Chapter 7. The European Union’s humanitarian assistance

Strategic framework

Peer review indicator: Clear political directives and strategies for resilience, response and recovery

The European Union has been able to respond to an increased number of complex crises in a pragmatic and flexible way, adapting to both protracted and sudden crises. Based on solid policy leadership and thorough expertise, including in the field, the EU is shaping humanitarian policies and practice well beyond the EU actors and member states. However, as with many DAC members, the EU’s humanitarian instrument also deals with issues and root causes that could be better addressed with structural funds. DG DEVCO and EEAS could further draw on DG ECHO’s mechanisms to improve the disbursement speed and flexibility of development instruments that can effectively deliver long-term solutions to drivers of crises rather than employing DG ECHO’s humanitarian instrument over prolonged periods of time.

The European Union is helping shape the global humanitarian agenda

In a review of the 2007 European Consensus on Humanitarian Aid ten years after its launch (Council of the European Union, 2007), the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (DG ECHO) found that it still provides a relevant framework for the EU’s humanitarian response. There is thus no plan to formulate a new humanitarian consensus to accompany the new Consensus on Development (Council of the European Union, 2017). The EU’s humanitarian aid is evolving with the changing nature of crises. As a result, and as a major donor that assesses the impact of its action and adapts its policies as needed, the EU’s leading humanitarian role remains undisputed.

For example, DG ECHO for many years has been testing the use of unconditional cash transfers in humanitarian settings. It has also been supporting research and pilot projects to ultimately help develop a dedicated policy and set of principles to guide new work (European Commission, 2015a, 2013a). Due to DG ECHO’s policy clout, cash-based response is thus becoming a standard delivery modality in humanitarian response. A similar policy campaign started when the EU launched an initiative to fund education in emergencies that led to it becoming a fully accepted humanitarian sector at a time when most donors (including the EU) had long been reluctant to engage in education interventions during emergency responses. In this respect, DG ECHO’s co-chairmanship of the Good Humanitarian Donorship group in 2018-19 represents an opportunity to consolidate the EU’s leadership in the sector, while also assisting other humanitarian donors to adapt their policies to changing crisis contexts (GHD, 2018).

Coherence between humanitarian and development aid is work in progress

Since the 2012 DAC peer review, DG ECHO has entered many crises but has been able to exit a few of them. The duration and complex nature of humanitarian crises today represents one of the EU’s main challenges, calling for a new way to programme long-term support to affected populations. In this context, the resilience agenda (European Commission, 2017a, 2013b) is used as the overarching framework to foster coherence between humanitarian aid and development co-operation. Furthermore, interaction among DG ECHO, the Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development (DG DEVCO) and the European External Action Service (EEAS) is now standard practice. The EU strives in a pragmatic way to design complementary programmes, as the Peer Review Team saw in Mali (Annex D). In the field, however, more could be done if DG DEVCO had swifter mechanisms in place to implement programmes addressing drivers of crises in rapidly changing circumstances.

In many protracted crisis situations, the difference between humanitarian aid and development aid is not about the nature of the activities but rather the source of their financing. In this context, DG ECHO sometimes supports basic service delivery that technically could be financed with development funds. As a consequence, it can artificially prolong the humanitarian nature of assistance and prevent partners in the field who have both development and emergency expertise from shifting earlier to long-term programming. DG DEVCO can provide early support to complement humanitarian interventions, as seen already in some countries, such as Afghanistan. Those are good practices that could become more systematic.1

The EU Global Strategy and its integrated approach to conflicts and crises make explicit the link among humanitarian, development, migration, trade, investment, infrastructure, education, health and research policies (European External Action Service, 2016). In this context, the European Agenda on Migration suggests that humanitarian aid is one of the tools to address root causes of migration in reducing the incentive for migration (European Commission, 2015b). This implies that short-term solutions such as humanitarian aid have an impact on the root causes of crises and inequalities, although evidence does not support this (OECD, 2017). In fact, in certain circumstances, prolonged humanitarian aid can delay political engagement and the deployment of long-term development co-operation to address root causes. Overall, it is clear across the European Union’s policy documents that humanitarian aid is a crisis response instrument, with a purpose to complement - not replace - actions addressing key drivers of crisis.

