UNICEF is assisting farmers in the recovery of their crops in drought-stricken Madagascar, June 2021. Photo: UNICEF/Safidy Andriananten

Extreme weather events, such as drought, heat waves, wildfires, heavy rainfall, and coastal flooding, are expected to increase in frequency and severity as the climate changes. Climate change poses a fundamental threat to people’s livelihoods and communities, particularly for the developing world. Examples include the loss of human life, diminished crop yields, harmed livestock, shelter destruction, population displacement, and increased social unrest and conflict.

Climate change and the nature of its effects present an acute international policy challenge that many believe to demand international cooperation. As such, the United Nations (UN) and other multilateral institutions have gained more authority on addressing such matters. The UN provides disaster relief aid to affected areas in need of emergency assistance by supplying food, water, temporary shelter, and health services. Many states rely heavily on disaster relief aid provided by these institutions, especially the UN. Whether UN aid allocation is influenced by strategic donor interests or based on humanitarian need has not been well understood, however.

Recent research by GlocalClim researchers Lisa Dellmuth, Elisabeth Rosvold, and colleagues (2021) examines the determinants of UN disaster aid by assessing UN aid in the aftermath of nearly 2,000 climate-related disasters between the years 2006-2017, providing a contribution both to research on disaster impacts and aid disbursement.

Comparisons of meteorological distributions with EM-DAT. Overall distributions (“All”) compared against EM-DAT–listed disaster distributions of maximum sustained wind speed at 10 m height (Umax) during storms (A), daily precipitation (P1d) during flooding events (B), 180-d accumulated precipitation (P180d) during droughts (C), daily maximum temperature at 2m height (Tmax) during heat waves (D), and daily minimum temperature at 2-m height (Tmin) during cold waves (E). Results of Welch’s t tests are included (t-statistic); *P < 0.05, **P < 0.01. Red crosses indicate mean values, notches indicate median values, and whiskers indicate quartiles. (Source: Dellmuth et. al 2021)


First, a global hazard severity measure for several disaster types is created by validating geocoded data from the Emergency Events Database (EM-DAT) through a meteorological reanalysis (ERA-Interim). This is significant because hazard severity measures for different disaster types have to date been used for specific types of hazards separately in previous literature. By contrast, the paper matches the data reported in EM-DAT to meteorological extremes using measures that are comparable: droughts and floods are based on precipitation, heat waves and cold waves are based on daily temperature, and storms are based on daily maximum wind speed. The disaster severity is then estimated at a yearly and country level. Through a comparison of averages, the analysis shows that EM-DAT data does capture meteorological extremes, which corroborates the validity of the dataset.

Second, the study includes the hazard severity data to the dataset of the almost 2,000 climate-related disasters from 2006 to 2017 to assess potential driving factors of aid (that is, humanitarian need and donor state interests) via regression analysis. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) coordinates funding for UN disaster aid in three different categories that can be influenced by strategic donor interests: immediate disaster relief, disaster reconstruction, and other bilateral and multilateral aid. The research finds that hazard severity and humanitarian need shape aid allocation, whereas evidence of influence by strategic donor interests is mixed.

The results suggest that UN disaster aid is primarily shaped by humanitarian considerations, rather than by strategic donor interests. High hazard severity is often tied to UN aid, especially for the longer-term aid. Moreover, the number of affected persons positively coincides with the immediate disaster relief and disaster reconstruction categories, but not other bilateral and multilateral aid. Regarding strategic donor interests, there is only one factor that is associated with UN aid. That is, that UN aid partially mimics emergency official development aid (ODA) allocations. It is argued that donors use knowledge about existing aid flows to guide aid flows to some extent, which suggests that donors rely on information shared in multilateral institutions. The study finds that countries voting in line with the United States in the UNGA do not receive preferential treatment relating to immediate disaster relief aid. Similarly, countries that rotate onto the UN Security Council do not receive preferential treatment relating to immediate disaster relief or disaster reconstruction aid.

In contrast to aid research arguing that strategic interests determine aid flows, the study offers a more nuanced view of multilateral aid disbursement. The results provide evidence for theories suggesting that multilateral institutions have legitimate authority to maintain political impartiality, integrity and protection of civilians under threat. Lastly, the unique hazard severity measure introduced by the research can be used for future studies to compare climate-related disasters across countries, disaster types and over time.

The article presenting these results in more detail is downloadable here.