The Future of EU Humanitarian Aid
by Koenraad Van Brabant, RRN Coordinator June 2003

This year, a new and more powerful European Parliament will be elected, a new Commission will be appointed, and new European institutions will begin to operate. All of these precede the expiry of ECHO’s mandate at the end of 1999.

In light of these changes, VOICE – Voluntary Organisations in Cooperation in Emergencies – has facilitated a process of reflection and discussion concerning the future of EU humanitarian aid. Broad-based discussions took place at VOICE’s Annual General Assembly on 8 December 1998, and a working document is currently being circulated for further comment; it is expected to be finalised by the end of March 1999. The purpose of the discussion was not to evaluate ECHO’s performance, but to think freely and constructively about a vision for future EU humanitarian aid. Three areas of focus emerged during the process.

First, the inevitable question of partnership between EU institutions – notably ECHO – and NGOs. Notwithstanding recent progress, ECHO continues to feel it is perceived as ‘merely a bank’, whereas the NGOs feel they are perceived as ‘merely implementing agencies’. For the NGOs, partnership requires a mutual engagement beyond the contractual relationship. Flexibility in funding remains another issue, especially in the initial weeks of an emergency. NGO representatives felt value in exploring how the mechanism of an initial ‘block grant’, offering speed and flexibility for a rapid response, can still be combined with adequate accountability. Finally, instead of focussing on visibility through flags, logos and stickers, the EU would do better to concentrate on a communications strategy that creates a profile for itself as a credible and professional provider of humanitarian assistance.

The second area of focus concerned the issue of whether ECHO should continue in its current form. This is a question NGOs feel is within the remit of the Commission. However, NGO representatives articulated a number of principles and quality norms that EU humanitarian aid should meet. One is that the EU should develop its own humanitarian policy. There was also a general feeling that retaining one commissioner for humanitarian aid was desirable; so too greater coordination between the various EU institutions involved with conflict issues and between the different commissioners. EU humanitarian aid should become more transparent and accountable (see later book review on page 41 of PDF); to that effect greater scrutiny by the European Parliament was recommended in addition to the inclusion of NGOs with observer status in EU aid committees.

It was felt that the quality of EU civil servants dealing with humanitarian aid needs improvement and their rapid turnover, notably in ECHO, has to stop. The EU should also specify more clearly the relative authority and responsibilities of its field officers and headquarter staff. Access to technical advisors for EU desk officers was recommended, as was a mechanism whereby EU and NGO staff could gain working experience in each other’s environments through exchange placements.

Finally, the most challenging discussions centred around the boundaries of humanitarian aid and the definition and interpretation of the mandate of an ‘ECHO 2’, if such would continue from the year 2000. Questions concerning the relationship of humanitarian aid to disaster preparedness, development, human rights and conflict management policies were raised.

ECHO’s director announced that disaster prevention would receive more attention in ECHO as of 2000. At least two questions require further reflection. First, a structural approach to natural disaster prevention implies reducing vulnerability. This is something that has been taken up by developmentalists in other aid organisations. Second, disaster preparedness requires investment in local capacities. What partnerships can and will the EU develop with local organisations in this regard, and how? The relationship between relief, rehabilitation and development remains problematic. What do people understand by these concepts and paradigms? Is there ‘developmental space’ in any real sense in ongoing conflicts? Given that ECHO was set up in the early 1990s precisely to enhance the swiftness of the emergency response, would a new merging of relief and development actions not be a step backward? There are both advantages and risks to linking relief and development which need further thought.

With regard to human rights, those present at the VOICE meeting recognised that violations of human rights fuel conflict, and that humanitarian action is underpinned by rights. The question is not, however, whether human rights are an aspect of an ‘ECHO 2’ mandate, but how this would be interpreted in practice. The emerging consensus was that ECHO should not get involved in funding ‘classical’ human rights organisations whose main strategy is one of public testimony and denunciation, nor get involved in denouncing human rights violations. Also, the decision to suspend humanitarian assistance should not be made dependent on human rights criteria – in which case there might remain few places where humanitarian assistance can be provided. ECHO, on the other hand, should consider rights inasmuch as these are protected by refugee law and international humanitarian law. The emphasis should be on safeguarding humanitarian space and on investing more in practical protection activities. ECHO can also invest in human rights awareness raising and human rights education work.

Finally, it was recognised that the European Commission is a political institution. It is therefore inevitable that its humanitarian aid is considered from a political angle. In the absence of an articulated Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), humanitarian aid has tended to become a prominent tool of EU foreign policy. Is this desirable? Although in recent years several aid administrations have turned to humanitarian aid as a potential tool for conflict management, there are growing doubts about its ability to do so. The record of conditionalities imposed on development aid is also very poor, and there is little reason to believe that it would be any better for humanitarian aid. Further, it seems premature and dangerous to accept that humanitarian aid will be subsumed under the CFSP, while the latter remains largely unarticulated. It is by no means clear that the EU will adopt foreign policies that are ethical and principled rather than driven by economic and political self-interest. Note also that the Red Cross/NGO Code of Conduct states that humanitarian agencies will strive not to be a tool of the foreign policies of their donors. This is not to question the need for conflict management. Rather the point is that such responsibility should lie elsewhere in the Commission and not with the executives and commissioner in charge of EU humanitarian aid.

For more information contact:

VOICE
Fax: (+32) 2732 1934
Email: voice@clong.be

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