New study reveals humanitarian system's blind spot to vulnerable groups in global emergencies

PRESS RELEASE: Strictly embargoed until 00.01am 17 July 2013

The needs of older people and young children are not being catered for in the humanitarian system's response to emergencies and disasters around the world, aid agencies HelpAge International and Save the Children said today.

A new report from HelpAge International, the only organisation which solely focuses on helping older people in emergencies - and endorsed by children's charity Save the Children - reveals the very low number of projects that target older people or children under five. These are two of the most vulnerable groups within populations affected by emergencies.

The study paints a picture of a humanitarian system incapable of delivering adequate assistance. Both older people and children under five are highly sensitive to shocks associated with humanitarian crises. They both face a range of specific risks associated with their age, including access to adequate health care and nutritional support.

Older people

The report found that:

  • Only 1% of funded projects target older people: Out of 2,800 project proposals submitted to the Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP - led by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) only 60 project proposals (2.1%) included at least one activity targeting older people - and only 30 of these (1%) were actually funded. This low figure is clearly unacceptable when the number of older people makes up as much as 25% per cent of the population in some emergency contexts.

Older people face specific challenges in emergencies related to mobility, visual and aural impairments which have an impact on their ability to access mainstream humanitarian services. Agencies need to modify their programmes by introducing, for example, separate queues for distributions of aid. Older people also require vital support in their livelihoods to meet their own needs and those of their dependants. Somalia bucks the trend with 22 project proposals submitted, while Yemen and South Sudan have gone from a standing start of zero projects each to 10 projects and 9 projects respectively.

Children under five

The study also examined project proposals submitted for the vulnerable group at the other end of the age spectrum - children under five.

  • Only 2.3% of projects target children under 5: Out of the 2,800 proposals submitted, only 111 projects included at least one activity targeting children under five - and 65 were funded (2.3%). Although slightly better than the data for older people, these numbers dramatically highlight the fact that humanitarian operations are not focused on meeting the specific needs of vulnerable population groups.

Given the fact that children make up approximately 14.9% of the population in Africa - as well as the traditional media emphasis put on assistance to children - HelpAge expected that the specific needs of the under-5s would be significantly more represented.

Frances Stevenson, Head of Emergencies at HelpAge International, said:

"The findings of this report are sadly in line with a growing body of evidence showing the limited ability of humanitarian operations to deliver assistance based on needs. We know that people have different healthcare, nutrition, livelihoods and general protection needs as they grow older.

"The fact that there are countries in which older people's particular needs are completely ignored, in some cases for two years in a row, 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."

Gareth Owen, Humanitarian Director of Save the Children, said:

"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. 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 being targeted for physical and sexual abuse. The system must be reformed so the needs of children are prioritised in emergencies."

Siliva Stefanoni, Acting CEO of HelpAge International, said:

"The report provides further evidence that humanitarian programmes do not address the specific needs of highly vulnerable groups such as older people and children under five, in emergencies. It is crucial that the 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"


Notes to Editors

1. DOWNLOAD the report here:

Countries covered in the report: Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Côte
d'Ivoire, Chad, Djibouti, Haiti, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Palestine, Philippines, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Yemen and Zimbabwe.

You can also read the 2012 report here:

And our first report from 2011 can be downloaded here:

2. Funding

The report found that a total of US$5.8bn was contributed by official donors to Consolidated Appeals in 2012. 12% of this total (US$712.6 million) was allocated to projects targeting children under five. While projects targeting older people attracted just 1% (US$59.8 million - a notable percentage increase from the previous year's 0.13% of total funding - but a still inadequate sum.).

3. Donors - older people

The report also highlights the increase in donors from a total of 235 donors contributing funds to the CAP Appeals in 2010 and 2011 to a total of 392 donors in 2012. This increase has also been reflected in the number of donors contributing funds to projects targeting older people which rose from 5 to 18 donors:

  • The European Commission's Humanitarian Aid Department (ECHO) was the largest donor in 2012 providing 27% of funding for older-person-inclusive activities - the only donor to provide such funding for three consecutive years.
  • Switzerland is the only other donor to have provided funding in 2011 and 2012.
  • The United States is now the third largest donor to projects targeting older people having provided no such funding in 2010 or 2011.

4. Donors - Children under five

  • A total of 49 donors committed funding to projects with activities targeting children under five in 2012.
  • The United States provided 36% of funds to projects with activities targeting children under five in 2012 - the biggest out of the total of 49 donors in 2012.
  • ECHO is the next largest donor allocating 11 per cent of the total funding.

5. The East Africa Food Crisis

While most of the 19 countries with activities targeting older people had proposals for between one and five projects, Somalia stands out with 22 project proposals submitted. In addition to this, 34 proposed projects in Somalia included older people as part of the consultation process.

During the food crisis, HelpAge seconded and ageing expert to UNHCR to support advocacy and awareness-raising around the needs of older people and proving technical advice and guidance to partners. HelpAge's own experience has shown that when different groups are actively involved in consultation processes and give voice to their specific needs, these are better represented in overall assessments. Ensuing participation in this way can help overcome many of the challenges associated with biases in assessments and should be undertaken as a matter of good practice.

6. Yemen and South Sudan - growing inclusion of older people

Last year's humanitarian financing study conducted by HelpAge and Handicap International revealed that no projects targeting older people were submitted in Yemen and South Sudan. However, in 2012 there were more projects targeting older people in Yemen (10 projects) and South Sudan (9 projects) than any other country, excluding Somalia. As with other countries reviewed in this study, the overall number of projects submitted was still very small. However, the positive trend is encouraging and constitutes an example of better practices worthy of recognition.

7. Humanitarian principles

The humanitarian principles are derived from the core principles, which have long guided the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the national Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies. Also of note is the Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response elaborated by the Sphere Project.

8. Recommendations

HelpAge calls for:

  • A high-level, strategic, humanitarian community-wide effort to address the humanitarian community's inability or unwillingness to address the evident breach of impartiality and to deliver needs-based humanitarian programmes.
  • Humanitarian partners must ensure assessments provide accurate data on all vulnerable groups in assessments disaggregated by sex and age for all age groups.
  • Project design must be based on analysis of assessment data and existing good practice to ensure humanitarian assistance is accessible by the entire affected population.
  • Leadership on the delivery of programming which addresses the different needs of all population groups must be provided by cluster lead agencies, UNOCHA and humanitarian coordinators.

About HelpAge International

HelpAge International helps older people claim their rights, challenge discrimination and overcome poverty, so that they can lead dignified, secure, active and healthy lives. Our work is strengthened through our global network of like-minded organisations - the only one of its kind in the world.

Contact Attila Kulcsar at HelpAge International on +44 (0) 20 7148 7623 (mobile: +44 (0) 7713 567624 or email

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