Testing times for ECHO
by Tasneem Mowjee, independent consultant February 2004

The European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) faces some of its greatest challenges since it was set up in 1992.  These reflect broader changes within the European Commission and the European Union more generally, with the accession of ten new members in 2004 and discussion of a new Constitutional Treaty.


When ECHO was established, it was charged with responsibility for the coherent administration of humanitarian aid, emergency food aid and disaster prevention and preparedness activities. It was also supposed to raise the profile of the European Community’s humanitarian aid effort.  It became a legal entity with the adoption of Council Regulation 1257/96 in June 1996. The Regulation defined humanitarian aid, and gave ECHO a far more detailed mandate. According to the Regulation:

Humanitarian aid comprises assistance, relief and protection operations on a non-discriminatory basis to help people in third countries, particularly the most vulnerable among them, and as a priority those in developing countries, victims of natural disasters, man-made crises such as wars and outbreaks of fighting, or exceptional circumstances comparable to natural or man-made disasters for the time needed to meet the humanitarian requirements from these different situations.

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Aid can continue ‘for the time needed to meet the humanitarian requirements resulting from these different situations’.  Amongst the objectives of humanitarian aid operations, the Regulation includes providing ‘the necessary assistance and relief to people affected by longer-lasting crises’ and carrying out ‘short-term rehabilitation and reconstruction work’.

This wide-ranging mandate has meant that ECHO funded activities in the so-called ‘grey zone’ between short-term emergency relief and development. This raised a number of familiar conceptual and administrative problems, and the Commission sought to refocus ECHO on its ‘core mandate’.  In April 2001, a second Communication on linking emergency and development activities set out a new strategy whereby different aid instruments would operate simultaneously in a protracted crisis.  Actually operationalising this has, however, proved difficult: decision-making tends to be slow, choosing implementing partners is not straightforward and it has proved difficult to mobilise resources through the appropriate instruments.  Although ECHO has developed criteria for determining when it should leave a country, other Commission instruments have either not mobilised in time, or have failed to continue funding activities that were supported by ECHO. In Sudan, for example, ECHO took a long-term view of humanitarian aid and supported the health infrastructure. When the Country Strategy Paper (CSP) was negotiated, setting the framework for European assistance, funding for ECHO’s activities in the health sector was not included. Instead, the CSP incorporated a ‘Humanitarian Plus’ programme of activities, funded and managed by the EuropeAid Cooperation Office (AIDCO). (AIDCO was established in January 2001 to manage the administration of rehabilitation and development projects.)  Although the experiment is regarded as a success and has been applied in other countries, including Angola and Burundi, there is reluctance to institutionalise it. Therefore, ECHO and AIDCO continue to debate handover procedures.


By 1994, at the time of the Great Lakes crisis, ECHO had become one of the world’s largest humanitarian aid donors after the US. Its budget then declined, only to increase to record levels in 1999 in response to the Kosovo crisis.  At that point, ECHO’s humanitarian aid stood at €800 million ($852m). The budget has since declined again, to around €500m ($447m).

ECHO’s regional focus

Table 1 shows the percentages of ECHO’s budget allocated to different regions between 1993 and 2001. The former Yugoslavia has been an important focus, receiving over half of ECHO’s total budget in 1993 and 1999.  In other years, the area received a share of ECHO’s budget similar to that of the Asian, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries.

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Implementing partners

When ECHO was established, the Commission expected it to build up its own capacity for direct action in the field. In fact, most of its funding is channelled through European NGOs, UN agencies and the International Red Cross organisations.  The proportion of ECHO’s budget spent through European NGOs has risen substantially, reaching a record of 65% in 2000. This has remained high, despite the appointment of the pro-UN Poul Nielson as Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid in 2000. There are several possible reasons for this. One is visibility: ECHO can obtain more visibility by funding NGOs than from large-scale UN programmes, where it is difficult to distinguish the contributions of the various donors.  Other reasons include negative perceptions of the UN’s performance; the view that funding NGOs directly rather than through UN agencies, which often subcontract NGOs anyway, is better value for taxpayers’ money; and the identification of shortcomings in UN security.