The EU’s humanitarian budget is on the rise

Since more is required from DG ECHO, its overall budget is growing and draws on a diverse array of budgetary sources. DG ECHO operates from an annual budget adopted at the end of the previous year. As humanitarian needs frequently exceed initial annual budgetary allocations, DG ECHO has access to significant levels of extra resources (Figure 7.1). In addition to its own operational reserve, which is around 15% of its initial annual budget, it draws additional resources from the off-budget EU Emergency Aid Reserve upon approval of EU budget authorities. The European Development Fund (EDF)2 and external assigned revenues3 also regularly supplement the DG ECHO budget. On the other hand, despite the escalation in humanitarian crises since the 2012 review, particularly in the Middle East, DG ECHO’s structures have not significantly expanded over this period. This reflects sound management that will allow it to cope with a possible reduction in budget when the humanitarian needs created by the Syria crisis wanes.

Figure 7.1. DG ECHO annual budget evolution (Euros)

Note: As of June 2018, DG ECHO had not received additional funds for 2018.

Source: ECHO financing decisions database,

Effective programme design

Peer review indicator: Programmes target the highest risk to life and livelihood

Within the framework of European Union’s political priorities, DG ECHO allocates funds based on assessed needs. Coping with increased demands compels DG ECHO to pay attention to the cost effectiveness of its aid. The Grand Bargain agreement is seen as relevant to overall humanitarian aid efficiency, but operationalising this agreement remains challenging, especially in supporting local actors. In addition, the European Union can do more to deploy its long-term support instruments earlier in the crisis cycle to use development aid wherever possible and humanitarian aid only when necessary.

More crises than resources means making hard choices

Most donors spend proportionately more funds on some crises than on others due to political commitments or policy priorities. The EU is no exception. When needs exceed the available budget, determining which crises or theme should have priority is a political decision. Because of their magnitude and direct impact on EU countries, the Syria crises and related migration programmes now make up the largest share of DG ECHO’s overall budget (Figure 7.2). Although most of these funds were drawn from additional budgetary resources, there are rising concerns in the humanitarian community over the perceived politicisation of humanitarian aid. DG ECHO distributes its global annual budget into Humanitarian Implementation Plans (HIPs) for specific crises or thematic instruments. Ultimately, DG ECHO’s decisions on budget distribution are made through: careful consideration of political priorities; objective data and risk analysis, including through the INFORM initiative;4 and the estimation of needs from operational teams. It is a system as close to needs-based as is possible for a large political organisation such as the EU. Preserving the right balance among these three main drivers is therefore critical, both for DG ECHO’s credibility and for its ability to demonstrate impact in line with its mandate.

Once geographical and financial priorities are set, DG ECHO distributes humanitarian funds within each HIP. It designs its programmes based solely on evidence and needs analysis, drawing on integrated crisis profiles and field assessments. DG ECHO also dedicates around 15% of its budget to so-called forgotten crises that do not receive enough international aid or any at all.5 This strengthens DG ECHO’s global leading role in attracting attention to crises that do not receive media attention.

Figure 7.2. Evolution of DG ECHO allocations (Euros)

Source: DG ECHO Financing Decisions (HIPs) website,

While the Grand Bargain can help build a more efficient EU humanitarian system, challenges remain

As the EU humanitarian budget is limited, one of the main ways for DG ECHO to respond to growing humanitarian needs is to increase the cost effectiveness of its action. To that end, it is a consistent supporter of the Grand Bargain (Agenda for Humanity, 2016). The Grand Bargain’s initial ten workstreams address critical areas of humanitarian programming, some of which (such as the use of cash-based responses) were already among DG ECHO’s priorities.6 However, while DG ECHO is driven by what works best to deliver aid within its limitations, not all the Grand Bargain commitments fit within those current limitations. For example, while DG ECHO acknowledges the relevance of multiannual humanitarian funding in protracted crises, it makes clear that blocking funds for more multiannual funding implies less capacity to fund new emergencies in a given financial year. In such contexts, implementing the Grand Bargain provides the EU with an opportunity to better define the roles and added value of both DG DEVCO and DG ECHO to support multiannual programmes. Localising aid also remains a challenge due to legislative constraints, restricting funding support to EU-based partners. However, DG ECHO supports local actors through its implementing partners, even on a large scale, as is the case with its support to the Turkish Red Crescent.

