The EU: Good Humanitarian Donorship and the world’s biggest humanitarian donor
by Barnaby Willitts-King, independent consultant March 2005

If the European Union (EU) were a country, it would be the world’s biggest humanitarian donor. Despite claims to the contrary, the EU is not (yet) a single superstate. Nonetheless, EU donors, including the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO), together provide almost half of the world’s official humanitarian assistance. Clearly, any analysis of Good Humanitarian Donorship (GHD) needs to look at the individual and collective effort of the EU’s 25 member states and ECHO. During its presidency of the EU in the first half of 2004, Ireland therefore proposed a study for publication at the Ottawa meeting in October 2004 to look at how EU donors were doing in implementing GHD, and to share lessons in good donor practice across the EU and beyond.

Interviews for the study were conducted during 2004 with most of the EU’s 25 member states, including the new entrants. These suggested that there is evidence of good practice in GHD in the EU, but a lot more can and should be done to make further progress. This finding confirmed what could reasonably be expected a year into GHD. Furthermore, EU donors are generally interested in improving the quality of their humanitarian action, and the study provided many examples of good practice which could be adopted more widely. This article uses the study as a starting point to focus on three particular challenges – coordination, needs assessment and policy transparency. It also reflects on how EU and other donors should address these challenges, in the light of both the outcomes of the Ottawa meeting and the recent response to the Indian Ocean tsunami.

Challenge 1: Better donor coordination

Better coordination among humanitarian donors lies at the heart of GHD. A good humanitarian donor will work with other donors to improve the quality of response, avoid duplication and ensure that gaps in need are filled. EU donors do not necessarily coordinate any better with each other than with non-EU donors, and it is apparent that they individually take quite different approaches to disbursing aid. Some donors focus on multilateral channels, others favour their own national NGOs, and others have significant operational capacity. Nevertheless, the study highlighted the potential benefits of a more ‘joined-up’ EU approach, and the special role played by ECHO in acting apolitically as a collective expression of the EU’s humanitarian values. There are common EU values, and the EU acting in concert can exert significant leverage on other donors. In addition, the advantage of diverse approaches within the EU is that ideas can be tested and successful lessons shared more widely.

There are both ‘indirect’ forms of coordination – such as contributing via the UN Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP) – and direct collaborations, such as joint evaluations. At the policy level, donors are coming together through GHD to coordinate on reporting requirements. But donor coordination – or lack of it – is still a major issue, seen most recently in the tsunami response, and the Ottawa meeting suggests that donors’ ambitions in this area are quite limited. Many donors seem reluctant to make the extra effort to coordinate. This may reflect inertia within administrations, or genuine constraints based on capacity or domestic politics – incremental improvement may be the only feasible way forward. However, if little progress is made on improving coordination, the aspirations of GHD are in danger of remaining just that, while exasperating other stakeholders and undermining their support for GHD.

EU donors could come together more on issues such as strengthening the CAP, but this has a long way to go before it fulfils its aim to act as a tool of coordination, rather than just fundraising. Informal groupings of like-minded donors can make progress on specific issues – for example joint evaluations – and donor collaboration might bear fruit in the design of tools to analyse the impact of interventions, rather than looking solely at outputs, as is common now. However, to effect greater change EU donors could work together, with ECHO support, to take common approaches in both programming and advocacy. Deeper engagement by all EU members in the Humanitarian Assistance Committee (HAC) and in ECHO decision-making would also be beneficial.

Challenge 2: Funding according to need

If the tsunami response revealed a lack of donor coordination, it also raised major questions about donors’ adherence to the core humanitarian principle of impartiality – funding on the basis of, and in proportion to, need. It is clearly important to show solidarity with those affected, and for donor governments to demonstrate to their publics that they are responding. However, in the first days of a disaster such as this it is impossible to contribute ‘on the basis of need and in proportion to need’, given the lack of information about needs. Some donors would argue that the level of need was clearly so great that a huge response was necessary, and no contribution would be too much. There is some truth in this, but the danger of early pledging is that it leads to perverse pressures within donor administrations to disburse these funds quickly, pressures which are often driven by financial-year budgeting considerations. A good humanitarian donor might pledge, but be clear that its pledges are subject to detailed assessments of need on the ground. These assessments would be carried out according to the same criteria as in humanitarian crises elsewhere in the world, in terms of indicators such as mortality rates, levels of malnutrition, numbers in need of shelter and so on. Rather than going back on pledges, it should also be possible to roll over humanitarian pledges into longer-term development responses if the assessments and level of other donor contributions argued for this. For many administrations this would be bureaucratically tortuous and politically unpalatable.

The tsunami response demonstrates the challenges that remain in operationalising the principle of impartiality in the real world. Funding decisions after the immediate response were presumably beginning to be made on the basis of rough estimates of death tolls, numbers affected, local capacity to respond and suchlike. In the detail, though, comparing the need in Sri Lanka – with better infrastructure and capacity – with Aceh, or for that matter the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), depends on detailed assessments that were still emerging some weeks after the wave struck. There are methodologies for using these, but it is not clear how much these are really applied in donor decision-making.

