Cover Image
close this bookThe Courier N° 136 - Nov-Dec 1992 - Dossier Humanitarian Aid - Country Reports: Soa Tomé- Principe- Senegal (EC Courier, 1992, 96 p.)
close this folderMeeting point
close this folderPeter POOLEY and Sandiago GOMEZ-RETNO, first acting Director and new incoming Director of the European Community Humanitarian Office, ECHO
View the document(introduction...)
View the document'The demand for humanitarian assistance and relief will go on growing.'
View the document'If you make a man poorer or richer anywhere in the world, then you impoverish or enrich yourself
View the documentECHO: a rapid response to any sound of distress


1992 has been a turbulent year for the European Community, as it prepares itself for the advent of the single internal market and strives to find a path towards further European integration on which all its members can agree. But, for upheaval and human distress, events in the Community pale into insignificance beside the chronicle of disasters which other parts of the world have had to face this year. The special Dossier in this issue of The Courier sets out some of the story and describes what is being done to try to help.

The Community's response to the suffering of the victims goes further, of course, than just words. For more than 20 years now the EC has been providing increasing amounts hof humanitarian aid to countries in need, and recently the Commission began coordinating joint humanitarian relief efforts with the Community's Member States. And this year the Commission set up the European Community Humanitarian Office to streamline the EC 'c own humanitarian aid work.

From its foundation in April till the end of September, the acting Director of ECHO was the Commission's Deputy Director-Generalfor Development, Peter Pooley. He was succeeded as Director in October by Santiago Gomez-Reino, hitherto the Commission's Delegate in Zimbabwe. Both talked to The Courier about the Community's approach to humanitarian aid and about the work of the new Office.

'The demand for humanitarian assistance and relief will go on growing.'


· The setting up of ECHO marks a new departure in the European Community's humanitarian aid work. Why has the Commission decided to adopt this new approach ?

- The reasons why ECHO has been set up are, I think, very clear. It is there to improve the Community's emergency humanitarian relief system in terms of both quality and quantity, while at the same time making the public more aware of what the European Community is doing in that field. The Commission's objective was to make the twelve-member Community, and hence the international community, better able to respond to exceptional circumstances. Obviously the Commission's decision also makes for better international coordination between the European Community States on the one hand and, in particular, the United Nations specialised agencies on the other. So there are two aspects to the Commission's decision: improving organisation and rationalising Community resources in the field of emergency humanitarian relief, and an external aspect involving improving worldwide coordination in that field.

· In practical terms, what will your Office be doing to make the Community's humanitarian aid operations more effective ?

There are four factors in the decision setting up the Office which will make the Community's humanitarian relief work more effective:

- the decision to give a single department administrative responsibility for all operations
- the increase in the Community's capacity for direct intervention i
- the improvement in coordination between Member States, NGOs and the specialised international agencies
- the fact that it will be easier to mobilise the requisite budgetary resources in the event of a major crisis.

· And more visible?

- Yes, I do think we should not only be acting and responding to urgent needs but also making sure that people know what the European Community is doing in difficult situations. That means that ECHO will have to take steps to explain what it is doing and supply information. But as you can see, the very fact of setting up ECHO and of its being there will mean that the increasing part the European Community is playing in the humanitarian relief field can be made more obvious and more tangible.

As Director of ECHO I will be very sensitive to the need to explain what we are doing, as I have found out from my recent experience in Africa that the general public sometimes, or indeed often, do not know what their countries are getting from the European Community.

· Is ECHO just a coordinating body, or is it taking on new responsibilities and moving into new areas?

- ECHO is absolutely not just setting out to be a coordinating body. To begin with, the Office will have the capacity to carry out humanitarian relief operations where emergency management is needed. At a later stage, it will be able to launch its own pilot projects in direct intervention.

· ECHO has been up and running since April this year. What has it been doing so far?

- The effort put in by the Commission officials responsible for planning ECHO and bringing it to life deserves the highest praise. All of them are Commission officials who are highly devoted and committed to their work. I will now be working alongside them, a fact of which I am very proud. I will be slotting myself into a team which has already done a great deal of work. As I sit here m Harare answering your questions, I can assure you that I wish I were already back in Brussels with the team. I should also like to pay tribute to Peter Pooley, who as we speak is still my Deputy Director-General and also a friend, for the work he has put into making the establishment of ECHO a success.

· What are the main problems it faces ?

- I do not think the problems we will have to face will come from within ECHO or the rest of the Community structure. Those problems, I regret to say, will come from outside and will arrive on our doorstep without any advance notice.

