Issue 18 - Article 14

A critical view of Spanish humanitarian aid

April 6, 2001

Spanish humanitarian aid is relatively new, relatively modest and relatively limited in its aims.

Although still a relatively recent phenomenon, and still relatively small in volume, Spanish humanitarian aid has gained an unprecedented degree of media impact and political weight. In the wake of Hurricane Mitch in 1998, donations to NGOs reached over $180m as Spaniards responded to their close historical and cultural ties with Central America. This, combined with the response to the Kosovo crisis of 1999, has led the government to pay much closer attention to humanitarian assistance, and to strengthen its aid programmes. At the same time, however, aid has become a much more visible instrument of Spanish foreign policy, and its politicisation has increased. During the Kosovo crisis, for instance, the government used humanitarian rhetoric to support its involvement, and the dividing-line between the military and humanitarian aspects of the crisis was blurred.

The beginnings of Spanish official humanitarian aid

Official government development aid (ODA), including humanitarian assistance, began in the 1980s. Since 1988, coordination has been in the hands of the Spanish International Cooperation Agency (AECI) within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (some aid instruments like soft credits are under the control of the Ministry of Economics). The Law of International Development Cooperation, passed in July 1998, established a solid basis for development assistance in general, including humanitarian aid. Plans are afoot to designate priority areas, and reform of the overseas aid structure, include the criteria for, and strategies around, humanitarian aid is under way.

Compared with other forms of aid, government funding for humanitarian assistance has been relatively small, and it has not figured greatly in government discussions about the overall design of development cooperation. The level of funding for humanitarian aid is among the smallest of the Development Aid Committee (DAC) members of the OECD. On average, the proportion of total overseas aid going on humanitarian assistance stands at two per cent, compared with a DAC average of seven per cent.

Spanish development assistance has traditionally consisted of credits tied to commercial interests, implying that aid without any type of financial return, like humanitarian assistance, was not a priority. More-over, many of the crises and complex emergencies of the 1980s and 1990s took place in areas deemed of marginal importance to Spanish foreign-policy interests. Only in the case of the Yugoslav crises did Spain demonstrate some capacity for a humanitarian response, combined with an increasing presence in UN military forces. Nevertheless, contributions to multilateral agencies like UNHCR or the WFP are limited; in 1999, Spain’s voluntary contribution to UNHCR was $3.15m, making it the sixteenth-largest donor, and to the WFP $1.68m, the nineteenth-largest contribution. In comparison, the US, the largest contributor to the WFP and UNHCR, gave $452m and $254m respectively.

There are also institutional weaknesses. The Humanitarian Aid Unit has little influence within the AECI, and few experienced and well-trained personnel. Its management procedures are slow and inflexible, and it does not have its own logistics capacities. Instead, it relies on those of the military, or of NGOs. Coordination between the AECI and other ministries, as well as between the AECI and NGOs, is insufficient.

Governmental humanitarian aid does not have a coherent strategy, clear objectives or criteria or well-defined policies. In the absence of stable, long-term programmes, assistance tends to be reactive, and highly susceptible to pressure from the media, and from politicians. The focus is on short-term crisis response: sending emergency goods and medical assistance, and rescuing victims. Tasks like conflict prevention and mediation, peace-building and strengthening local capacities in target countries, or efforts to link emergency assistance with long-term development or rehabilitation, do not figure. The experiences in this field of other donor countries like the UK and Sweden have not been incorporated into Spanish aid. The role of humanitarian aid vis-à-vis other aid instruments is not clear. Spain plays only a limited role in international fora like the DAC or the European Union. (Paradoxically, the Spanish government has approved a study of the costs of Spanish military participation in peace operations to assess whether they were accounted for as part of ODA; this is expressly prohibited by the DAC.)

Other actors: NGOs and sub-state bodies

The level of humanitarian aid given by Spanish NGOs increased markedly during the 1990s. According to the coordinating body Coordinadora de ONG para el desarrollo, in 1995 funding for NGOs stood at $180m, of which $28m was humanitarian aid. By 1998, this figure had more than doubled, to $400m, with $58.5m in humanitarian assistance. New organisations appeared, international NGOs established themselves in Spain, and NGOs that had focused on development began to work towards humanitarian aims. These developments were due in part to new funding opportunities, as well as increased donations and support from the EU through ECHO. In 1998, Spanish NGOs received more than $30m from ECHO, the fourth-highest national total after France, Italy and the UK. Public donations in the wake of Hurricane Mitch were 2.5 times higher than the funds assigned to the crisis by the AECI.

