Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has laid bare the priorities of Western governments – and when and where they choose to stump up aid. Recently, that has not been Africa. There is no doubt that Ukraine needs urgent support: more than 8,000 Ukrainian civilians have died and 8 million refugees have fled since the fighting began last year. But while European governments are focused on Ukraine, they risk diverting aid to Europe at a time when Africa needs it most.
Western countries have provided $83 billion in humanitarian and economic support to Ukraine, alongside tens of billions of dollars’ worth of military aid. Moreover, new analysis from The ONE Campaign shows that the costs related to refugees from Ukraine could amount to $35 billion in 2022 and another $35 billion in 2023.
OECD rules state that donor countries can report refugee costs as foreign aid, even though the money is spent domestically. These costs could amount to the equivalent of 20 per cent of total global aid provided in 2021, not counting the tens of billions in financial support Ukraine is receiving directly. This has already led to aid being cut from other priority issues. In the United Kingdom, for example, refugee costs are estimated to be close to $3 billion per year for 2022 and 2023. The British government has accordingly cut its international aid programmes to help balance the budget. Other countries, including Sweden and the Netherlands, have made similar trade-offs.
But many conflicts and humanitarian crises need attention and funding. Globally, 345 million people are food insecure, and nearly a million people are on the verge of famine. In 2021, violence and conflict in sub-Saharan Africa led to more than 25 million people becoming internally displaced. The Tigray war in Ethiopia, meanwhile, was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians between 2020 and 2022 – and conflict in the Western Sahel killed 9,000 people in 2022 and displaced 3 million more. In fact, the top ten neglected crises in the world, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, are all in Africa.
Last year, just 55 per cent of UN humanitarian appeals were funded (compared to 80 per cent of Ukraine’s appeal). This is part of a broader trend. The share of global aid going to African countries from both France and Germany has fallen significantly over the last decade, in part due to an increase in refugee costs that never leaves donor countries: in France, the share of aid to Africa fell from more than 50 per cent in 2011 to less than 40 per cent in 2021; in Germany it dropped from 35 per cent to 29 per cent those same years.
Rich countries are increasingly seeking to ‘do more with less’, making new commitments out of old money and raiding aid pots to fund a long list of global priorities without topping up their coffers. For example, in addition to refugee spending, donors have committed to mobilise $100 billion per year in new climate funding. Much of this, however, is just repurposed from development budgets. Donors are also using aid to subsidise private sector investments in developing countries.
Yet, European countries and the United States have recognised the strategic importance of African countries as allies and as trading partners. They have, in turn, increased their efforts to position themselves as key partners. Germany, France, and the US have all recently released Africa strategies, aiming to appeal to ‘shared values and common interests’. All three countries have also called for Africa to have a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, while France and the US have supported an African Union seat at the G20.
They are saying the right things. But that rhetoric needs to be backed by measurable results: increased financing, equal partnership, and an international financial architecture that is appropriately inclusive and responsive to Africa. Germany has recently committed an additional €200 million for the least developed countries, but it is not yet clear whether strategies such as these will produce a marked increase in investment and partnership, or whether they are just empty gestures.
If the past few years have proven anything, it is that when wealthy countries need to find cash, they can and do. For example, mere months into the Covid-19 pandemic, the G20 mobilised trillions of dollars in support packages to shore up their own economies. And, over the past year, European countries have spent €768 billion to shield households from rising energy costs. Meanwhile, hundreds of billions of dollars in Special Drawing Rights are sitting unused in IMF reserve accounts – that rich countries could be deploying as low-cost loans to address crises in Africa – while proposals to reform multilateral development banks could release up to a further $1 trillion in new lending. The successful deployment of this financing depends on political will: African leaders will be watching and waiting.
David McNair is a member of the ECFR Council, executive director for global policy at the ONE Campaign, and a non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.