Effective delivery, partnerships and instruments

Peer review indicator: Delivery modalities and partnerships help deliver quality assistance

European Union’s humanitarian aid is fit for purpose. Due to its diversified base of partners and its framework partnership agreements, DG ECHO can select the best partner to deliver aid in each context. DG ECHO manages both the European Union’s rapid response mechanisms and humanitarian aid in increasingly complex crises. Challenges remain, however. Even if allocation of funds can be decided swiftly, the European Union still has difficulties in striking the right balance between accountability and flexibility. Administrative processes also remain a major concern for non-governmental organisations.

A recent evaluation confirms DG ECHO is performing well in delivering aid

A comprehensive evaluation of the EU’s humanitarian aid between 2012 and 2016 (ICF, 2018a) examines all aspects of DG ECHO policies, programming, partnerships and results-based management, with positive findings overall and a range of relevant recommendations (Box 7.1).

Box 7.1. Comprehensive evaluation of European Union humanitarian aid 2012-16

The independent comprehensive evaluation of EU humanitarian aid looked at the effectiveness of DG ECHO during the 2012-16 period. The findings of this peer review mostly concur with its five recommendations:

  • DG ECHO should implement a multiannual strategy and where possible, multiannual programming and funding.

  • DG ECHO should review its partnership approach.

  • DG ECHO should reinforce its approach towards sustainability through resilience and co-operation.

  • The EU should communicate more proactively and explicitly the constraints associated with strategic programming and funding decisions to inform its staff, its framework partners and external stakeholders.

  • DG ECHO should adapt its management and monitoring systems to make them more suitable to analyse the effectiveness and value for money of its actions.

Source: ICF, 2018a and 2018b.

EU civil protection is evolving to tackle bigger challenges

The European Union’s Civil Protection Mechanism is a support competence, i.e. a system whereby the EU supports, co-ordinates and supplements the action of member states.7 It is based on solidarity among participating states who can assist each other and third countries with assets and expertise. The system, consolidated over the years, works well, leading in 2013 to the creation of the Emergency Response Co-ordination Centre (ERCC), which co-ordinates the EU member states’ response to disasters abroad. This has helped to create more complementarity between the two different cultures of civil protection and humanitarian aid when they intervene jointly and share assets in a disaster area. The EU emergency response system is adapting to new crises, as shown by the creation of the EU Medical Corps in the wake of the 2014 Ebola crisis in West Africa. However, the EU civil protection mechanism is reaching its limit as it deals with an increasing number of crises that are occurring simultaneously. To address these new challenges, the European Commission is proposing to create a new mechanism, known as rescEU,8 which aims to bring extra capacity through an EU-managed reserve of civil protection assets. It is proposed that the new mechanism will focus more on disaster prevention and preparedness.9

DG ECHO’s experience in managing partnerships in crises could benefit DG DEVCO

With the exception of its humanitarian air service, DG ECHO works through partners to implement its humanitarian aid. It has developed a dense and solid network of EU humanitarian NGOs operating through a framework partnership agreement (FPA) that is renewed regularly10 (European Commission, 2014). Other specific frameworks regulate relations with the UN agencies and with other international organisations. Operating through a framework agreement allows humanitarian partners to clear the administrative steps of the contracting process only once for the FPA period and to focus on the operational requirement when a project is proposed for funding. For many humanitarian NGOs, joining the DG ECHO’s FPA is valued beyond the initial goal of accessing DG ECHO funds, as it enhances their credibility to other donors. If DG DEVCO is to intervene more swiftly in protracted crisis contexts, it could consider using the DG ECHO’s pool of partners and expand its framework partnership modalities accordingly.

