groups and a lack of trust in international aid institutions among diaspora groups based on fears of racism and power asymmetries.127  

Development crisis finance 

With increasing understanding of the threats that crises pose to development gains, the World Bank has deepened its engagement in crisis-affected contexts in recent years. But, while the scale of funding the Bank can potentially bring to bear is significant compared to IHA, the impacts of these investments and their potential for future crisis response remained unclear. 

At the start of the study period, the World Bank launched its five-year Fragility, Conflict and Violence (FCV) strategy. As noted by one interviewee at the World Bank, the development context is not ‘stable anymore … [it’s] constantly in crisis because this is what is happening … we are basically driven to adapt to the extreme challenges’. As a result, the Bank has made crisis preparedness and prevention a policy priority of the International Development Association (IDA), its fund for the world’s poorest countries, and has developed new mechanisms to address specific needs, such as the Crisis Response Window (CRW) Early Response Financing allocation, and the IDA window for Host Communities and Refugees (WHR).  

While these shifts have led to some engagement with and funding of humanitarian agencies, the World Bank’s approach in crises remains firmly centred on resilience and shock-proofing development assets, rather than changing or competing with the humanitarian funding landscape. The idea that ‘the Bank is entering the humanitarian space and becoming a humanitarian donor’ was described by one expert as an ‘oversimplification’ that reflected misunderstandings of how the Bank operates and where its added value lies. From the perspective of its shareholders, many of whom are government donors to humanitarian agencies, it would be inefficient for the Bank to provide direct funding to the same agencies for similar purposes. Instead, the World Bank continues to work primarily with governments as its key partners, only providing direct financing to humanitarian agencies on rare occasions where the context precludes partnership with the state. Under IDA19, for example, there were only a handful of direct partnerships (with the ICRC in Somalia and South Sudan, and UN agencies in Yemen).  

Bank staff noted that the World Bank would never be able to replace existing humanitarian funding models due to its slower pace of operation, country-led model and development mandate, but would instead look to find ways to complement these. Structural differences and divides would remain but this does not rule out a layered approach, whereby the World Bank could complement the approaches of UN humanitarian agencies. This complementarity is key to the humanitarian–development–peace nexus approach, but as Chapter 12 explores, the World Bank has not yet played a substantial role in coordination to advance this.  


B. Willitts-King, J. Bryant, and A. Spencer, ‘Valuing Local Resources in Humanitarian Crises’ (London: HPG/ODI, 2019).


A. Baguios, ‘Localisation Re-imagined essays’ (2021/2022).


Willitts-King, Bryant, and Spencer, ‘Valuing Local Resources in Humanitarian Crises’.


The New York Times, ‘Foreign Aid Is Having a Reckoning. The Black Lives Matter Movement Has given Leaders from the Global South New Traction for Change’, The New York Times, 2021.


‘sclr’ tends to be kept lower-case when used as an acronym, reflecting its informal and community-based nature.


At the household level, the primary evidence on non-IHA support accessed by people affected by crisis comes from a multi-country study by ODI’s Humanitarian Policy Group and qualitative examples from aid recipients in the focus group discussions carried out for this edition of the SOHS.


 Angus Urquhart and Luminita Tuchel, Global Humanitarian Assistance Report 2018 (Bristol: Development Initiatives, 2018). Also cited in Willitts-King, Bryant and Spencer, ‘Valuing Local Resources’.


In data compiled by DI for the SOHS, government revenues in Venezuela fell significantly over the study period. However, since this data is not disaggregated by grant/non-grant, we have not included it here.


Willitts-King, Bryant, and Spencer, ‘Valuing Local Resources in Humanitarian Crises’. 12–13.


J. Corbett, N. Carstensen, and S. Di Vicenz, ‘Survivor and Community Led Crisis Response: Practical Experience and Learning’ (London: HPN/ODI, 2021).


Interviews with key informants globally and in Ethiopia.


V. Barbelet, G. Davies, J. Flint, and E. Davey, ‘Interrogating the evidence base on humanitarian localisation. A literature study’ (London: ODI, 2021). 


