When a disaster strikes somewhere in the developing world, the UN Office of the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) generally issues an appeal for donations to assist in recovery and clean-up.   Sometimes, the disaster makes global headlines and funds come pouring in (think: the 2004 Tsunami). Sometimes, though, disaster can unfold slowly, like drought in the Sahel.  And sometimes, the disaster occurs in a country whose leadership has generally hostile relations with donor countries (e.g., Zimbabwe). 

From a donor’s perspective, it there is little incentive to fund recovery efforts in these kinds of disasters.  However, the potential recipients of aid — everyday people just trying to eat a meal, repair their housing, or receive an innoculation — are no less deserving.  

Enter the Central Emergency Response Fund, CERF, which was created in 2006 to provide a bulwark against the whims of individual donors by creating a fund dedicated to neglected crises.   As one insider puts it, “In the absence of effective donor coordination and as long as donors have their own agenda, CERF is essential to address neglected crises in an impartial manner through the underfunded window. CERF allocations are based on needs on the ground (no political agenda).” 

In 2009,  CERF distributed about $75 million to 14 underfunded crises.  Last week, a “pledging conference” for the Fund raised over $424 million, the highest of any conference since the CERF’s inception in 2006.  It gets better:  after sitting out for a couple of years, the United States re-joined the conference with a $10 million pledge.

Again, these funds go to help people in places that are either under the political radar, or if they are on the political radar, they are there because the country’s leadership is hostile to the United States; the people of Myanmar, North Korea, Zimbabwe and Somalia have received humanitarian assistance through the CERF process.  Donating aid to unpopular or unrecognized crises are not going to win many votes, but it’s surely the right thing to do.  $10 million is not that much money, but it is a pretty good example of the humanitarian impulse of the Obama administration.   

It also puts the United States in the group of top ten pledges for 2010.