DG ECHO has not yet found a good balance between accountability and flexibility

The EU’s complex and burdensome administrative requirements are a contentious issue for DG ECHO’s partners. The FPA system undertakes a great part of the contract administration for NGOs. However, the burden of filling out long forms remains a primary concern of EU’s humanitarian partners. The current single form following the project’s reporting life is composed of 13 chapters, with three different versions of the single form, depending on whether the project in question is defined as emergency, complementary or non-emergency in nature (European Commission, 2017b). Introduction of electronic submission of reports has streamlined the process, but DG ECHO is still often reported as being one of the most demanding humanitarian donors. Cumbersome procedures introduce a preferential bias for large and well-resourced partners that can cope with the reporting burden by prefunding activities without putting at risk their operations. Although as many as 213 NGOs are part of the current FPA,11 most of DG ECHO funding is allocated to UN agencies, international organisations and a limited set of large NGOs.12 DG ECHO can make funding allocation decisions within hours in emergencies, but processing contract and related disbursements can take months in non-emergency contexts (CARE, 2017). DG ECHO is conscious that cumbersome procedures increase management costs, but is not taking steps to reduce this burden. Instead, DG ECHO indicated to the review team its intention to further add reporting requirements in the upcoming FPA with its NGO partners, notably on sexual exploitation.

Trust funds help with coherence when their objectives align with country needs

The EU has shown it can react swiftly to unforeseen crises, creating new instruments that are reshaping the overall EU crisis response toolbox. This brings opportunities for greater co-ordination among all of the EU’s instruments in crisis. New mechanisms such as the EU trust funds can strengthen EU coherence when their objectives are carefully designed. In Colombia, for example, the new EU Trust Fund supports the implementation of the peace agreement (European Commission, 2016). With humanitarian needs growing in Colombia due to the activities of new armed actors, DG ECHO is also increasing its level of funding to provide humanitarian assistance to support the victims. This is a good example of a pragmatic and coherent EU intervention in a complex crisis. As a sign of its full involvement in the EU’s global approach, DG ECHO has started to participate in EU trust funds. However, the operational added value of being part of an EU mechanism that is less flexible than that of DG ECHO’s and not humanitarian by design remains unclear. As DG ECHO increasingly co-ordinates its response within the external relations (Relex) family, it is important to maintain and further uphold the alignment of objectives of such funds with partner countries’ development priorities.

Rapid response mechanisms could help simplify overall procedures

DG ECHO has gathered its most rapid response instruments into an EU Emergency Aid Toolkit consisting of four funding mechanisms: epidemics tool, small-scale tool, acute large emergency response tool (ALERT) and support to the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF) of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). These instruments were created on the assumption that the contracting process should speed up in certain emergency situations. However, creating new emergency funding windows for different types of disasters can also develop additional silos without a clear contribution to aid efficiency. Emergency mechanisms entail a lighter administrative burden on partners, which could be the basis for an overall streamlining of DG ECHO’s procedures.

Organisation fit for purpose

Peer review indicator: Systems, structures, processes and people work together effectively and efficiently

DG ECHO has the dual mandate of being present in protracted crises that require co-ordination among different actors and performing in sudden onset crises. As both types of crises are becoming more complex, DG ECHO is adapting to new challenges and strengthening its co-ordination role. DG ECHO also makes its mandate clear in its engagement with EU military actors and the European External Action Service, while its civil protection is preparing to cope with bigger challenges.

Civil-military mandates are clear and well understood

The EU’s integrated approach to crises brings together civilian and security personnel who are engaging in crisis areas through the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions. To date, the EU has undertaken a total of 35 CSDP missions of various kinds in different crisis settings.13 As the Peer Review Team observed in Mali (Annex D), the division of labour is clear with each actor’s mandate well understood, making civil-military relations effective and relatively seamless within the EU system.

