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Revisiting EU assistance in crisis situations: what place for humanitarian aid?

23-02-2017

Deneckere, M. 2017. Revisiting EU assistance in crisis situations: what place for humanitarian aid? ECDPM Talking Points blog, 23 February 2017.

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Conflicts and protracted crises in the EU neighbourhood, alongside the resulting migration and refugee flows, have put serious pressure on the EU’s external action financing instruments. In our Challenges Paper 2017, we argued that the European Union needs to renew its approach to crises response, adapting its instruments to better combine short-term humanitarian aid with more structural engagement through peacebuilding, conflict prevention and long-term development. The year 2017 offers many opportunities to achieve this goal. Will the EU be able to grab them?


EU external action is running in crisis mode


In recent years, the European Union has been facing the visible consequences of conflict, enduring crises and situations of protracted displacement in its wider neighbourhood. This has accelerated pushes towards a convergence of short-term humanitarian aid and long-term development cooperation.

This is particularly evident in the 2016 EU Global Strategy for Foreign and Security Policy, which prioritises resilience in the EU’s surrounding regions through a joined approach that blends humanitarian, development and other external policies. In the same year, the 2016 Commission communication on forced displacement has called for integrating development perspectives in relief programmes for refugees, signalling a strong political commitment to a coherent approach. In the context of the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, the EU has also committed to quicker, more flexible and more sustainable financing to respond to short- and long-term needs in protracted crises.

While EU commitments to drive the humanitarian and development worlds closer together are not new, some recent evolutions have rekindled tensions. The Global Strategy puts European strategic interests at the centre of EU foreign policy, including development cooperation. This is leading humanitarians to increasingly perceive humanitarian-development convergence attempts as a threat to the humanitarian principles of neutrality, independence, humanity and impartiality. Such concerns over politicisation of humanitarian aid have been further exacerbated as 2016 witnessed, for the first time, the use of EU humanitarian assistance to provide support to refugees within the borders of the Union, while significant amounts of (humanitarian and non-humanitarian) aid have been used as leverage in political negotiations on the EU-Turkey Agreement on irregular migration.

At the same time, the proliferation of EU Trust Funds shows the urgency with which the EU is looking for creative answers to address conceptual and operational barriers to reconciling humanitarian aid, crisis response and development through more flexible and coherent financing. Ongoing discussions on a new European Consensus on Development and a potential new communication on resilience, as well as upcoming talks on a post-2020 Multiannual Financial Framework and a new generation of external action financing instruments, provide important opportunities for the EU to clarify the role of humanitarian aid and design a joined-up approach fit to best respond to today’s crises.

EU external action revealed many cracks and internal contradictions in the current aid architecture and its strict separation between humanitarian and development aid. Can it carry on with business as usual or does the situation call for a more thorough rethink on how to address today’s crises? Three suggestions for the way forward can be made.


One: move beyond the ‘integration versus exceptionalism’ debate


The 2016 World Humanitarian Summit was illustrative of the heated debate on the humanitarian-development convergence. Some, including the UN Secretary-General, called for a collective approach to addressing the root causes of protracted crisis, conflict and forced displacement, while several humanitarian organisations, such as Medecins Sans Frontieres, expressed deep concerns. This debate is reflected within the European Union as well: Whereas some member states point at the limits of the conceptual separation of the two mandates and call for a single strategic approach to humanitarian and development aid, several EU institutional actors and implementing partners tend to be much more reluctant, fearing political exposure of humanitarian actors.

This debate is reflected within the European Union as well. Whereas some member states point at the limits of the conceptual separation of the two mandates and call for a single strategic approach to humanitarian and development aid, several EU institutional actors and implementing partners tend to be much more reluctant, fearing political exposure of humanitarian actors.

Yet whether the separation should be maintained or not at the policy level may not be the right question to ask. Instead, a more nuanced understanding seems to be needed of where the humanitarian principles are operationally relevant and where they may be counterproductive. A new Consensus on Development should, therefore, reflect commitments to bridge these divides, while also recognising the different mandates, driving principles and added value of various forms of relief and emergency response. For DG ECHO, the EU’s humanitarian office, it requires clarifying whether its position to be ‘in but out’ of the EU’s Comprehensive Approach can still be upheld, or would rather need to be determined on a case-by-case basis, building on solid context analysis.


Two: diversify the EU’s response toolbox


Despite strong political backing for collaborative action, the traditional distinction between humanitarian aid and development is firmly entrenched in separate institutions and financial instruments, making it challenging to join hands. With talks on a new generation of financing instruments soon to start, a key question is how to finance a more pragmatic approach to crises while safeguarding principled humanitarian action when necessary.

One scenario being explored is the creation of a unique instrument for crisis response, covering the span from relief to peacebuilding and development, but such a change from current practice may come at big costs in political capital. A more feasible alternative may be to ensure a more prominent place for fragility, peacebuilding and resilience in the EU’s development instruments, yet this would require more flexibility and creativity in upholding the Aid Effectiveness principles of country ownership, alignment and mutual accountability, for instance, by applying objective- and results-led programming.

Other innovations could offer opportunities to bridge operational and conceptual divides between humanitarian and development aid as well. These include recognising the role of local actors, including the private sector, in emergency relief and building resilience, and including social services such as education in relief operations.


Three: create positive incentives for collaborative action


Apart from policies and instruments, the EU will need to adapt institutional cultures and mentalities to new realities. This requires a system of incentives that fosters mutual understanding of different methods, objectives and principles, and promotes collaborative action and joint analysis, planning and strategy.

During the past years, the EU has not failed to experiment with different tools to build more strategic approaches to crisis response and long-term support. These include regional programmes such as SHARE and AGIR, EU Trust Funds in response to specific crises, and Joint Humanitarian-Development Frameworks. However, such efforts towards better operational coordination have remained largely ad-hoc, confined to high-profile crisis situations and reliant also on personal relations and motivations of EU staff. Capitalising on existing practices, the EU will need to agree on a single methodology for joint analysis and strategy and ensure sufficient time, resources and political leadership to better incentivise coordination and make ‘working comprehensively’ a systematic element of the EU’s institutional culture.

Capitalising on existing practices, the EU will need to agree on a single methodology for joint analysis and strategy and ensure sufficient time, resources and political leadership to better incentivise coordination and make ‘working comprehensively’ a systematic element of the EU’s institutional culture.

Talks on a new European Consensus on Development are ongoing, and as the EU’s external action instruments are currently undergoing a mid-term review, discussions on a new generation of instruments will soon start. The EU should not waste the many opportunities 2017 has to offer for a thorough discussion on its engagement in protracted crisis situations.


The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

Photo courtesy of European Commission DG ECHO via Flickr.

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Conflict, Security and ResilienceEuropean Responses to Violent Conflicts and CrisisConflictEuropean Union (EU)Humanitarian aidPeacebuilding