Don’t pretend the EU is the Red Cross

Pakistan’s floods; Haiti’s earthquake; Russia’s fires. What did the EU do to help? Richard Gowan argues that the EU must improve its political response to crises and not just its ability to deliver aid.

Is the European Union good at saving lives? This year, Haiti’s earthquake, Pakistan’s floods and Russia’s fires have stirred up debate about how the EU delivers crisis aid, with Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president, calling for the creation of a European emergency response force.

In Brussels, officials complain that although they play a leading role in funding international humanitarian operations, they don’t get enough credit for it. Kristalina Georgieva, the European commissioner for humanitarian aid, argued in an August interview that EU-funded aid agencies should “do more to help the EU by flying the EU flag”.

Georgieva is now preparing proposals on how to improve European responses to crises. She may use the lessons of the last year’s catastrophes to propose significant reforms. It would, for example, make sense to create a single EU assessment team deployable to disaster zones, reporting to all member states; after the Haiti earthquake, EU governments sent separate assessment teams to Port-au-Prince.

But Georgieva should resist the temptation to Europeanise crisis response for its own sake. Efforts to strengthen EU capacities should not come at the expense of efforts to reform and develop the wider international humanitarian system.

That system – including UN agencies, non-governmental organisations and the Red Cross – has grown massively over the past decade: today, there are 250,000 humanitarian workers worldwide, compared to fewer than 150,000 in the late 1990s. Aid delivery is also more efficient, with the UN overhauling its systems at the behest of European donors such as the UK and Sweden.

Even if emergency workers are not “flying the EU flag”, the scale and improvement in humanitarian assistance today is a tribute to European policies. As aid expert Abby Stoddard argues, these European initiatives have often contrasted with an “absence of high-level engagement” by the US in reforming the international aid system – despite the fact that American humanitarian aid spending represents nearly 50% of the global total of government donations.

The EU must ensure its system remains closely connected to the UN’s and that it continues to push for reform of the international humanitarian system. In Valerie Amos, the UK politician recently appointed as the UN’s under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, Georgieva will find an important potential ally not only in reforms, but also in efforts to draw in new donors, like India and Saudi Arabia.

Improving the EU’s and the international community’s delivery of humanitarian aid poses technical challenges, but European leaders must also recognise that ‘emergency response’ is rarely just a technical issue. Pakistan’s floods are not only a human tragedy but also a political problem, opening up opportunities for the Taliban. Haiti’s earthquake was a huge blow to UN-led efforts to build a functioning state there. The political neutrality of ‘pure’ humanitarian agencies, like the Red Cross, allows them to operate in places like Somalia, but aid delivery routinely involves military hardware: the EU naval force off Somalia’s coast protects the UN’s food shipments, and in Afghanistan NATO escorts the UN World Food Programme’s aid convoys.

Handling complex emergencies therefore requires more than humanitarian aid. It demands military hardware. And it demands civilian state-builders, such as the policemen and advisers that the EU has sent to the Balkans and Afghanistan.

Such support requires decisions by politicians and political organisations. Unlike the Red Cross, the EU is a political organisation – and its capacity to deal with the complex political aspects of humanitarian crises suffers from deep flaws. Its civilian state-building missions, for example, are frequently 30% understaffed. The EU’s goal of improving humanitarian aid is laudable, but it needs to focus on improving its political response as much as its ability to deliver aid.

This piece was first published in European Voice.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Associate Senior Policy Fellow

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