Humanitarian aid

Together with its constituent member states, the European Union is the world’s largest donor of humanitarian aid – namely, aid given in response to specific natural or man-made emergencies, rather than as part of normal development policy assistance. A European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO) was set up within the European Commission in 1992 to make the provision of humanitarian aid more efficient, by speeding up the response to crises, training aid workers, and improving coordina­tion with the relief agencies and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which help distribute about half of the aid granted by the Union. The United Nations and its specialised agencies – notably the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) – are also important partners with the EU in supplying food aid and help for refugees and displaced persons. Since 1992, support has been given to over 80 countries, mostly in response to man-made emergencies, such as wars and other regional conflicts.

A specific treaty base for EU action in the field of humanitarian aid was introduced by the Lisbon Treaty in December 2009 (Article 214 TFEU). The treaty also foresees the future creation of a European Voluntary Humanitarian Aid Corps, as a kind of EU equivalent of the US Peace Corps. In the interim, ECHO itself has become the Commission’s directorate-general for humanitarian aid, although it retains its original acronym. The cost of humanitarian aid is borne jointly by the EU Budget (some € 0.8 billion in 2011) and by the separate, intergovernmental European Development Fund (EDF). The obvious need for humanitarian aid to be provided quickly means that the Commission has been given discretion to take certain decisions on its own authority, subject to the retrospective supervision of the twin arms of the budgetary authority, the Council of Ministers and European Parliament.

September 2012

Copyright: Anthony Teasdale, 2012

Citation: The Penguin Companion to European Union (2012), additional website entry

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