ECHO, in other words, will have to work flat out to organise itself as quickly as possible so that It can cope to the best of its ability, with the hazards of nature and human recklessness.

· The name ECHO suggests a rapid response. How fast can you mobilise your resources and deliver help where it is needed ?

- I wish I could say: 'In two minutes!' But the real answer is this - watch us and pass judgment on us in a few months, because ECHO, and therefore the European Community, will obviously be judged on the basis of how swiftly we act and how effective we are, as I am well aware.

· As the Commission's Delegate in Zimbabwe you will have seen for yourself the effects of the exceptionally severe drought in Southern Africa. Does ECHO have anything new to offer by way of help in that kind of emergency ?

- By the terms of the Commission decision, ECHO is competent to act in the area of emergency food aid. With the backing of its experience in combating large-scale famine, the Commission through ECHO and the other departments involved, will do its best to make the instruments it sets up in emergency situations of that kind even more effective and appropriate.

· The demand for humanitarian assistance has grown considerably over the last three years, especially in Africa. Do you think that trend will continue? If so, will your Office be able to keep providing help at present levels?

- I am more or less certain, unfortunately, that the demand for humanitarian assistance and relief will go on growing, firstly because international disasters are not going to be stopped in their tracks by the 'threat' of intervention by ECHO and secondly because mankind has not learned the lessons of the past. Nor does the instability which reigns throughout the world at the moment make one excessively optimistic.

· Does the Community have to set any priorities when deciding who is to receive humanitarian relief? Are there, in other words, particular parts of the world, or types of situations, which automatically receive help before others?

- I firmly believe that the world's misfortunes cannot be classified on a scale of priorities according to where they occur or what particular type of situation is involved.

That does not automatically mean that we will be able to step in everywhere. I wish we could, but I am also aware of the limits on what we can do.

· Does the Community impose any conditions on the recipient countries?

- Actually I think ECHO means the very opposite of what is implied by the word 'conditions'. Can one really impose prior conditions on people who are destitute suffering and m despair? No, I do not think we can.

· Will there be any change in the Community's relations with its partners in the international humanitarian aid community - both donors and operators ?

- Yes, there will be a major change, in the sense that one of ECHO's priorities will be making qualitative and quantitative improvements in our fraternal relations with the other private or public bodies and organisations fighting to alleviate human distress.

· What are your plans for ECHO's future ?

- The plans are very clear. For me, together with my colleagues in ECHO, it will mean meeting the targets set for us by the Commission. That's easier said than done. But those are the kind of responsibilities I like!

Interview by Robert ROWE

'If you make a man poorer or richer anywhere in the world, then you impoverish or enrich yourself


· As from April 1st ECHO is responsible for emergency aid to all countries in the world outside the Community. Might this not tend to divert resources away from the poorest, especially in Africa, towards countries which have more powerful lobbies or which are simply nearer to the Community ?

- I don't think so. It is quite remarkable how so far we have over the last three years increased our expenditure on emergencies by an order of magnitude. It has moved from ECU 25-35 million a year to 250-350 million a year and we have done that without touching on development money. I think this is an extremely important principle, that the emergency work should be done outside the regular development funds or development budget. And you speak of lobbies for aid. The biggest lobby is not in the countries themselves, it comes from within the Member States, and the most pressing lobby for an increase in humanitarian aid is always the tax payer and the television-viewer. Europeans can now see, the same day, pictures of horrific happenings and it is they who, through their political representatives, demand, insist that the European Community does something about it. The only danger I foresee is that one could have the possibility of 'fashionable disasters' and ones that are not so 'fashionable': 'fashionable disasters' that the press find interesting, they find accessible for their camera teams and so on and you get tremendous pressure to help out in a country which happens to be in the headlines at the moment, while everybody ignores the fact that half a continent away there is a country in even worse difficulties but it doesn't have any press people there. That is really the worry about a non-objective allocation of resources.

· What sort of machinery do you have for finding out what kind of aid the recipient countries actually need or want ?

- Well, of course, we have our Delegates now all over the world with their Delegations who keep a constant watch on the progress of food supplies if it is a question of famine, or civil strife, if it's a man-made disaster. They are also quickly on the spot if there is an earthquake or floods, whatever the emergency may be. But beyond that, of course, we have the United Nations agencies and there is a constant pooling of information that goes on to ensure that the donor community is very well informed of the need, that the governments themselves approach us from time to time when they have problems they think we can help them with and, at the end of the day, of course, all donors rely upon the close cooperation of the local authorities in order to be able to work effectively, if there are local authorities. The really, really difficult problems are if there has been a total breakdown of order, as in Somalia.

