Thoughts on the speed of international COVID-19 aid
by Andreas Fuchs, Samuel Siewers
Among its many implications, the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the importance of international solidarity and the need of timely humanitarian assistance. When infection rates start to increase, governments must act fast to avoid overloading their health care systems, and countries that rely on international aid need to receive it fast to ensure its effectiveness. What do we know so far about the speed of international humanitarian assistance in response to the COVID-19 pandemic? And what can we learn from investigations of the speed of emergency aid more generally?
How much COVID-19 assistance has been provided?
The Financial Tracking System (FTS) of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA, 2020) provides good lower-bound estimates on the extent of international humanitarian assistance. It lists all recorded contributions to the global COVID-19 humanitarian response – which includes, but is not limited to, the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan (GHRP). The constantly updated figures suggest that, in the first six months of 2020, more than 2.8 billion US dollars were donated (paid or committed) worldwide to fight the consequences of the disease. About 77 percent of these funds were raised by national governments. The world map in Figure 1 below shows that almost all countries in the world are recipients and/or providers of COVID-19 aid. The United States is the largest donor (464 million US dollars), followed by Japan (392 million US dollars) and Germany (373 million US dollars). Moreover, a substantial part of these contributions was directed to the Global South, and in particular to African and Middle Eastern countries.
Figure 1: Donors and recipients of COVID-19 aid during the first six months of 2020
Notes: Donor (recipient) definition based on whether a country donated (received) COVID-19 humanitarian assistance at least once in the first six months of 2020, according to UNOCHA’s FTS (2020) data.
How speedy has the assistance been?
Speedy assistance is key in emergency relief. In fact, many donors endorse principles that emphasise rapid response after emergencies. Most notably, aid promptness is part of the 24 principles of the Good Humanitarian Donorship (GHD) initiative.
On March 10, 2020, the UNHCR launched the initial coronavirus emergency appeal. This was the day before the World Health Organization (WHO) labelled the outbreak a pandemic. Based on more than 1,400 committed or paid flow dates reported in the FTS data, Figure 2 displays the distribution of COVID-19 assistance flows over the first six months of 2020. Despite the urgency of the relief, aid flows started slowly and reached a peak only in late May – the visible decline in June, however, has to be interpreted with caution, as recent flows may not have been reported yet. Also considering flow dates, in terms of the amount donated, it took until April 24 to reach the mark of one billion US dollars total contributions.
Figure 2: Weekly COVID-19 humanitarian aid flows during the first six months of 2020
Notes: Histogram calculated using COVID-19 emergency flow dates reported by UNOCHA’s FTS (2020). Each bin represents (approximately) seven days. The blue line shows the corresponding Epanechnikov kernel density estimate (bandwidth = 6.69).
There is also great variation in the timing of aid giving across donors, and even among the top three contributors. While the date of the first committed aid flow is March 1 for the United States and March 5 for Japan, it took almost an additional fortnight for Germany to commit to its first recorded donation, which took place on March 16. The first recipient of each of these three donor countries was the WHO.
Do political and commercial interests affect the speed of emergency relief?
Past research on humanitarian assistance shows that political interests, commercial ties, and media coverage affect the disbursement pattern of humanitarian aid (Eisensee and Strömberg, 2007; Fink and Redaelli, 2010; Raschky and Schwindt, 2012). With this in mind, in addition to the actual needs and local vulnerabilities, it is not surprising that the timing of COVID-19-related aid seems to be also driven by donors’ strategic interests. For example, in Serbia, which is a candidate country for EU accession that has also courted Moscow and Beijing in recent years, the intersection of competing “coronavirus diplomacies” is highly visible. Donations of medical supplies by Chinese, German and Russian governments in April 2020 have been interpreted as competition for geopolitical influence and yielded significant media coverage.
