Does Africa need its own humanitarian agency?

Humanitarian crises in Africa are becoming more frequent and complex. Amid climate change, political instability and conflict, COVID-19 has worsened an already dire situation.

To mitigate these threats, the African Union (AU) has created a number of instruments. These include the Africa Risk Capacity (ARC), focusing on the response to natural disasters and extreme weather conditions; the Africa Centres for Disease Control (Africa CDC) to respond to public health emergencies; and the Humanitarian Policy Framework (HPF) and Special Emergency Assistance Fund (SEAF), for humanitarian relief.

A decision has also been made to set up the African Humanitarian Agency (AfHA), but this has not been implemented yet. Funding for these instruments remains problematic, however.

The AU, RECs and member states must come to terms with Africa’s enormous humanitarian challengesThe SEAF, for example, is far from being adequately financed. By the end of 2018, it had only US$ 2 903 327 and very few contributions have been made since then. In this regard, the government of Equatorial Guinea offered to host a continental humanitarian summit and pledging conference, likely to take place in the second half of 2021. The aim of the pledging conference is to replenish SEAF funds and address the dire humanitarian crises facing Africa, taking into account the impact of COVID-19.

The ARC is also struggling, since only 34 AU member states are signatories to the ARC memorandum of understanding and even fewer contribute financially. An Executive Council decision has proposed the development of new sources of disaster risk financing, as well as the inclusion of threats such as disease outbreaks, since the current structure of the ARC does not accommodate new and emerging humanitarian threats.

The task ahead for the AU, regional economic communities (RECs) and member states is to come to terms with the magnitude of the humanitarian challenges facing the continent, and the resultant risks and vulnerabilities. Particularly in the COVID-19 era, the manner in which Africa deals with humanitarian crises will directly impact countries’ recovery and resilience.

COVID-19 puts AU instruments to the test

The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has escalated existing humanitarian problems. Unprecedented border closures and movement restrictions have compelled organisations and governments to adapt their efforts to help refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs).

AU Commission Chair Moussa Faki Mahamat, together with AU Chair President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, established the AU COVID-19 Response Fund to strengthen the continental response to COVID-19. The Africa CDC also provided policy guidance to governments, taking into account the inclusion of refugees, asylum seekers and IDPs. Still, the AU has limited capacity and the continent faces a myriad on-going and emerging conflicts.

Increasing number of IDPs

The number of IDPs is rising amid climatic shocks, natural disasters, disease and conflict. In the East Africa region, for example, there are currently more than 8.3 million IDPs and more than 4.6 million refugees. This is primarily owing to conflict in Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan.

In Mozambique, there are over 1 million IDPs because of the ongoing conflict in the north of the country, coupled with climate disasters in recent years. In Central and West Africa approximately 2.1 million people were affected by floods at the end of 2020, with many regions continuing to experience excess rainfall.

The combined effects of these humanitarian challenges are straining the capacity of affected governments to respond effectively and build resilience.

Institutional pillars for effective responses

At the January 2016 summit, the AU Assembly endorsed a recommendation to establish the AfHA to streamline humanitarian action on the continent. Since this decision, several meetings have been held to discuss the way forward, but no conclusive structure has been set up yet. The financial implications of such an initiative are also not clear.

This decision is laudable and shows that the AU recognises that more needs to be done in response to humanitarian challenges. However, the question remains whether the AfHA  is the answer to addressing the increasing complexities and changing landscape of such humanitarian challenges.

The question is whether the AfHA can address the complexities and changing nature of humanitarian challengesAs noted, the AU already has institutions and policy frameworks guiding humanitarian efforts on the continent. Within the AU Commission, the Humanitarian Affairs, Refugees and Displaced Persons Division has been instrumental in strategic policy formulation and in the development of key humanitarian instruments. These include the Kampala Convention and the African Humanitarian Policy Framework. It also works closely with the PRC Sub-Committee on Refugees, Returnees and IDPs and the PRC Sub-Committee on the SEAF.

The changing dynamics of natural disasters, threats to livelihoods, rising terrorism and violent extremism, and disease outbreaks on the continent require a comprehensive approach and new strategies. The creation of a new structure will not solve the underlying issues.

The biggest problems are a lack of sustainable financing, poor coordination within and between established structures, lack of implementation of existing normative frameworks and lack of commitment by member states.

Way forward for handling humanitarian crises

In order to inform sound policy and practical responses to humanitarian crises in Africa, the AU does not need to create another institution. Rather, it needs to evaluate the existing institutions responsible for humanitarian interventions. Such an evaluation should highlight the institutional gaps that need attention and create room for better analysis in trying to find sustainable solutions for effective prevention and early response.

As noted, financing humanitarian interventions is a challenge. Currently, 80% of the AU’s programme budget is financed by the European Union, and 100% of the peace operations budget by external actors. The AU thus needs to explore new funding opportunities, especially in the face of declining humanitarian assistance from traditional partners and growing donor fatigue.

A new financing model is imperative – one that considers raising funds from within the continent, focusing on non-traditional donors such as the private sector and African philanthropists.

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