Strengthened co-ordination with EU donors

The EU member state forum, the Committee on Humanitarian Aid and Food Aid (COHAFA), remains the central tool for co-ordinating humanitarian action at EU level. Member states value the monthly meeting, which has become indispensable to EU members with limited capacity to follow the evolution of crises. COHAFA is essentially an information-sharing and policy co-ordination platform. Each new major crisis strengthens DG ECHO’s operational co-ordination role in crises and reinforces its central role. For example, during the 2014 Ebola crisis in West Africa, the EU established a crisis co-ordination mechanism that included the appointment of the EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response as the EU Ebola response co-ordinator and daily meetings of an Ebola task force during the crisis. More recently, DG ECHO has mirrored the DG DEVCO’s system of directors’ meetings which are taking place every six months with a humanitarian segment. While largely informal in nature, these mechanisms have succeeded in increasing knowledge and fostering a network spirit among all EU member states.

Results, learning and accountability

Peer review indicator: Results are measured and communicated, and lessons learned

The European Union’s humanitarian field network is one of its main assets to monitor projects and assess the relevance and effectiveness of humanitarian programmes. Going forward, the intelligence gathered by this network could be used more directly to the benefit of European Union member states. DG ECHO, used all the means at its disposal, succeed in communicating the European Union’s added value to its partners in humanitarian aid However, it will need to learn from the migration crisis to co-ordinate communication more effectively on corporate crisis responses, especially when they involve the EU as a whole.

DG ECHO’s field network could benefit the EU’s overall response to humanitarian crises

As many as 465 international and national staff with field expertise are deployed for DG ECHO in crisis areas and in seven regional offices around the world.14 The cost of the field network consists only 2.9% of the overall humanitarian budget in 2016 (ICF, 2018b), representing good value for money as this field presence allows for immediate assessments to activate responses to any crisis in the world. In affected countries and under the EU head of delegation’s co-ordination role, experts share their contextual knowledge with colleagues from other EU services. On request, the experts also interact with other donors in the field. However, the EU’s overall humanitarian response could benefit more from this capacity - for example, in sharing monitoring reports with EU member states who are co-funding a humanitarian project with the EU. Going forward, building on the logistical and contextual knowledge of its experts, DG ECHO might consider organising joint monitoring visits with its co-funding partners who do not have a permanent field presence to provide them with insights that they cannot get otherwise on the projects they support.

Complex crises require more joined-up communication efforts

DG ECHO communicates to the public on its humanitarian and civil protection activities and results through its webpage, social media and the specific events organised with its partners. Although the EU response to the migration crisis has an important humanitarian component, the related communication is centralised at the European External Action Service (EEAS). Opinion polls on security and migration show a high degree of public concern about these issues (Burnay et al., 2016). However, official EU communication has attracted widespread criticism in the media regarding the EU’s management of this crisis. Based on this experience, future communication efforts on complex crises that involve political, security and humanitarian responses will require a more significant investment in well-targeted and highly co-ordinated crisis communication.


Government sources

Burnay, M. et al. (2016), “Does the EU have the right instruments to finance assistance in protracted crises and the needs of upper middle income countries?”, etudes/STUD/2016/578027/EXPO_STU(2016)578027_EN.pdf.

Council of the European Union (2017), The New European Consensus on Development: "Our World, Our Dignity, Our Future", Council of the European Union, devco/files/european-consensus-on-development-final-20170626_en.pdf.

Council of the European Union (2007), “The European consensus on humanitarian aid”, No. 2008/C 25/01, The European Union, 47&uri=CELEX%3A42008X0130%2801%29.

European Commission (2017a), “A strategic approach to resilience in the EU's external action”, No. JOIN(2017) 21 final, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, European Commission, _from_commission_to_inst_en_v7_p1_916039.pdf.

European Commission (2017b), “Single Form guidelines Ver. 27.11.2017”, European Commission,

European Commission (2016), Constitutive Agreement of the EU Trust Fund for Colombia, European Commission,

European Commission (2015a), “10 common principles for multi-purpose cash-based assistance to respond to humanitarian needs”, common_top_line_principles_en.pdf.

European Commission (2015b), “A European Agenda on migration”, COM(2015) 240 final, European Commission, migration_en.pdf.