Overall, needs assessment emerged in the study as an area that EU donors are challenged by, but where they are not necessarily making as much practical progress as would be desirable. There is consensus that better needs assessment is required, and some donors see the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Needs Assessment Framework and Matrix as a step in the right direction, but few specific initiatives are in evidence. In particular, donors could do more to support the principle of impartiality by funding the development of needs assessment methodologies, and looking at ways to fund independent needs assessments for specific crises. They could also do more to develop clear criteria for allocating resources according to need. In addition, while beneficiary involvement is widely cited as a priority, few donors have examined existing tools or developed new approaches to ensure that this occurs.

Challenge 3: Policy transparency

Good practice ought to be defined by good policy, yet few donors have articulated precisely how they will provide humanitarian assistance. The study found that donors are realising the importance of formalising humanitarian aid approaches through policy statements: Spain and Ireland, for example, are developing new policy frameworks.

A transparent policy process goes hand in hand with other forms of accountability. EU donors are advocating for humanitarian action and communicating their policies among stakeholders – parliament, other areas of government, the public, NGOs and beneficiaries – both to build support and as a means of providing accountability. Denmark’s Humanitarian Contact Group is an interesting example of an informal body for planning and coordinating Danish assistance. It includes representatives of government departments and Danish NGOs.

The first challenge in looking at good practice is in defining it. The humanitarian field has a number of reference points – not least the Stockholm GHD document. There are also operational guides such as Sphere, specific guidance such as the IASC’s on HIV/AIDS in emergencies, and the guidelines on the use of military and civil defence assets to support UN humanitarian activities in natural disasters/complex emergencies (the Oslo and MCDA guidelines). However, there is certainly no consensus on a range of issues such as the relationship between relief and development, or between civil and military functions of government in humanitarian action. In some cases, there is a lot of practice without donors necessarily analysing whether it is good practice. The study was also not able to look in detail at what donor practice looked like, as compared to policy: anecdotally, there is sometimes a gulf between the two. Donors need a clearer articulation of how policy and practice are guided by humanitarian principles, as well as being clear about what exactly they mean by humanitarian action. Further discussion and research is called for on what constitutes good practice in its detailed implementation, rather than just broad principles.

Beyond debating good practice and being transparent about policy, donors need to show examples of good practice in performance monitoring and evaluation, both of themselves and of implementing agencies. The inclusion of humanitarian action in the OECD-DAC’s donor peer review process is important, as are steps by donors such as the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) in setting specific targets in line with GHD, for example in reducing earmarking (through the government-wide programme of Public Service Agreements). However, these are complex systems to put in place, are limited in their scope, and may not suit all donors.

NGOs also have an important part to play in improving donor behaviour. The study found that donors were surprised at how little NGOs were using the language of GHD in their lobbying and engagement on thematic and policy issues. This would be a natural extension of the firmer strategic relationships that donors are forming with some agencies, for example ECHO’s Framework Partnership Agreement with NGOs and its new thematic funding for the UN, or DFID’s institutional strategy papers with UN agencies and the Red Cross.

GHD is clearly a big agenda. Despite the many different shapes and sizes of humanitarian donor in the EU, from Luxembourg’s one-person team to ECHO’s army of experts, many donors share the same areas of progress and of challenge. A consistent message from almost all donors, large and small, is that they feel they have insufficient capacity to implement GHD in its entirety immediately, however much they aspire to do so, while still responding to the inevitable stream of humanitarian crises.

The challenge for donors will be in prioritising which elements of GHD to take forward and developing detailed strategies, with appropriate resourcing, to do so. Donors which can prioritise the parts of GHD that are most important to them, and that are achievable within their capacity, will probably make more substantive progress. Despite, or perhaps because of, the breadth of the GHD agenda, the study found that very few donor governments have developed their own frameworks for implementing GHD in terms of how different aspects will be prioritised, and how progress against these will be measured. This could be a first step in providing a guide for good practice.


The EU is a strange animal, a union of diverse countries with sometimes arcane bureaucracy and complex procedures. Although for many humanitarian donors their European identity is not necessarily the most important one, better humanitarian donorship in the EU could mean a greater level of coordination among like-minded donors and greater global influence. It also provides a valuable forum for sharing ideas and good practice, particularly with the new member states.

Looking beyond the EU to GHD as a whole, the priority for all donors needs to be to make demonstrable, practical progress in GHD. There is a risk that the momentum built up between Stockholm and Ottawa could now wane as donors balk at the costs of coordination: donors need to seize this opportunity to show that GHD is more than just rhetorical.

Barnaby Willitts-Kingis an independent consultant specialising in humanitarian policy. He can be contacted on The study on which this article draws is Barnaby Willitts-King, Good Humanitarian Donorship and the European Union: A Study of Good Practice and Recent Initiatives, commissioned by Development Cooperation Ireland. The final report, published on 15 September 2004, is available at The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of Development Cooperation Ireland.

References and further reading

Adele Harmer and Lin Cotterrell (Humanitarian Policy Group) and Abby Stoddard (Center on International Cooperation), From Stockholm to Ottawa: A Progress Review of the Good Humanitarian Donorship Initiative, HPG Briefing Paper 18, October 2004,

ECHO, Global Needs Assessment and Forgotten Crises, DFID, Public Service Agreement 2005–2008,