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The European Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO): Crisis Response in the Grey Lane

This briefing paper examines in broad terms likely directions in the policy of the European Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) in the next two to three years, with special reference to its position in the development of European Union (EU) crisis response structures and processes. Its particular focus is on how ECHO has responded to the "grey area" dilemmas: whether and how to separate emergency humanitarian assistance from longer term development assistance, and from "political" projects generally. Section I provides an overview of ECHO’s structure and funding; Section II describes how the grey area has been addressed to date; Section III discusses how the issue arises again in the context of the development of the EU's new conflict prevention and management ambitions; while the concluding Section IV draws upon recent experience in Macedonia to support the case for a more pragmatic approach to ECHO's role.

Two conflicting tendencies are at work, and are likely to remain so, in relation to ECHO. On the one hand many in the EU, and ECHO itself, would like to narrow the scope of ECHO’s activities to have it concentrate more on emergency relief and less on rehabilitation; to have it pay more attention to ‘forgotten crises’; and to help it avoid high levels of association with political projects of the EU in the field of crisis response. In essence, they would like to insulate the humanitarian function ECHO was created to perform from contamination by close association with EU political policies and from diversion by involvement in longer term development tasks. The argument for so doing is, at least in theory, the strong one that humanitarian assistance should be given to the most needy, not the most important, or nearest or friendliest. And it can best be delivered in true emergencies if no one can question the motives of the donor.

At the same time, in a real world where resources are limited and greatly outstripped by needs, political elements almost inevitably enter into the process by which priorities must be established. Accordingly, there are arguments that ECHO will in the future not be much better able to avoid being pressed into support of EU geopolitical interests, especially in South Eastern Europe, than it has been in the past decade. Advocates of this view argue that, in the short run at least, while the EU is still in the process of creating and testing its panoply of new crisis response tools, ECHO, as the single EU entity that already possesses considerable experience of and capacity for rapid reaction in the field, may need to be called on even more often to act in the grey areas between traditional humanitarian assistance and political action on the one hand, and between traditional humanitarian emergency assistance and developmental assistance on the other.

The conclusion this briefing reaches falls somewhere between these positions. ECHO needs to fight hard to preserve and improve its core humanitarian functions and avoid being drawn by political mission creep into work that is better left to development programs. It should be supported by the rest of the EU in doing so since an efficient, focused ECHO could set much of the agenda for humanitarian action, broadly conceived, by the entire international community. But total divorce from the political world, including from involvement in implementation of crisis responses identified as priorities by the senior EU leadership, is unrealistic. At least until other EU bodies, in particular the Rapid Response Mechanism being constructed in the Commission, acquire more capacity and experience, and hand-over procedures between ECHO and those entities are better developed, ECHO will need to be, as required, active and effective as well on the political edge of the grey area.


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