Gowan: How to Improve EU's Humanitarian Response Capacity

Humanitarian relief supplies for flood victims in Pakistan. Photo by: Mathias Eick/ECHO

Efforts to strengthen the European Union’s capacity to respond to humanitarian emergencies should not be at the expense of necessary reforms within the global humanitarian system, Richard Gowan of the European Council on Foreign Relations argues.

“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,” Gowan explains, while adding that improvements in the humanitarian system today is a “tribute to European policies.”

Gowan says: “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 percent of the global total of government donations.” 

The ECFR policy fellow notes that the appointment of U.K. politician Valerie Amos as U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs gives Kristalina Georgieva, the European aid commissioner, an “important” ally in pushing for reforms and drawing in new donors such as Saudi Arabia and India.

Improving political response

But Gowan warns that improving the EU’s ability to respond to humanitarian emergencies also requires improving the bloc’s capacity to deal with such emergencies’ political underpinnings.

“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,” he says.

He adds: “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 percent 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.”

About the author

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    Ivy Mungcal

    As former senior staff writer, Ivy Mungcal contributed to several Devex publications. Her focus is on breaking news, and in particular on global aid reform and trends in the United States, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Before joining Devex in 2009, Ivy produced specialized content for U.S. and U.K.-based business websites.