Increasingly, humanitarian partners’ and organizations’ housekeeping challenges are playing out in the public domain; as front page news. Recent BBC reports regarding the hyping of refugee figures in Uganda raises questions around the credibility of humanitarian caseloads and situation reports in the continent. While national actors have been mentioned in this instance; `Ugandans Suspended Over ‘refugee scam’’, the BBC piece has implication for the integrity of humanitarian action both nationally and internationally.
The sterling leadership demonstrated by the Government of Uganda and the Resident Coordinator of the United Nations in Uganda to swiftly address this issue is commendable. The government investigated the allegation immediately the Head of the UN in Uganda called attention to it.
According to the BBC, Uganda’s United Nations Resident Coordinator raised three issues regarding refugee’s response in Uganda: "doubtful" numbers of refugees, the trafficking of women and children, and fraud.’ The article, made reference to one `spot-check’ in the capital Kampala which ‘found just 7,000 people when there were reported to be 26,000 needing aid, leading to questions about where the money and resources for the missing 19,000 were going.’ According to the Guardian last week, ‘A recent Government of Uganda investigation into this alleged fraud and mismanaged funds confirms that Uganda hosts 1.1 million refugees, not 1.4 million.”
While the Guardian and BBC articles highlighted this practice within national authorities, international humanitarian action has faced similar allegations. In 2016, Nigeria’s President accused international humanitarian actors of inflating and exaggerating the humanitarian situation in the northeast for fund raising purposes. Similar concerns have been raised by national authorities against international organizations in DRC, Sudan and many other countries facing protracted humanitarian needs in the continent.
Whether it is national or international actors being accused, allegations of inflation of humanitarian needs and caseloads for funding purposes has serious and fundamental implication for the credibility of humanitarian action at large. Every year, the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance continues to grow. And central to this trend is the ease with which figures are rounded up: 87,000 is rounded up to 100,000, 267,000 to 300, 000, 560,000 becomes almost 1 million, and 1.56 million is referred to as an estimated 2 million people affected and it goes on and up. As humanitarian actors, most of us do not question these figures, even without any solid process of verification.
Some of us believe that high figures serve as a shock tactic for opening donors’ purse strings. The underlying belief is that if it generates funding then surely it can’t be wrong, but we need to really review this. Apart from the issue of donors’ fatigue and a jaded public becoming numb to humanitarian needs and advocacy, as humanitarians, surely we must believe that every life matters, and whether one hundred thousand or one million affected, humanitarian action and assistance must be deplored when needs arise. Granted, high figures justify international assistance as it demonstrates response needs beyond national capacity, but we must consider the negative impact on the integrity of humanitarian action as a whole.
The issue and/or use of caseloads in making the case for the urgency and need for a humanitarian response is a tricky one. It is perhaps safer to err on the side of caution by estimating figures upwards, the argument being that it means we can be sure we are addressing the needs of all affected. But then when the figure is overestimated in these times of limited funding we provide for those who may be in need at the expense of those in actual need.
The integrity and effectiveness of international humanitarian action is increasingly coming under scrutiny and attack. Critical operational housekeeping issues are currently making their way to front page news. To maintain the integrity of international humanitarian action, humanitarian personnel must be seen to be vigilante, front and center in highlighting challenges, correcting them and advocating for change where and when needed.
This must go beyond genetically touting international humanitarian principles to actually monitoring and addressing operational compromises in the implementation of international humanitarian action. Additionally, we must be clear; falsely reducing humanitarian needs in terms of the people affected is equally as wrong as inflating humanitarian needs for fund raising purposes. In a world of increasing needs and dwindling resources for humanitarian aid, every penny counts. In this light, we must commend Uganda’s United Nations Resident Coordinator and the Government of Uganda for leading with integrity on this issue.
Exaggerating humanitarian needs through inflating the number of people affected reduces humanitarian funding for people in need. The length of a humanitarian crisis should be more indicative of the severity of a crisis as it tells us how long affected people have been suffering. A country with annual humanitarian appeals for over a decade tells us how long people have been suffering. 20,000 people in a refugee camp for 27 years is worse than 2 million in a camp for 2 years.