Issue 54 - Article 10

Bridging the gap between policy and practice: the European Consensus on Humanitarian Aid and Humanitarian Principles

May 30, 2012
Naomi Baird and Anne Street
Members of the Humanitarian Aid Office of the EC in Haiti

The core humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence underpin the day-to-day operations of humanitarian organisations. Humanitarian principles can lay the foundations for the trust and acceptance that enable NGOs, the Red Cross/Red Crescent and UN agencies to operate. Commentary from NGOs and others in recent years, however, has repeatedly highlighted the increased politicisation of humanitarian aid. The Caritas Europa report Bridging the Gap between Policy and Practice, published in October 2011, examines some of the practical consequences of this trend for the delivery of humanitarian aid, notably within the framework of the European Consensus on Humanitarian Aid, which all European Union (EU) Member States have agreed to. The full report is available at and The European Consensus on Humanitarian Aid is at  The report identifies inconsistencies between the policy and practice of Member States in the delivery of principled humanitarian aid, and makes recommendations to address this. The report recognises that, although Member States are not the only humanitarian actors during any given crisis, it is only EU Member States that have made agreements within the EU Consensus on Humanitarian Aid. Therefore, an examination of other humanitarian actors falls outside the scope of the report’s research.

baird box 1Those providing humanitarian assistance today do so in a highly complex environment. In violent conflicts, abuse of rights and the failure of states and non-state armed actors to observe the rules of war have confounded efforts to provide assistance to those who require it. In many of the world’s most complex humanitarian crises, the subjugation of humanitarian priorities to foreign policy objectives and the conflation of military, political and humanitarian objectives constitute a significant threat to the delivery of impartial humanitarian assistance. The growth in the number and diversity of humanitarian actors, some of whom act in ways inconsistent with principled humanitarian action, acts to undermine efforts to preserve the impartiality, independence and neutrality of humanitarian aid.

Adherence to humanitarian principles is essential for establishing and maintaining access to affected populations, whether in the context of a natural disaster, an armed conflict or in complex emergency settings. Whilst humanitarian principles are sometimes perceived as lofty theoretical undertakings, they are in fact an essential framework for building trust and acceptance. Although adherence to principles alone may not be sufficient, in politicised and insecure environments establishing trust is crucial. When governments, militaries or donors seek to co-opt or undermine these principles, the trust between those providing and those receiving assistance can be damaged or destroyed, and it can become too dangerous to assist those who need our help the most. For a more detailed explanation and independent monitoring report of the consolidation plan see

The European Consensus on Humanitarian Aid

According to the Humanitarian Consensus:

The objective of EU humanitarian aid is to provide a needs-based emergency response aimed at preserving life, preventing and alleviating human suffering and maintaining human dignity wherever the need arises if governments and local actors are overwhelmed, unable or unwilling to act.

Building on the 2004 Good Humanitarian Donorship (GHD) initiative, the European Consensus on Humanitarian Aid (the Humanitarian Consensus) was adopted in 2007 by EU institutions and Member States. It is a non-binding policy framework, complemented by an Action Plan agreed in May 2008. The Humanitarian Consensus sets out a common vision for humanitarian aid for EU institutions and Member States, outlining core principles and commitments. It affirms the primacy of humanitarian principles and international law (including IHL, human rights law and refugee law), enshrines, in its current form, a clear distinction between civil and military action in humanitarian crises and confirms that humanitarian aid is not a crisis management tool. As such it is an important instrument for promoting principled humanitarian assistance, safeguarding humanitarian space and facilitating the delivery of aid to those most in need.

The EU and Member States have stated their commitment to humanitarian principles as affirmed by the Humanitarian Consensus. However, as Bridging the Gap highlights, there is sometimes a mismatch between the policies committed to and their implementation in practice. For Member States, there is still much to be done to increase knowledge and application of the Humanitarian Consensus, as well as to raise awareness across governments of the commitments that these principles bestow in terms of how Member States respond to crises.

baird box 2Political and institutional developments at an EU level potentially also risk undermining adherence to humanitarian principles and the Humanitarian Consensus. While the commitment of EU Member States and institutions to the Consensus has ensured that the Humanitarian Aid General Directorate of the European Commission (ECHO) remains outside the remit of the recently created European External Action Service (EEAS), which manages EU foreign relations, security and defence policy, the terms of the Lisbon Treaty require that humanitarian aid is conducted within the framework of the EU’s external action. While coordination between the Commission and the EEAS is required, care has to be taken that humanitarian aid does not become a crisis management tool. This is clearly stated in Article 15 of the Humanitarian Consensus, thereby ensuring that ECHO remains distinct from other Commission services, and enabling ECHO to deliver impartial and neutral humanitarian assistance and to advocate for principled humanitarian action. VOICE position paper, EU Military Operation in Support of Humanitarian Assistance Operations in Libya, April 2011.

It’s time to bridge the gap between policy and practice

A strong commitment across all EU institutions to principled humanitarian engagement, and a common agreement not to use humanitarian aid as a crisis management tool, will provide the strongest foundation for the provision of effective assistance to those affected by disaster, and will sustain the EU as a quality humanitarian donor. EU institutions and Member States need to show greater political will to consistently put the Humanitarian Consensus into practice, particularly in terms of respecting and upholding humanitarian principles and ensuring that donor practice is guided by them. In order to support this, monitoring of the impact of the Humanitarian Consensus and its Action Plan should be strengthened at all levels, and an independent end-of-phase evaluation of the Action Plan must be conducted by 2013. Foresight and planning will also be required to ensure that the Humanitarian Consensus is effectively implemented in 2013 and beyond.

In order for the Humanitarian Consensus to be credible, in a context where key aspects of the framework are either unknown, misunderstood or ignored, there is an urgent need for signatories to the Humanitarian Consensus as well as civil society organisations to continue to raise awareness through the various EU institutions and those Member States’ government departments involved in the delivery of humanitarian aid. Whilst some Member States have made considerable progress and have developed national policies and strategies that refer closely to the Humanitarian Consensus, in a significant number of EU countries such frameworks are still missing. Reflecting and clearly articulating a commitment to the Humanitarian Consensus in national policy frameworks will in turn provide more transparency at national level, enabling national parliaments and civil society organisations to monitor adherence to the Humanitarian Consensus more rigorously. Where Member States do not meet their obligations, and donor governments’ crisis responses contravene the spirit and the intent of the Humanitarian Consensus, there needs to be a stronger commitment to collective action to address this. Bodies such as the EU Committee on Humanitarian Aid and Food Aid (COHAFA) and wider donor forums such as the GHD, which recently had a work stream on humanitarian principles, could perhaps play a more prominent role in this regard, and Member States could consider the potential for a peer review mechanism.

A significant number of international NGOs involved in humanitarian action have been closely involved with the Humanitarian Consensus since it was first conceived in 2006. Many provided detailed input into its development and there was widespread recognition amongst humanitarian actors of its importance as an instrument to promote principled humanitarian assistance, safeguard humanitarian space and facilitate the delivery of impartial humanitarian aid. We would urge NGOs in EU Member States to continue to hold their national governments to account in relation to the Humanitarian Consensus, and to encourage reference to the agreements and principles enshrined within it in all humanitarian strategies, policies and procedures.

Naomi Baird is Humanitarian Response Officer – Policy and Advocacy, Trócaire. Anne Street is Senior Humanitarian Policy Advisor for CAFOD.


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