Donors need transparency, not tactics
The global financial crisis has brought hard times for many.
Households and governments alike are finding themselves in
reduced circumstances. After a decade of growth in aid budgets,
some donors have begun making cuts.
The situation hit a significant low point last year, when
the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria — one
of the most important sources of funding for medical programmes
in developing countries — said it would not be able
to consider new grant applications due to lack of funds.
Political leaders had not fulfilled their pledges; they had
in effect broken their promises. Thousands of people in low-
and middle-income countries were denied the life-saving treatment
The Global Fund’s immediate crisis is over, thankfully,
but it sounded an alarm for aid programmes of all kinds.
Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) will continue
to put pressure on governments to meet their obligations,
fulfil their commitments and fund humanitarian programmes.
But humanitarian action is a shared responsibility: the new
economic powers also have the means to provide more assistance,
and those governments that receive aid must step up and shoulder
their responsibilities, too.
Needs-driven or funding-driven?
Donations from the general public have seen a decline as
well. MSF felt this in 2009, when funding from private
donors fell by 3 per cent. This year, too, we are feeling
an impact in some countries, such as Greece, Italy and
Individual donors seem to be responding more readily to
particular emergencies. MSF saw significant increases in
private donations following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti
and, in 2011, the malnutrition crisis in Somalia. In an uncertain
climate for private donations, where fund-raisers are looking
for ways to sustain funding, this has highlighted the contrast
between needs-driven and funding-driven approaches to raising
money. Should an appeal for a particular emergency accept
donations only for activities related to that emergency or
for wider activities?
MSF depends heavily on private funding; in 2011, almost
90 per cent of our income came from private donors. This
support — from more than 4.5 million people — is
first and foremost testimony to the hard work of MSF staff
in the field, who are recognized for saving lives and restoring
health the world over. But our dependence on private funds
is also deliberate; it strengthens MSF as a humanitarian
movement in a way that public institutional funding cannot.
Each private donation is an expression of solidarity and
it helps to guarantee the independence and impartiality of
Given this situation, the need to sustain private funding
is particularly resonant at MSF. We have chosen to take the
route of needs-driven funding. We prioritize unrestricted
funding, so that we can exercise independence, using money
where it is most needed and reacting immediately to emergencies.
When we accept donations for particular emergencies, we do
our best to accept funds commensurate with our estimated
needs, which are restricted to activities where we have expertise
and can provide greatest assistance.
After the tsunami hit South Asia in 2004, we received more
funds than were necessary for our programmes in the region.
We stopped accepting contributions to our tsunami response
and asked people who had already made donations if we could
redirect the funds to our other programmes. The vast majority
Engaging with donors
Overcoming funding challenges is perhaps less about tactics
and markets, and more about donors’ belief in what
is being done: how effectively is their money going to
Most donors are interested in what is being done with their
money, how and why. Going beyond simple messages of crisis
and emergency is not easy: talking about the difficult choices
that have to be made in humanitarian response raises questions
and invites even closer scrutiny. But MSF is trying to be
more transparent. And where we have succeeded in doing so,
we have learned that the vast majority of our donors appreciate
Transparency improves accountability and demonstrates integrity.
And it goes even further. It creates a space for engagement,
builds trust and increases understanding.
To sustain funding, we should go beyond simple appeals for
money. We need to allow for engagement in an honest dialogue
about exactly what humanitarian assistance is all about,
what it can and cannot achieve.
By Unni Karunakara
Unni Karunakara is the international president of Médecins