· What do you do in situations like that? Do you think that the donor community has a right of intervention in certain countries where either the authorities have not asked for help or there are no authorities to ask ?

- In a limited sense, yes, in all our work, whether it is development or emergency aid, we have as our target populations, not states, and we do feel that where a population is at risk and there is no state, we can intervene. Where a population is at risk and the state won't let us intervene, that is another matter, and that is a very difficult problem that we face a little in the Sudan, where we want to help people but for one reason or another the local authorities are not ready to cooperate in helping us do so. We do like, in circumstances where we are likely to be accused of interference, to act under the United Nations banner, rather than just as the European Community. If that world body is ready to interfere, we are ready to back them with our money and our expertise.

· How far are you prepared to back them, I mean will you go to the extent of supporting the types of military protection that are being providedfor aid deliveries at the moment ?

- Well, the situation in Yugoslavia and Somalia does demand protection of our efforts of one sort or another and also in terms of the exercise 'safe haven' which we carried out with the Kurds. We have from time to time been ready to help Member States pay for their military logistics and so on and we may need to go further in the future and into that field. There is a difficult question of judgment here and the great word 'subsidiarily' does keep on cropping up. So far this is not an area where we have had any dispute with Member States over who does what, but one does have to look at the issues very carefully.

· Loolcing at the question of the possible economic effects of humanitarian aid, do donors always give enough consideration to the fact that the type of aid sent to a country or the time when it arrives may disrupt that country's economy - if for example, you send wheat to a country where maize is the staple food, or if the food aid arrives exactly in time with the harvest, the previous harvest havinglailed, and so ruins the farmers in the country?

- Well this is a very important point and one where we have gathered a great deal of experience in the Commission through our normal food aid operations, which go on year by year and are vastly larger than the emergency operations. Feeding a structural deficit in the country's food supplies through food aid is these days always carefully organised, not only to avoid undermining local markets or changing local tastes, but also to ensure that it contributes to the long-term development of food security in that country, rather than makes them more and more dependent upon aid. For instance, our wheat, or maize, or rice - if rice is what is eaten - goes to these countries free of charge but is then sold on the market and the money thus created is used by a contract we have with the government to prop up or develop their own agriculture and their own production, so that little by little the food aid can, through the funds it creates, contribute to food security and to there being no further need for aid, except in a disaster like a famine. When there is a famine it is by definition difficult to undermine the local market in any real sense, because either there is nothing at all on the market or it is on the market at a very, very high price indeed and the aim there might be to bring down the market price to a level which people can afford. In doing that you do not upset the local agriculture and local commerce.

· Are there ever situations where you feel that the Community's humanitarian aid is at risk of merely relieving a government of the obligation to feed and house its own citizens?

- Very rarely. It is a point we always insist upon, that Community emergency aid is there as a contribution to the major effort that needs to be made by the State concerned. For instance, even in the very disturbed situation in Yugoslavia, we and other members of the donor community insist that for any operation 50% at least of the cost and the effort is done by the local authorities and we come in with the rest to top it up. It is a very important point not to 'deresponsibilise' the governments concerned and not let anybody feel that if they have a war, or a famine, or a disaster of some sort the answer is simply to throw in your hands and say: 'Let the donor community look after it.'

· You know of course that the Lomonvention attaches various conditions concerning respect for democracy and human rights to development aid. Are such conditions attached to humanitarian aid ?

- Humanitarian aid is totally unconditional in that sense: there is no condition in terms of politics, in terms of religion, of race, of age, or sex or anything and this is an extremely important principle, that we are spending Community taxpayers' money in an act of solidarity with people, with human beings, to save life and assure the minimum conditions of survival, and it does not matter whether the people concerned are politically opposed to us or even politically unpleasant, they are human beings and it is humanitarian aid.

· But isn't it possible that, without naming countries, you might find that humanitarian aid is perpetuating civil war because the food is diverted and sold in exchange for weapons ?

- That has happened. It is a risk one constantly takes. We tried very hard to control the flow of aid and a major part of the exercise, a difficult one, is to ensure that the aid reaches what we call the target populations and doesn't get diverted on the way, it doesn't get lost on the way, or doesn't moulder in the store, that is what the exercise is all about. But every now and then we have run into difficulty and perhaps we have knowingly taken a risk that a small part of the aid might be diverted but, if 95% of it arrives in the hands of the people who need it, that might be regarded in some circumstances as good enough and certainly better than stopping sending the aid altogether.

· Do you conduct any post factum assessment of how useful humanitarian aid has been ?

