Issue 16 - Article 14

Assessment and Future of Community Humanitarian Activities: Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament

December 5, 2012
RRN Staff
7 min read

(Summary of ‘Assessment and Future of Community Humanitarian Activities’/‘Evaluation et Avenir des Activities Humanitaires de la Communaute’ (1999) Brussels: European Commission)

The EU’s humanitarian assistance, mainly disbursed by the European Commission through ECHO, has been the subject of extensive evaluation. Independent consultants reviewed the work of ECHO between 1996 and 1998, while the EU’s humanitarian assistance was also included in an evaluation of the Community’s overall development assistance between 1991 and 1996.

Since its creation in 1992, ECHO has disbursed some 4bn Euro, of which some 1.8bn between 1996 and 1998. The allocations for this later period went to NGOs (56 per cent), the UN (25 per cent), other partners, especially the Red Cross movement (11 per cent) and direct to action by ECHO itself or disbursements to specialised agencies of member states (8 per cent). Geographically, 37 per cent went to ACP countries, 37.4 per cent to Eastern Europe and the Newly Independent States (the Kosovo crisis being the largest single operation), and 25 per cent to the rest of Latin America, Asia, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Recently the Commission reflected on the findings and recommendations of the evaluations, particularly that of ECHO (named above). The key points are:

  • The ‘grey zone’ between relief and development: It is recognised that the Commission lacks flexible and rapid alternative instruments to pick up where ECHO leaves off.  The Commission does not consider it feasible to have a new structure to deal with ‘transitional’ situations, while the evaluators do not favour a continuation of the strict ‘emergency’ interpretation of ECHO’s mandate. Another option the consultants considered was a twin-track approach within ECHO itself, but the Commission only vaguely states that it will ensure that ‘all services involved in development cooperation accord a priority to closing the transition gap with humanitarian assistance’. Its view reveals inherent contradictions in its decision-making logic: ostensibly the argument is made that a more coherent overall strategy will provide the solution, but between the lines it is the lack of sustainability and the need for an exit strategy for ECHO at the earliest moment that appear as big concerns.
  • The mandate, mission and strategic thinking : The Commission does not agree that ECHO’s mandate should be spelled out more clearly. It believes that the current one offers a required flexibility and allows for change. It does, however, see value in the articulation of a clear mission statement, with objectives and clearly defined priorities for ECHO. The ‘Global Plans’ for a region, introduced by ECHO, are seen as a positive development, but there is no critical reflection on the fact that its six to 12 month time-span can hardly be considered as offering any ‘planning horizon’.
  • General management, project-cycle management, performance indicators and results : ECHO’s internal organisation and management is identified as the ‘single most frequently criticised’ element. For example, between 1996 and 1998 the number of staff to manage 10m Euros increased from 1.3 to 2. Certainly problems with the level and quality of staffing have been pointed out before, but many of the problems result from rules and procedures that are Commision-wide and cannot be resolved at the level of ECHO. The Commission recognises that the administrative culture is not well adapted for rapid response to emergencies. Both evaluations stress the enormous and unnecessary efforts to control inputs to the neglect of results, of collecting lessons learned, of developing institutional memory and of avoiding repetition of past mistakes. Although ECHO is praised by the evaluators for its achievements in evaluation and audit, they note a fairly systematic absence of any use of performance indicators other than disbursement indicators. The Commission has agreed to introduce an adapted form of project-cycle management in response to these criticisms, to invest in staff training, and to promote a learning culture.
  • Partner relationship, stakeholders, and relationship to the field :Although the reviewed Partnership Framework Agreement is seen as an improvement, there remains high dissatisfaction among partners with the relationship as it is conceptualised and practised. The evaluators recommend a review of the philosophy and practicalities of the agreement, and greater openness through a programme rather than a project-based approach.

    The Commission has agreed to such review, in the first instance for the UN and the Red Cross, and to greater clarity about choice of partners and funding decisions. However, it points out that poor performance, lack of attention to results, and poor learning also need to be addressed by ECHO’s partners whose performance will be more closely scrutinised. Over time a new administrative culture should enhance ECHO’s performance and accountability. The Commission intends to measure stakeholder satisfaction and put the results in the public domain. The primary stakeholders, however, are not the only partners; they are also those affected by humanitarian crises, as well as European citizens.

    A related point of criticism is ECHO’s centralised decision-making, notwithstanding the fact that it puts staff in the field – though admittedly of rather unequal quality. The Commission points at general recruitment constraints and the difficulty in devolving significant decision-making responsibilities to non-statutory staff. It also holds that decision-making is often more field-driven than may initially seem.

  • Coordination with member states and international influence :The consultants advocate for greater coordination between ECHO and the EU member states, noting that this is a two-way process. Joint assessment and policy coordination are two among other possible measures.

    ECHO is also noted to have little effective presence in the ‘humanitarian capitals’ such as Washington, London, Rome, Geneva and New York. How the Commission will pursue a stronger presence remains unclear: one perspective on the current absence is that it punches below its weight; another that it fails to monitor and identify best practices of other major humanitarian donors and actors. While the Commission quotes the consultants as stating that ‘ECHO is currently financing the delivery of humanitarian assistance at least as well as any other organisation, and probably better and in a more cost-effective manner than any other comparable international organisation’, it is unclear whether this praise extends beyond ‘financing’ or on what basis the evaluators would come to such a conclusion if other donors were not included in the scope of study.

  • Visibility : The evaluators criticise ECHO’s visibility as being pursued without clear focus and in ways that do not endear ECHO to many humanitarian actors. They  suggest a shift to ‘communication’, with both a field dimension and one towards European citizens and their representatives.
  • Gender and protection : These are two areas that are little prioritised or integrated in the Commission’s humanitarian assistance.
  • Disaster preparedness : ECHO’s work on disaster preparedness is generally positively evaluated, but the new regional approach under the DIPECHO (Disasters Preparedness at ECHO) programme is considered to be seriously underfunded. By contrast there is very little attention to disaster preparedness elsewhere, in the Commission’s research programmes or development assistance.
  • Conflict-prevention, peacebuilding and foreign policy : The Commission recognises that humanitarian aid needs to maintain a distance from foreign policy, but also suggests that a debate be opened about the totality of instruments to intervene in crisis situations and the role of ECHO in that context.


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