Nils Carstensen, Mandeep Mudhar and Freja Schurmann Munksgaard, ‘“Let communities do their work”: The role of mutual aid and self‐help groups in the Covid‐19 pandemic response’, Disasters 45, no. S1 (2021); Baron, CARE and UN Women, Latin America and the Caribbean Rapid Gender Analysis for COVID-19 (Geneva/New York: CARE and UN Women, 2020); ALNAP COVID-19 lessons paper, forthcoming.


HPG, ‘COVID-19: Tracking Local Humanitarian Action and Complementary Partnerships’, HPG/ODI, n.d; Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies, ‘COVID-19 Humanitarian Platform’, GCHS, n.d.


Corbett, Carstensen and Di Vicenz, Survivor and Community Led Crisis Response; also efforts to document locally-led humanitarian action have included sclr, see for example: Barbelet, Bryant and Spencer, ‘Local Humanitarian Action during COVID-19’; ALNAP COVID-19 lessons paper, forthcoming.


L. Rosen, ‘Reflecting on Two Years of Community-Driven Innovation With The Depp Labs’, START Network (blog), 2 August 2019.


C. Greene et al., ‘Localisation and Local Humanitarian Action. Learning from Survivor- and Community-Led Response in Haiti’, Humanitarian Exchange (London: HPG/ODI, 2021).


Corbett, Carstensen, and Di Vicenz, ‘Survivor and Community Led Crisis Response: Practical Experience and Learning’.


O. Wilkinson et al., ‘Bridge Builders: Strengthening the Role of Local Faith Actors in Humanitarian Response in South Sudan’ (Islamic Relief, Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities, RedR UK, Tearfund, Tearfund Belgium, University of Leeds, 2020).


Caritas Internationalis, Localisation in Covid-19: Experience of Caritas national organisations with humanitarian funding, partnerships and coordination in the Covid-19 pandemic (2021).


 Willitts-King, Bryant and Spencer, Valuing Local Resources.


UNHCR Refugee Zakat Fund, Islamic Philanthropy Annual Report 2022 (Geneva: UNHCR, 2022).


Tara R. Gingerich et al., Local Humanitarian Leadership and Religious Literacy: Engaging with Religion, Faith, and Faith Actors (Oxfam and Harvard Divinity School, 2017).


Global key informant interviews.


DA Global, ‘Is Aid Really Changing? What the COVID-19 Response Tells Us about Localisation, Decolonisation and the Humanitarian System’ (London: British Red Cross, 2021).


Global key informant interviews.


Global key informant interviews.


World Bank Group, The International Finance Corporation’s Engagement in Fragile and Conflict-Affected Situations: Results and Lessons (Washington DC: World Bank Group, 2019), 9.


Shabaka, Diaspora Engagement in Times of Crisis (Brussels: EUDiF, International Centre for Migration Policy Development, 2021); Jeeyon Kim et al., “I Could Not Sleep While They Were Hungry”: Investigating the Role of Social Networks in Yemen’s Humanitarian Crisis (Portland OR: Mercy Corps, 2021).


Knomad, ‘A war in a pandemic: Implications of the Ukraine crisis and COVID-19 on Global Governance of Migration and Remittance Flows’, Migration and Development Brief no. 36 (Washington DC: World Bank Group, 2022).


Amy Keith et al., The Future of Financial Assistance: An Outlook to 2030 (Oxford/London: CALP Network and IARAN, 2019); Willitts-King, Bryant and Spencer, Valuing Local Resources. Official remittance figures likely underestimate the actual total value. Accurately estimating remittance volumes is challenged by lack of personal transfer information, inability to capture remittances in the form of physical money brought across borders, and lack of central bank reporting from several receiving countries.


Bangladesh and Lebanon remittances are in 2020 constant prices.


Willitts-King, Bryant and Spencer, Valuing Local Resources.


Shabaka, Diaspora Engagement in Times of Crisis.


Samuel Hall, Creating Opportunities to Work with Diasporas In Humanitarian Settings (Copenhagen: Diaspora Emergency Action and Coordination, 2018).


Global key informant interview.


Shabaka, Diaspora Engagement in Times of Crisis.