Elderly, children sidelined in emergency response - study

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 17 July 2013 10:30 GMT

A policeman carries an old woman on his back during rescue operations in Govindghat in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand after flash floods and landslides. Photo June 23, 2013. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

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The old and the young get far less targeted aid in emergencies than they should, a new study shows, and one aid group says aid agencies must take more account of their specific needs.

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Humanitarian agencies are not paying enough attention to the aid needs of older people and young children when responding to emergencies, a study of U.N.-backed appeals said on Wednesday.

In the 2012 Consolidated Appeal Process (CAP), which covers both U.N. and NGO relief activities, about 2 percent of project proposals targeted older people, and about 4 percent were specifically aimed at children under five, said the report by HelpAge International, an aid group that supports the elderly in crises. Only around 55 percent of these projects were actually funded.

Looking at the amount of funding, projects for young children fared better, getting 12 percent of the $5.8 billion donated by governments, while those for older people were allocated a mere 1 percent.

"The fact that there are countries in which older people’s particular needs are completely ignored...is completely unacceptable and raises serious questions for the humanitarian community, not least because the situation constitutes a breach of the humanitarian principle of impartiality,” Frances Stevenson, head of emergencies at HelpAge, said in a statement.

Older people may have problems taking part in aid distributions because they cannot walk or see well and would benefit from priority queuing, or they may require treatment for chronic diseases, which is often overlooked in disaster response, HelpAge said.

Gareth Owen, humanitarian director of Save the Children, which endorsed the report, said children caught up in humanitarian crises are more likely to become ill, suffer the effects of malnutrition, be separated from their parents and are at greater risk of physical and sexual abuse.

“We know children are always the most vulnerable in emergencies, but despite this, the sector still finds it difficult to fund projects that specifically target them," he said. "(It) must be reformed so the needs of children are prioritised in emergencies.”  

Of 2,800 projects analysed from last year's CAP, "2,446 made no mention, at any point, of two groups that are likely to make up over one third of the population, and whose needs are distinct from those of other groups", the report said.

Author Marcus Skinner, humanitarian policy manager at HelpAge, emphasised that the evaluation did not include all aid projects, and could not capture how specific groups are catered for informally on the ground. But it adds to wider evidence that the humanitarian system is not delivering assistance based on a clear understanding of people's needs and how best to meet them, he said.     

"In an emergency, the system has a knee-jerk response and forgets the theoretical concept that aid should be based on need," he told Thomson Reuters Foundation. "There is a problem with the system and the way it responds to diversity."

The aid groups are not calling for targets for different vulnerable groups - which also include adolescents and people with disabilities - because the population affected and the severity of their needs vary in each crisis, Skinner said. But the study points out that older people make up as much as a quarter of the population in some emergency contexts, and children under five account for 15 percent of Africans.

Projects that support children do better when it comes to funding levels because they have a major U.N. agency dedicated to assisting them - the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) - and feeding programmes to tackle undernutrition in under-fives are costly, Skinner added.


HelpAge has tracked figures for aid focused on older people over the past three years, and noted an improving trend, even though the numbers remain very low. In 2010 and 2011, a tiny 0.78 percent of projects in the U.N. appeals system included at least one activity targeting older people and less than half of these were funded.

The European Commission's Humanitarian Aid Department (ECHO) was the largest donor to projects for older people in 2012, providing 27 percent of funding, while the United States gave the third most, compared with nothing in the previous two years.

Broken down by country, Somalia had the largest number of project proposals with activities targeting older people, at 22. Yemen followed with 10 and South Sudan with nine - both up from zero in the 2011 study. Five West African country appeals omitted older people for the second year in a row in 2012.

During the East Africa food crisis, which began in 2011, HelpAge seconded an expert to the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, to support advocacy and awareness-raising of the needs of older people, as well as providing technical guidance to partners. It believes this helped boost the inclusion of older people in the aid response.

The charity called for practical ways to ensure that humanitarian programmes respect the needs of diverse groups and become more accountable to those people. For example, needs assessments should provide accurate data on all vulnerable groups broken down by sex and age.

Measures should also be put in place at the country level where projects are designed and implemented, not simply recommended in additional guidelines, it said.

"It is crucial that the (U.N.) Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, leading agencies, humanitarian coordinators and donors provide an environment which encourages programming based on an accurate assessment of needs, and provide leadership to ensure partners adhere to the principles to which they are committed,” said Silvia Stefanoni, acting CEO of HelpAge.

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