Helping the most vulnerable around the globe - The European Union as a humanitarian actor

How political is ECHO’s work?

The European Union is one of the major donors of humanitarian aid around the world. The mission of the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO) is to provide relief where no other help is available, in conflicts, natural catastrophes and other major events of crisis. With a budget of around 700 million Euro per year ECHO has funded humanitarian aid in more than 85 countries around the world since its creation in 1992. However, while humanitarian aid is supposed to be neutral and to provide relief to the most vulnerable, the line between humanitarian and politicised aid is narrow. ECHO has throughout its existence been accused of being too politicised and interventionist. The Euros present the EU as a humanitarian actor and shed a light on the question how political ECHO actually is.


ECHO – European Community Humanitarian Office: why European?

In the aftermath of the Kurdish refugee crisis after the first Gulf war and the break-up of the Soviet Union, the European Union in a strive to reform its development and humanitarian policy, created ECHO – the European Community Humanitarian Office. Founded in 1992, ECHO has been operational since 1993, although it only became a legal entity with its own budget in 1996. Since then it has undertaken humanitarian action in more than 85 countries. ECHO´s mission is to administer and channel the major part of European humanitarian assistance to its various executing partners. Louis Michel, Commissioner for development and humanitarian aidIndeed, ECHO mainly acts as a donor, allocating grants to various international and non-governmental organisations such as the UN Refugee organisation UNHCR, the International Red Cross and around 200 other partners. Today, only one percent of its activities are actually implemented by ECHO. Given the huge amounts of grants that have to be channelled as quickly as possible to prevent humanitarian catastrophes, it seems clearly more efficient to administer European humanitarian aid through one body instead of twenty-seven. Although ECHO is an independent body in the European Commission, it operates under the heading of Commissioner Louis Michel, who is also responsible for the Directorate General Development. This has not always been the case - in its early years, ECHO was managed by its executive director and the Commission’s Vice-President, Manuel Marin, and later by the fishery and consumer affairs Commissioner, Emma Bonino. However, the search for more policy coherence in European development policy led to closer cooperation between Europe’s humanitarian and development aid since 1999.

ECHO’s work on the ground - bringing relief to the most vulnerable

But what does ECHO actually do, what does its work look like on the ground? The Gaza Strip is one example, where ECHO has been engaged for several years in long-term and crisis support. Bringing Food to SudanWhen the Israeli-Palestinian war broke out in December 2008, the already fragile humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip deteriorated dramatically. ECHO supported the victims by providing additional emergency aid of three million Euro to meet the most urgent needs. Despite the difficult diplomatic relations between the governing Hamas and the EU, ECHO has been supporting the occupied Palestinian territory since the second Intifada in 2000 with around 415 million Euros. Aid is mainly going to Gaza, but also to the other Palestinian Territories and as refugee support to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. As previously mentioned, ECHO does not execute the aid delivery itself, but runs projects with UN organisations, NGOs and the International Red Cross. In Gaza for example, it supported the UN’s Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in its food distribution programme. Candidate organisations, which ECHO may work with, are audited before signing a so called Framework Partnership Agreement. While food distribution is still the biggest field of action, the provision of shelter as well as disaster prevention measures have become increasingly important. But ECHO’s work is not exempt from critique. With the scandal around the European Commission in the late 1990s, ECHO has been criticised with allegations of serious fraud and management, too.

In the grey area between neutral and political humanitarian aid

However, the most controversial issue is ECHO’s mandate as neutral provider of humanitarian aid. Many arguments have been made about the politicisation of European humanitarian aid. Humanitarian convoy in YugoslaviaIndeed, the line between neutral humanitarian and political development aid seems blurred. Although the mandate of ECHO clearly states its neutrality, the successive expansion of its action involves it in more political and sensitive issues. Some NGOs went so far as to ask to hide the ECHO logo on their delivery to preserve their neutrality and impartial access. The international non-governmental think tank International Crisis Group argues in one of its papers about ECHO that often humanitarian aid is used as a political alibi, when political action is not possible. One example might be the traumatic experiences of the Rwandan genocide, where in 1994 the international community did not intervene because of the lack of an UN Security Council mandate and political will after the disaster in the Somalia intervention in 1992. In this context humanitarian aid served as an alibi for at least some emergency action dealing with the most urgent needs.

Helping refugees
Refugee camp in Malawi.
Image: www.flickr.com/daveblume

An international conference in Madrid in 1995 stated that emergency humanitarian aid should be impartial and allocated without geographic bias. But to what extent is it realistically possible to separate emergency aid from political considerations? For instance, the European Union, despite its leading role in humanitarian assistance, had a very strong focus on the Balkan region in the 1990s, dealing with the humanitarian crisis of the Yugoslavian and Kosovo war. ECHO’s aid should also be independent from political conditionality, which the EU widely uses in its development cooperation, tying aid to the respect of democratic values and human rights standards. Following the aim of policy coherence between humanitarian and development aid, it becomes difficult to regard ECHO’s work as completely free of any political consideration. ECHO’s work might shift from only palliative interventions, responding to the most urgent needs, to a more solution oriented approach, which inherently would be more political. The example of the humanitarian support in the Gaza Strip illustrates both sides of the argument. On the one hand, ECHO hugely supported the vulnerable population despite the fact that the EU considers the leading party Hamas as a terrorist organisation and does not have any diplomatic relations with it, thus proving its independence from political ties. On the other hand, the strong geographical focus of the EU in this region might be explained by political objectives, aiming at the stabilisation of the region and the discouragement of terrorist activities.

CFSP and humanitarian aid - complementary or concurrent?

With the development of a common foreign and security policy (CFSP) of the European Union, the EU has also become more assertive in responding to crisis situations around the world. Its missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Chad show this new commitment. EU civilian border mission in Rafah The Amsterdam Treaty in 1997 finally incorporated the so-called Petersburg Tasks into the EU Treaty framework, stipulating humanitarian, but also civilian peace-keeping missions. However, there might be an overlap between ECHO’s humanitarian assistance and the „Civilian Rapid Reaction Mechanism“ (RRM), introduced in 2001, and replaced by the „Instrument for Stability“ in 2007. The aim of this CFSP instrument is to respond and to prevent crisis through human rights work, election monitoring, institution building, media support as well as humanitarian missions. Although it is stated that the mandate of ECHO remains unchanged, there is a serious overlap in some of these tasks. Also the Commission might decide to combine them, which would render ECHO’s work more political and partial.

To put it in a nutshell, there is no clear line between humanitarian and development aid and other crisis response. It seems impossible to completely dissociate ECHO’s humanitarian assistance from the European political agenda. However, in order to help the most vulnerable independently of geographic and geopolitical considerations, ECHO should try to limit its missions to pure emergency assistance in order to keep out of political muddles and partial cooperation.

.................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................... Logo: Audiovisual Service of the European Commission


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Maria ZANDT

Maria Zandt obtained a French-German double diploma in European Studies from the University of Münster/Germany and the Institute of Political Science in Lille/France. She is currently finishing her master’s degree at the London School of Economics (...)

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