In an article to the Guardian on the ‘new normal’ for humanitarian aid, Kristalina Georgieva – the EU commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response – outlined a reality in which humanitarian crises are growing at a rate beyond the funding available. In the article she suggests that we get used to a ‘new normal’, where there are not enough resources to save all the lives. Concern about the lack of humanitarian response in recent crises is shared by Médecins Sans Frontières, so her call to mobilise EU emergency reserves can only be applauded. However, some of the longer term solutions she presents are problematic. Primarily because the solutions she proposes are rooted in a desire to keep ‘trouble’ from European shores. The ‘trouble’ she refers to, are actually people from crisis zones trying to seek refuge in Europe.
Georgieva’s proposed solutions to compensate for this supposed ‘new normal’ of insufficient funding are austerity measures aimed at long term systems in the hope this will reduce the short term ‘humanitarian bill’ in the future.
Georgieva suggests that there is a need to tackle ‘fragility with all the tools at our disposal’ through in integration of security, development and diplomatic channels. She proposes this as a solution for the ‘humanitarian community’. The risk in this approach is that humanitarian aid can easily be seen by donor governments wanting to keep ‘trouble’ at bay, as a ‘tool’ at their disposal. And based on MSF experience, this can result in the exact opposite of an effective response to emergencies.
Take the example of South Sudan, which Georgieva uses to illustrate where aid could be more cost efficient if only the parties to the conflict reduced their obstructions. This is no doubt true. The ‘humanitarian bill’ would certainly be reduced if the UN didn’t have to only rely on air transport and could instead move freely across frontlines by boat or on the limited road network. However, part of the reason for these blockages can as well be found in the very solutions that she is promoting for the ‘humanitarian community’. The humanitarian aid response in South Sudan has been incorporated into the fold of an integrated UN mission that combines peace-keeping, political goals, development and humanitarian aid under one umbrella. The ultimate objective is a state building one. So when rebel forces attacked that very state at the beginning of this year, the UN and all the aid agencies relying on UN logistics were essentially cut out of the aid effort. In South Sudan, integration of politics and aid is what reduced access and increased expenses when the conflict erupted.
Georgieva’s other long-term cost saving measure is to focus on building resilience in order to lower the ‘humanitarian bill’. However, there is no evidence that building resilience will avoid future suffering. The conflict in Syria, where many of those fleeing to Europe come from, causing ‘trouble’ according to Georgieva, used to live in a textbook resilient society, with – amongst other things – a strong health system that produced many of its own medicines. Three years of intense conflict has all but destroyed this. Resilience does not avert a crisis, just like humanitarian aid will not fix a crisis.
If, like Georgieva presents it, resilience building is about doing development better, then this is a welcome proposal. However, resilience building cannot become a humanitarian austerity measure, where helping people ‘bounce back’ tomorrow is prioritised over saving lives today. Humanitarian action is never a solution to a crisis as Georgieva points out in her article, and was never meant to be. But development aid, whether presented as resilience or not, can also not replace – nor be merged with – humanitarian assistance.
In the same article Georgieva appeals to new donors to step up their game and to fulfil their growing ‘responsibility’. This is absolutely essential. But the appeal rings hollow when it is so clear in the arguments of Georgieva that a major driving factor for the EU approach to aid is to keep refugees from entering Europe.
Self interest and security is at the core of EU aid policy. This is not a problem per se. The European Union has the right to approach its overseas budgets in whatever way they like. But humanitarian aid needs to remain an objective in itself, a response to human suffering aimed solely at saving lives and alleviate suffering today and not about preserving European interests. Up to now, the EU has maintained a separate office for Humanitarian affairs (ECHO), a practice MSF hopes will continue with the new commission being appointed. Faced with growing emergencies, the separation of humanitarian aid from other considerations, and not its integration, is what is essential for effective emergency response. Without this separation, humanitarian aid will just become about more effectively keeping what Georgieva considers as ‘trouble’ from Europe at the expense of effective response to growing emergency needs.
By Michiel Hofman. Photo by Georgios Makkas © MSF, 2015.