A Tale of Two Donors: Cash-Strapped Ireland Outshines Germany in Humanitarian Aid

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Haitians receive medical kits from the International Red Cross in a city tent in Delmas, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, on Feb. 10, 2011

Irish author Anne Enright once suggested that Ireland just might not do recession the way other countries do. While there's no denying that the beleaguered country is in the middle of a financial slump, with unemployment hovering around 13% and young people emigrating en masse, the country has stood firm in one surprising area. According to a recent report, Ireland continues to be one of the world leaders when it comes to humanitarian aid.

The 2011 Humanitarian Response Index (HRI), compiled by the Spanish nonprofit group DARA, analyzed 23 donors and how they responded to nine big humanitarian crises in 2010. Ireland, despite its recession, ranked fourth on the index. Even more surprising? Tiny, cash-strapped Ireland beat out financially flush Germany, which ranked 12th.

According to the report, which was released earlier this month, Ireland's official development assistance for 2010 was 0.53% of its gross national income, with 15.3% of that earmarked specifically for humanitarian purposes. That means that 0.078% of Ireland's gross national income went toward humanitarian response efforts. Germany, by comparison, spent just 0.017% of its gross national income on humanitarian efforts.

Both Germany and Ireland have a shared goal of putting 0.7% of their gross national incomes, or GNIs, toward official development assistance (ODA). Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny recently reaffirmed this goal, releasing a joint statement with British Prime Minister David Cameron on March 12, saying the two countries were committed, among other things, to "reaching our shared goal of 0.7% GNI on ODA and will also work together on reform of the international development system."

So just how did Ireland manage to outshine — by outgiving — its wealthier fellow E.U. member? After all, this is the country that required a $92 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank in November 2010 to help it recover from the global financial crisis. This is also the country that is grappling with housing prices that have plummeted 17% in the past year and the loss of tens of thousands of young Irish men and women who have moved overseas in search of jobs. "You think about where Ireland is today and even last year in terms of its actual aid structure, and they've had fairly heavy cutbacks in their aid budget," says Philip Tamminga, head of the HRI project. He points out that although the country has dipped on the index from the previous year — Ireland ranked second in the 2009 HRI report — it has remained committed to not only giving aid, but also giving quality aid.

Tamminga says the HRI ranks countries by how effective their aid donations are rather than simply listing countries by how much total money they give each year. "You can spend a lot of money and spend it wisely following good practices or you can use it very ineffectively, very inefficiently," he says. "Ireland has done really well even with the aid cutbacks compared to bigger donors. It does really well at funding NGOs; it has good, well-balanced funding patterns."

According to Fionnuala Quinlan, a spokesperson for Irish Aid, the government's development-assistance program, the agency's "policy pledges continue to be matched by practical and financial commitments, notwithstanding the current economic challenges in Ireland." She adds that Irish Aid's preliminary budget this year was set for €51 million ($68 million) for emergency humanitarian assistance; €7.5 million ($10 million) for emergency preparation and relief; and €4.3 million ($5.7 million) for its rapid-response initiative, which entails donating supplies and volunteers in the event of a disaster. "These levels of funding have remained broadly unchanged since 2009."

While it's certainly impressive that Ireland has managed to remain so committed to humanitarian causes in an economic crisis, it raises the question why wealthier countries don't appear to be. Does Germany simply value its economic progress more than aid? Not at all, it turns out. Despite its lower rank, Germany's aid efforts aren't exactly ineffectual. The economic powerhouse did manage to climb up two ranking spots from last year and has been praised for its shifting focus in the humanitarian-aid realm. "It's one of the few donor governments, along with Australia and maybe U.K., that are really beginning to pay attention to disaster-risk reduction and preparedness work," Tamminga says. He adds that this strategy can reduce the amount of aid needed across the board, as the financial toll of a disaster can be significantly less when more money is spent up front on prevention efforts. "Kudos for Germany for taking this on seriously."

Of course, no donor country is perfect when it comes to aid. That's part of the reason DARA prepares the HRI report each year — so countries can see how effective their aid is and what they need to do to change. Clearly, when it comes to aid, bigger isn't always better. But if all countries attempt to "build on their strengths and address some of their weaknesses," Tamminga says, "we would be all in a better situation in terms of being able to meet the needs of the millions of people affected by crisis."