Our ongoing research project (Fuchs and Siewers, 2020) studies the timing of humanitarian aid in the aftermath of fast-onset disasters more generally. Specifically, we analyse donations by 49 donor countries during almost 500 disasters between 2000 and 2016. Results from econometric analyses show that the promptness with which donors react to emergencies is a function of their strategic interests. More precisely, the speed of aid increases with the intensity of bilateral trade ties. All else being equal, a country that is twice as important as an export destination (a source of imports) receives about 4.5 percent (3.1 percent) faster assistance. Finally, disaster-affected countries that are less politically aligned with the donor (measured by their voting coincidence at the UN General Assembly) receive speedier assistance. In line with earlier work on the allocation pattern of humanitarian aid (e.g. Fink and Redaelli, 2011), it seems that donors use humanitarian assistance to strategically position themselves in countries that they are less aligned with. The recent accusations of “mask diplomacy” (in particular against China) and donations of medical supplies “from Russia with love” to Italy and the United States could fit well into this pattern.
Additionally, our research shows that an important driver of aid timing is competition among donors themselves. In the coronavirus context, this would imply that donor countries decide when to provide aid based not only on the infection curves of recipient countries, but also on which (and when) other donors – in particular their geopolitical and economic rivals – have already come to assist a given recipient. This is well illustrated by the Serbian example discussed above.
What can we learn?
To put it bluntly, we need more humanitarian aid, and we need it fast. Based on our research, we identify two defining characteristics of the current coronavirus outbreak that can be leveraged to help make COVID-19 assistance more effective, well-timed, and less susceptible to donors’ egoistic motivations. First, the current pandemic has not spared rich countries. Although this may increase competition for scarce resources, the fact that people all over the world must simultaneously face the same threat may lead to a net increase in public support for a more need-driven and faster assistance. This is likely the case given the very nature of a pandemic in a globalised world, as the emergence of contagion hotspots abroad can quickly fuel a spike in local infections – that is, “no one is safe until everybody is safe” and “[t]he world is only as strong as the weakest health system” (UN, 2020, p. 3).
Second, in light of empirical evidence that bilateral donors often fail to coordinate (e.g. Fuchs et al., 2015), well-established and influential international organisations, such as the WHO and the UNOCHA, are urgently needed. Despite their many shortcomings that have become apparent over the previous months, rather than dismantling the limited multilateral infrastructure that we currently have, the crisis should be used to deepen mechanisms of international cooperation and decision-making, since better donor coordination is key to improving aid effectiveness. Thus, raising international awareness and increasing spaces for intergovernmental collaboration may not only improve the response to the pandemic, but also bring long-term benefits to humanitarian assistance as a whole and to other global crises that may arise in the future.
Eisensee, T. and D. Strömberg (2007), “News droughts, news floods, and U. S. disaster relief”, Quarterly Journal of Economic, Volume 122/2, May 2007, pp. 693–728, https://doi.org/10.1162/qjec.122.2.693.
Fink, G. and S. Redaelli (2011), “Determinants of international emergency aid – humanitarian need only?” World Development, Vol. 39/5, pp. 741–757, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.worlddev.2010.09.004.
Fuchs, A., P. Nunnenkamp and H. Öhler (2015), “Why donors of foreign aid do not coordinate: the role of competition for export markets and political support”, World Economy, Vol. 38/2, pp. 255–285, https://doi.org/10.1111/twec.12213.
Fuchs, A. and S. Siewers (2020), The Speed of Emergency Aid, University of Goettingen, Work in progress.
Raschky, P. A. and M. Schwindt (2012), „On the channel and type of aid: the case of international disaster assistance”, European Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 28/1, pp. 119–131, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejpoleco.2011.07.001.
United Nations (2020), Global Humanitarian Response Plan COVID-19. United Nations Coordinated Appeal, April – December 2020, UN OCHA, Geneva, https://www.unocha.org/sites/unocha/files/Global-Humanitarian-Response-Plan-COVID-19.pdf.
United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) (2020), Financial Tracking Service (FTS) – Coronavirus Disease Outbreak, https://fts.unocha.org/emergencies/911/summary/2020.