European Commission (2014), DG ECHO partners’ website, the FPA for NGOs and its Annexes,

European Commission (2013a), “Cash and vouchers: Increasing efficiency and effectiveness across all sectors”, DG ECHO Thematic Policy Document No. 3, /them_policy_doc_cashandvouchers_en.pdf.

European Commission (2013b), “Action Plan for Resilience in Crisis Prone Countries 2013-2020”, Commission Staff Working Document, No. SWD(2013) 227 final, European Commission,

European External Action Service (2016), Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe - A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy, European Union, Brussels,

ICF (2018a) Comprehensive evaluation of the European Union Humanitarian Aid, 2012-2016, Annexes to the Draft Final Report Volume 1, European Commission,

ICF (2018b), Comprehensive Evaluation of the European Union Humanitarian Aid, 2012-2016, European Commission, 2018_master_clean.pdf.

Other sources

Agenda for Humanity (2016), Grand Bargain initiative, /initiatives/3861.

CARE (2017), A Common Vision, A Shared Mission: CARE Reflections and Recommendations on EU Humanitarian Aid and Partnership, CARE International, Brussels, 20final.pdf.

GHD (2018), Good Humanitarian Donorship webpage,

OECD (2017), “Humanitarian development coherence”, The Commitments into Action Series, OECD Publishing, Paris,


← 1. For example, the EU has supported Afghanistan’s health sector since 2001, including through international humanitarian non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The EU supports the Basic Package of Health Service (BPHS) and the Essential Package of Hospital Services (EPHS). The BPHS ensures that all stakeholders, including humanitarian NGOs, focus on the common strategy established by the Afghan Ministry of Public Health. This is a good example of DEVCO intervening early and in complementarity with ECHO in a fragile and complex context.

← 2. The reserve of the 11th EDF is a general amount whose use is discussed at the level of the EDF Committee, unlike the 10th EDF in which reserve amounts were allocated to individual countries in the form of a B envelope. This reserve is meant to fund bilateral and regional support for unforeseen needs and to be used in emergency and post-emergency situations. As of April 2017, nearly EUR 500 million was disbursed to support DG ECHO operations, nearly EUR 500 million was allocated in emergency support to individual countries and EUR 1.5 billion was disbursed to the EU Trust Funds.

← 3. External assigned revenues are direct financial contributions from an EU member state to DG ECHO’s budget that are earmarked for a specific crisis or programme.

← 4. InfoRM is a global, open-source risk assessment for humanitarian crises and disasters.

← 5. DG ECHO has created the forgotten crisis assessment (FCA) that identifies serious humanitarian crisis situations where affected populations do not receive enough or any international aid. These crises are characterised by low media coverage, a lack of donor interest (as measured through aid per capita) and weak political commitment to solve the crisis, all of which result in an insufficient presence of humanitarian actors. See

← 6. Cash is increasingly provided to meet the basic needs of beneficiaries through a single multi-purpose cash grant. Flagship programmes such as ESTIA in Greece, the EU’s emergency safety net in Turkey or the cash assistance for Syrian refugees in Lebanon are bringing humanitarian cash-based assistance up to national scale. See

← 7. A support competence means that the EU has competence to support, co-ordinate or supplement the actions of the member states in the area of civil protection. The EU may not adopt legally binding acts that require the member states to harmonise their laws and regulations.

← 8. COM (2017) 772 final, Decision of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Decision No 1313/2013/EU on a Union Civil Protection Mechanism

← 9. The most recent example is the agreement between the EU civil protection and Tunisia in March 2018,

← 10. The current FPA runs from 2014 to 2018 and will be extended for a year. A new FPA will start in 2020. Discussion with NGO partners and networks has already started, taking into account new EU financial regulations.

← 11. See DG ECHO FPA partner’s list at

← 12. The UN share of DG ECHO funding increased to 54% in 2016 from 45% in 2012. For further information, see

← 13. More on CSDP missions is available at

← 14. More information about the field network can be found on the DG ECHO website, accessed 19 June 2018:

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