DFID official criticizes EU for 'condescending' rules on tied aid

The EU’s humanitarian arm ‘can only work with local partners if they have an EU member state organization in charge as lead,’ Carter said. Photo by: EU / ECHO / Evelyn Hockstein / CC BY-NC-ND

BRUSSELS — A senior aid official from the United Kingdom has criticized the European Union for its “condescending” policy of channeling humanitarian assistance through EU entities.

The comments come as U.K.-based NGOs are set to lose their eligibility for EU aid funding, some of which is reserved for organizations headquartered within the EU, after the country leaves the bloc in January. By contrast, EU NGOs will retain eligibility for U.K. funding as it no longer formally ties aid, although most of its aid contracts still go to U.K. organizations.

“What surprised us as the U.K., now that we are leaving the EU, is that the EU still ties its aid — something the U.K. hasn’t done since the mid-’90s,” Chris Carter, deputy head of the Europe department at the U.K. Department for International Development, told Devex at the AidEx conference in Brussels last month.

“We had almost forgotten it’s an issue still. It has become an issue [with Brexit] because the U.K. has a number of leading humanitarian NGOs, like CARE, Oxfam, and Halo. And they are specialists. But [EU humanitarian arm] ECHO has a regulation that dates from the ‘90s, which has not been updated, that says that they can only fund organizations in EU member states.”

“What surprised us as the U.K., now that we are leaving the EU, is that the EU still ties its aid — something the U.K. hasn’t done since the mid-’90s.”

— Chris Carter, deputy head of the Europe department, DFID

Carter’s comments could not be reported until now due to purdah rules, which restrict public communication from officials ahead of an election. However, with the results of the vote on Dec. 12 cementing its departure from the EU, U.K.-based NGOs will now be exposed to the same treatment as those in other non-EU countries.

ECHO “can only work with local partners if they have an EU member state organization in charge as lead,” Carter said. “So it also affects a Turkish NGO [for example] who can’t lead a consortium for an EU humanitarian [project], which 30 years ago might have felt OK [but] it doesn’t feel, for me anyway, OK now. It sounds a bit condescending.”

Carter’s argument met with little sympathy in Brussels, however.

“Frankly, I think it’s a little bit rich,” a senior official from the European External Action Service said at a press briefing, where they spoke on condition of anonymity.

“The EU is not known for tied aid. The rules as they are have been established and agreed [on] by all member states — including one island nation silently drifting into the sunset,” the official said. “So if they are now unhappy that there will actually be a difference between being a member and a nonmember [that is] something that maybe should have given cause for reflection four years ago.”

About the author

  • Vince Chadwick

    Vince Chadwick is the Brussels Correspondent for Devex. He covers the EU institutions, member states, and European civil society. A law graduate from Melbourne, Australia, he was social affairs reporter for The Age newspaper, before moving to Europe in 2013. He covered breaking news, the arts and public policy across the continent, including as a reporter and editor at POLITICO Europe.