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U.N. appeals for $22.2 billion in 2017 humanitarian funds, its highest request ever

Syrians who have been evacuated from eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo wait for buses on Nov. 29. The United Nations is asking for more than $8 billion for the Syrian crisis alone, split between money needed for the country and money needed for the spillover refugee issue in the region. (European Pressphoto Agency)

Every year, the United Nations issues a global appeal for humanitarian funds. This money is designed to help the work performed by the international body and nongovernmental organizations partnering with it to aid people in dire need worldwide, with estimates drawn up in conjunction with teams in the field.

For 2017, the world body is appealing for a record amount: $22.2 billion.

That money is needed to help more than 92.8 million of the most vulnerable people in 33 countries, the organization said in a report released Monday. The appeal is the largest request by the organization since the yearly call was established in 1991.

The amount of funding requested has surged dramatically over the past quarter century. In 1992, $2.7 billion was requested. Over the past 10 years alone, the amount has risen to about 400 percent.

In some ways, this is because of the expanded reach and depth of understanding that the United Nations and its NGO partners have today, not to mention the increasingly complicated humanitarian system itself. But it is also a reflection that much of the world is embroiled in crises and that many of these crises are prolonged and intractable.

In particular, there has been a surge in the number of conflicts — meaning that while much of the funding was once sought in response to natural disasters, it now is driven mostly by violence and war.

“Globally, more than 80 percent of the needs stem from man-made conflicts many of which are now protracted and push up demand for relief year after year,” Stephen O'Brien, the U.N. humanitarian chief and relief coordinator, said in an emailed statement.

The United Nations is asking for more than $8 billion for the Syrian crisis alone, split between money needed for Syria and money needed for the spillover refugee issue in the region. The report says that the Syrian conflict has been marked by “unparalleled suffering, destruction and disregard for human life,” and that humanitarian needs are only likely to grow if fighting continues. These problems aren't confined to Syria, either. The Heidelberg Institute's Conflict Barometer measured 43 violent wars around the world in 2015 — an increase from 27 in 1997.

According to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.N. data, 0.8 percent of the world's population was forcibly displaced at the end of 2015 — the highest percentage since record-keeping began in 1951.

The U.N. appeal represents only some of the funds sought by humanitarian agencies over the past year — a number of major aid organizations make their appeals outside the U.N. framework. Even so, the world body has struggled to reach anything close to the funding it seeks over recent years: The U.N. report notes that the 2016 funding requirement was only 52 percent covered by November, even though funds received were up substantially.

And while some requests, such as one to aid those affected around the Iraqi city of Mosul, can receive relatively large amounts of funding (the Mosul Flash Appeal received 82 percent of required funds by November), others languish. Only 4 percent — about $440,200 — of the appeal for funds in Gambia was received last year.

“When appeals are not funded, people in crises suffer,” O'Brien said. “More people do not have their humanitarian needs met and some may risk death as a consequence. Children lose years of schooling and illnesses associated with malnutrition are not treated.”

The appeal is being made at a time when many Western nations are looking increasingly inward. The United States has long been one of the top contributors to U.N. humanitarian funds — data from the organization's Financial Tracking Service found that so far this month, the United States had contributed $3.14 billion of the 2016 U.N. humanitarian response, about 30.9 percent of the total funded.

But like other big donors, such as Germany and Britain, the United States may be distracted by internal debates over the next year. President-elect Donald Trump, who will take office in January, has spoken skeptically about the wisdom of sending money abroad or taking in refugees.

“I watched as we built schools in Iraq and they'd be blown up,” Trump told The Washington Post in March. “And we'd build another one and it would get blown up. And we would rebuild it three times. And yet we can't build a school in Brooklyn. We have no money for education, because we can't build in our own country. And at what point do you say hey, we have to take care of ourselves.”

Shannon Scribner, Oxfam America's associate director for humanitarian programs and policy, said that many in the humanitarian community were concerned about potential cuts to foreign aid under the new administration and widespread misconceptions about how much money the United States gives. “If we become more insular, that could mean not helping people abroad,” Scribner said.

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