Framework Partnership Agreements

ECHO provides funding to all its implementing partners through a contractual agreement, known as the Framework Partnership Agreement (FPA).  This was introduced in 1993 because the Commission’s normal procedures were too cumbersome for emergency responses. However, NGOs encountered difficulties with the FPA and, after lengthy negotiations, a revised version was introduced in January 1999.  By the beginning of 2000, this also began to be revised to comply with a new Commission-wide Financial Regulation and to incorporate ECHO’s emphasis on quality in humanitarian aid. The new FPA was expected to come into force on 1 January 2003, but this has been delayed until January 2004 for administrative reasons.

UN agencies have argued that the FPA is unsuitable for their programme approach.  Therefore, after lengthy high-level discussions, an umbrella Financial and Administrative Framework Agreement (FAFA) was signed on 29 April 2003. ECHO was asked to develop implementing measures to comply with the agreement.  In addition, in 2000, ECHO initiated annual ‘Strategic Programming Dialogues’ with major partners like the UN agencies. These enable ECHO and its partners to discuss their priorities and strategies for the forthcoming year.

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Global Plans

In 1994, ECHO introduced funding strategies, called Global Plans, for longer-term crises. Global Plans usually cover a 12-month period. Once a funding decision is made, no additional funds are available unless another emergency occurs.  Global Plans are a useful mechanism for ECHO because they allow it to take a proactive approach, rather than simply responding to requests for funds on an ad hoc basis. They are also easier to administer than individual contracts because only one funding decision is required.  Global Plans should also improve field-level coordination amongst implementing partners.


In 2004, ten countries are due to become members of the EU: Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.  They bring with them their own histories, cultures, attitudes to development and political priorities. Some will have to move from being aid recipients to being donors committed to the EU’s development policy; in 1999, for example, Poland received $519m in development assistance from the EC, but is expected to commit 0.39% of its GDP to overseas aid by 2006.  Although acceding countries are required to accept development policy as it stands, major differences could lead them to push policy in new directions over the longer term.  To accommodate the Commissioners from new member states, the draft Constitutional Treaty proposes giving them different voting rights. This raises the possibility that the humanitarian aid Commissioner may not have voting rights.  This could relegate humanitarian aid to an insignificant policy position, or make it easier for other policy areas to co-opt it.

One of the greatest challenges facing ECHO is the development of a European foreign and security policy, and the draft Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe.  While there is a separate section in the Treaty devoted to humanitarian aid, some provisions give cause for concern.

  • The sections on development and humanitarian aid are placed under Title V, which covers the EU’s external action. This raises questions about aid’s independence from the EU’s wider policy goals overseas.
  • Article III-223 (2) states that humanitarian aid operations will comply with international humanitarian law, in particular the principles of impartiality and non-discrimination, but the principle of neutrality is notably absent.
  • Article III-223 (5) provides for the establishment of a European Voluntary Humanitarian Aid Corps to enable young Europeans to contribute to the Union’s humanitarian action. As Nielson has pointed out, this undermines work to professionalise humanitarian aid and risks putting untrained young people into dangerous situations.
  • Article III-210 (1) outlines the tasks for which the EU may use civilian and military means. These include humanitarian and rescue tasks alongside military advice and assistance, conflict prevention and peacekeeping, together with combat in crisis management.  The Article states that all these tasks ‘may contribute to the fight against terrorism’. This raises the prospect that a military force engaged in peace-making or counter-terrorism may also be involved in delivering humanitarian aid.

The draft Treaty raises some alarming questions. So far, NGOs have failed to persuade the Convention drafting the Treaty to accept a more principled, independent approach to humanitarian aid.  A coalition of NGO groups has produced a document outlining the changes which NGOs should request ahead of ratification in 2004. Given that some member states have signed up to the Principles and Good Practice of Humanitarian Donorship, elaborated in Stockholm in June 2003, NGOs should find it easier to persuade them to apply these to the draft Treaty.  Whether this will result in positive changes remains to be seen, and 2004 is likely to be a testing time indeed for ECHO.

Tasneem Mowjee is a London-based independent researcher.

References and further reading

The draft Constitution is available at the Europa website: http://europa.eu.int/futurum/constitution/index_en.htm.

‘EU Humanitarian Aid – Challenges Ahead’, a conference organised by VOICE, Brussels, 20 May 2003, www.ngovoice.org.

‘Reactions to the European Constitutional Treaty: Perspective on Humanitarian Aid and Development Co-operation’, May 2003, www.ngovoice.org.