One particular feature of Spanish cooperation is its decentralised character, through the country’s autonomous communities, provinces and local governments. Between 1995 and 1998, these entities accounted for 40 per cent of all Spanish humanitarian aid, outstripping the central government’s contribution. Decentralised assistance has advantages in that there are no payback donations or credits, funds are channelled through NGOs rather than the central bureaucracy and fewer commercial or foreign-policy strings are attached. This aid tends to go to areas or groups not targeted by central assistance, like refugees in Algeria, the Kurds or Iraq. On the downside, this form of aid lacks a strategic vision, and there are coordination problems due to the differing priorities of each region, and for historical and political reasons.

Despite growing numbers and increased funding, Spanish NGOs remain relatively weak compared with those of other European countries. Many rely on government funding and crisis-specific private donations. Generally, levels of training tend to be lower than in other European countries, and knowledge of debates and initiatives in the humanitarian field – the Do No Harm debate or Sphere, for example – is not widespread. Thus, some NGOs have a relatively limited concept of humanitarian action, focusing on supportive, reactive and short-term responses. In some development NGOs, as well as the Coordinadora de ONG para el desarrollo, humanitarian assistance is viewed critically.

The military

Spanish forces have taken part in UN peacekeeping operations since the 1980s, and the Spanish military has become an important participant in emergency response. In 1998, in the country’s first large-scale emergency operation, 1,000 soldiers, 14 aircraft and three ships were mobilised in response to Hurricane Mitch. In 1999, Spanish troops were involved in building refugee camps and delivering relief goods to Kosovo, and in 2000 Spanish forces transported aid and set up a hospital in flood-hit Mozambique.

This growing military involvement is in part the result of external factors, among them NATO’s new security doctrine and the expansion of the Western European Union’s responsibilities to include military-humanitarian missions. But there are also domestic political influences: the AECI’s lack of logistics capacity, the political willingness to increase Spain’s international military presence and the need to improve the military’s post-Franco image at home. Given the abolition of conscription, the military needs to show itself as an attractive professional option.

The militarisation of humanitarian assistance has met with the objections of several Spanish NGOs, and wide sections of the Spanish public; NGOs refused the government’s request to attend a parade marking Armed Forces Day in Barcelona in May 2000, for example. Moreover, military participation in humanitarian operations is inefficient and very expensive: a refugee camp built by Spanish troops at Hammallaj in Albania, for instance, cost over $16,000 for each of the 2,250 refugees housed, and remained open for only two months.


Governmental humanitarian aid is relatively small, and is becoming increasingly politicised. Spanish humanitarian NGOs have increased their capacity thanks to financing from ECHO, from sub-state institutions and from the Spanish public. But in both cases, there is a lack of technical ability and conceptual thinking, making it difficult to frame strategies and criteria for humanitarian assistance. In this area, education would help, and university courses on development and humanitarian action, together with growing participation in international fora, are raising standards and awareness. After years of isolation, Spain today has an institutional, political and administrative framework capable of supporting a more committed aid policy. There is a strong consensus in favour of increasing Spanish aid and, for the first time, Spain has the opportunity to be an important player in the development and humanitarian fields. Nevertheless, there is a risk of confusion between humanitarian purposes and political and security ones. There is thus a clear need to clarify the role of Spanish aid in an increasingly complex world.

Karlos Pérez de Armiño is International Relations Associate Professor at the University of the Basque Country, and Research Fellow at the Institute of Development and International Cooperation Studies in Bilbao.

Francisco Rey is a Researcher at the Peace Research Centre (CIP) in Madrid and Fellow of the Institute on Conflicts and Humanitarian Action (ICAH). He works for the Spanish Red Cross.

For more on Spanish humanitarian aid, see the website of the Spanish International Cooperation Agency at <>.



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