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close this bookThe Courier N° 136 - Nov-Dec 1992 - Dossier Humanitarian Aid - Country Reports: Soa Tomé- Principe- Senegal (EC Courier, 1992, 96 p.)
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close this folderPeter POOLEY and Sandiago GOMEZ-RETNO, first acting Director and new incoming Director of the European Community Humanitarian Office, ECHO
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View the document'The demand for humanitarian assistance and relief will go on growing.'
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ECHO: a rapid response to any sound of distress

ECHO, the European Community Humanitarian Office, was created in April this year and has been fully operational since September, with a staff of 35 officials. Three EC Commissioners are jointly responsible for the Office, which is at present being administered under the authority of Manuel Mann, Commissioner for Cooperation and Development.

ECHO's basic task is to make the Community's relief operations more effective, and its responsibilities include traditional emergency aid, emergency food aid and humanitarian assistance for refugees. It offers its help to all countries outside the Community (whether in the developing world, in Central and Eastern Europe or elsewhere) where natural disasters or unusual occurrences have caused hardship and where the situation calls for a rapid response.

At a later stage the Office expects to play a more operational role, taking over the running of certain stages of some operations during a trial period.


According to Commission official Gunther Manthey, who is assistant to the Director of ECHO, it was the Kurdish crisis in 1991 which brought to light both the strengths and the weaknesses of the Community's emergency aid system.

One of the major problems in all such crises was the number of different departments responsible for emergency humanitarian aid, in other words emergency relief, emergency food aid, (emergency) humanitarian aid under the PHARE programme for central and eastern Europe and emergency food aid under the European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund - especially as each of these administrative departments had a different attitude and approach.

Now that a single department has been set up, the expertise needed for dealing with crisis situations anywhere in the world is all to be found under one administrative roof


It will also mean more effective cooperation with the Member States and the partners with which the Commission works in the field - the nongovernmental organisations, the Red Cross and the United Nations agencies. These bodies have in fact too often tended to see the Commission just as a supplier of funds and not as a genuine partner. Improvements on the existing working arrangements could also include outline agreements on combined operations with Member States and, possibly, a financial reserve to provide for major emergencies.

Another factor is that the Commission has sometimes found itself having to deal with organisations which did not have sufficient capacity to carry out decisions taken in Brussels. As the Kurdish crisis showed, Community relief went into action very swiftly but soon reached a stage where it could get no further without direct methods of intervention, particularly the use of operational forces from the Member States. So one of ECHO's tasks is to start establishing its own operational resources. The point of doing this is not for ECHO to take over the work of its partners but to plug the existing gaps.


Another weakness in the old structure was the lack of visibility when it came to EC operations, since it is in the Community's interest to let people in the Member States and non-Community countries see what it is doing in the realm of humanitarian relief: Now that ECHO exists, it will certainly make for greater visibility, though that is not, of course, an end in itself: the principal objective is to make sure that Community action (meaning that of the Commission and the 12 Member States) is even more effective.


Another reason for setting up ECHO is to make it easier to mobilise the requisite funds whenever a serious crisis occurs. In the past, budgeted sums were often not enough to cover the cost of all the operations involved, and money had to be borrowed from other budget headings, with all the difficulties and drawbacks which that entails. To give an idea of the amounts involved, in 1991 the Commission's Emergency Aid Unit alone administered nearly ECU 190 million, or more than 21% of the total funds allocated for emergency humanitarian aid by the Community and its Member States.


ECHO's tasks and responsibilities, then, are much wider than those that used to face the old Emergency Aid Unit. In fact the first of the new units to go into operation was ECHO/1, which deals with emergency aid for people in non-Community countries, followed by ECHO/2, responsible for emergency food aid to non-Community countries, and ECHO/3, which handles general affairs: prevention, relief mobilisation and information. Recruiting 35 officials capable of rising to the new challenge has been a major task and the qualities looked for have been otivation to work on humanitarian issues, team spirit, initiative and adaptability.