- Yes, of course, we are always conscious that we are spending other people's money and we need to make sure that it is spent correctly and that it is spent wisely. We not only submit the accounts of those who carry out the aid for us, the usual post factum scrutiny that applies to anything you or I spend as civil servants. But we also carry out post factum evaluations of effectiveness. It is very difficult to do concurrent evaluations, it is very difficult to have officials looking over the shoulders of the operators while they are actually in the field. But even there we are hopeful that by the modern technique of the integrated approach and the logical framework - sorry about the jargon - we shall be able to set objectives at the start of the operation in rather a flexible way and be able to check as we go along whether those objectives are being met and whether indeed they need to be changed. There are possibilities there for value-for-money evaluation as we go along with the exercise rather than waiting for the end.

· You know there has been a lot of criticism of what is seen as the extreme slowness with which the Community often reacts to emergency situations. Will the setting up of ECHO speed up the procedure ?

- I am sure it will. ECHO is endowed with very speedy procedures which cut a lot of corners, but already the situation is much better than the public are led to believe and the improvement can only be marginal. Already in terms of a sudden emergency, we have over the past few years been able very often to hear about the disaster on the morning news, find a partner during the course of the morning, have a financing agreement by lunchtime and the planes leave that night: very speedy indeed! For longer-term disasters, like famine, although it takes two months for the extra food to reach the country concerned, we normally have a standing regular food aid programme and we are able, while waiting for that food to arrive, to accelerate the regular programme and keep the pipeline full while awaiting the arrival of the emergency programme. In Africa last year, this process of keeping the pipeline full, not over-full, and not empty, worked extremely well and so far, with an even vaster and more difficult famine in Africa this year, it has also gone very well. So, although it can take us quite a time to mobilise our effort, nevertheless, with careful planning and with cooperation with other donors, we are able to keep that pipeline full and that is what counts.

· With natural disasters that recur, cyclones or droughts, in certain parts of the world, is there a case for something we might call structural humanitarian aid where the Community or the international donor community finances, for example, cyclone shelters in Bangladesh, which are of no use at the time when they are put in but which will become vital when the disaster strikes ?

- Yes, of course. There is a case for that and we do some of it already - and the Community has financed cyclone shelters, specifically in Bangladesh. But these repetitive disasters are fewer and farther between than you might think: an island may suffer a cyclone two years running but then not for another 50 years. Earthquakes are extremely unpredictable, so the scope for advance preparation of that sort is rather limited. On the other hand, in the general area of disaster-preparedness the Community has not in the past had the resources to engage in any meaningful disaster-preparedness exercises and we hope that with the creation of ECHO, as we stock it up with staff, we will have some capacity for classical disaster-preparedness.

· How are you going to find staff with the expertise to help out with relief operations more actively than the Community has done in the past ?

- Well, we have a small core of people, largely from DG VIII and DG VIII's former emergencies unit, who have a good deal of expertise and the necessary contacts. We are not, in recruiting, insisting on expertise in emergencies, which is rather rare, but everyone who joins does undergo a suitable training period either with the operational team within ECHO, or to learn about food aid with the Food Aid Division of DG VIII. What is much more important than expertise is lively and flexible people prepared to work very hard and to work very fast and to take risks and, above all, to work in a team. We work sometimes under very distressing and difficult conditions, everyone must pull their weight, everyone must get on with everybody else, and my objective in recruiting for ECHO has been to find such a team, a balanced team, not all young people, not all old people, not all of one nationality or language, because we need that spread for all sorts of reasons, not even one style of qualification, not even one style of personality, but a rich mix of people with high motivation and a high degree of flexibility and capable of good team work - those are the requirements.

· You have talked about the European Community giving humanitarian aid out of a sense of solidarity with the recipient countries and in response to pressure from public opinion in the Member States, but does the Community gain anything in terms of self-interest from this kind of aid ?

- Well, I think we all do. I am one of those who believe that every man's death or loss diminishes me as well and, in economic terms, I believe that if you make a man poorer or richer anywere in the world then, in some small way, you impoverish or enrich yourself. In terms of the Community as an institution, of course, it does help the visibility of the Community in the public mind if we are seen to be engaging in this sort of activity, and all our public opinion soundings show that the population of the Community do believe that this sort of exercise is one which the Community ought to be carrying out, perhaps not exclusively, but when they see a disaster on the television, or a civil war, they say to themselves: 'What is the Community doing about it ?' So, in teens of the image of the Community, inside the Community and in the world, I do think that this very large effort we are now putting out is helpful.

Interview by Robert ROWE

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.