The first European Humanitarian Forum: talk shop or game changer?

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The first European Humanitarian Forum took place in March 2022. The hybrid event – co-hosted by the European Commission and the French Presidency of the Council of the EU – attracted a range of high-profile politicians and representatives from the humanitarian aid community and beyond. None of the various challenges the humanitarian community is facing are new: conflicts and climate change generate a growing number of people in need as well as refugees and internally displaced people while humanitarian funding from too few donors is stagnating. While the Forum addressed these and many other aspects, it did not offer many new insights and approaches. This commentary provides an overview of key takeaways and the aspects to keep in mind for the way forward.

EU humanitarian aid policy in an evolving context 

The fact that humanitarian matters have arrived at the centre of the EU’s political stage was demonstrated by DG ECHO’s Deputy Director-General Köhler’s call for making humanitarian aid “an absolutely central part of international cooperation and of pursuing not only international values but also interests”. Such an assertion of a more ‘realist’ EU humanitarian aid policy stands in contrast with the needs-based approach and principles of EU’s humanitarian assistance. Yet, overall IHL and its violations as currently demonstrated in Ukraine, was addressed extensively during the Forum. The d session emphasised that respect of IHL should be at the heart of joint European external action and the Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič called for an independent mechanism to document IHL violations

Addressing climate change

Another key topic at the forum was the increasing impact of climate change on the humanitarian sector, which requires dedicated anticipation, adaptation and mitigation measures. The need to address not only humanitarian implications but also longer-term developmental challenges resulting from climate change and environmental degradation was addressed by several speakers. António Vitorino, Director General at IOM, emphasised that human mobility is not only a humanitarian but also a development issue that requires durable solutions and called for attempts to tackle climate change to integrate migration considerations. Martin Seychell, Deputy Director General of DG INTPA, equally stressed the need to adopt an integrated and comprehensive approach in order to prevent, adapt, and reverse the current state. An important new initiative that aims to reduce the environmental footprint of EU funded humanitarian action by DG ECHO is the publication of the “Minimum Environmental Requirements and Recommendations” document which lays out project-level minimum requirements for partners. The document indicates minimum environmental principles on CO2 emission mitigation, waste and water management, energy or biodiversity, natural habitat and land preservation and others; cross-cutting as well as sectors-specific requirements and recommendations. The requirements are to be rolled out this year on a voluntary basis and will become mandatory in 2023. 

Widening the donor base

Given the widening humanitarian funding gap (only 52% of humanitarian aid appeals were met in 2020), many voiced their concerns that the war in Ukraine will mean less funding allocations to other pressing crises, such as Afghanistan. The discussions highlighted repeatedly the need to step up engagement with “new and emerging donors” in order to broaden the donor base as well as unlocking private sector capital. Discussions also emphasised the need to increase the quality of funding and to provide more flexible and predictable resources. The ongoing war in Ukraine has shown the key role of flexible funding for first-line responders. Both the engagement with the non-usual suspects in the humanitarian sphere to broaden the resource base and efforts towards more flexible funding and multi-annual partnerships are concrete actions that DG ECHO can follow up on. 

The humanitarian-development-peace nexus

The humanitarian-development-peace nexus was addressed in various thematic discussions (e.g. in relation to gender or famine) as an avenue for effectively addressing the root causes of conflicts and protracted crises. The fact that the nexus is no longer addressed as a self-standing matter but is mainstreamed into thematic discussions demonstrates that the value of a nexus approach is not questioned anymore. The challenge now is how to operationalise and concretise this nexus in real-life humanitarian situations. While speakers acknowledged the importance of recognising the different actors’ distinct mandates, discussions focused on the incentives to share analysis and information, the need for a common language and a better understanding of the modus operandi of the different actors. They also stressed the need for national and local actors to be at the core of joint analysis and the need for peace responsiveness (beyond conflict sensitivity which is often neglected or misunderstood) to be mainstreamed in organisations. Overall, it was acknowledged that the operationalisation of the nexus approach has still a long way to go and that a mindset shift was required on all sides. 

Localising humanitarian response

Localisation too has been on the agenda in several panels. While the co-hosts’ declaration stated that “the Forum listened to representatives of local humanitarian organisations who are usually the first responders to a crisis”, local organisations were by far outnumbered by international NGOs and international organisations. Moreover, while the declaration puts emphasis on strengthening local capacities, some speakers rightly emphasised that building a true partnership with and listening to local actors was needed more than capacity building. As one speaker put it, the whole conversation would benefit from a mindset shift from “how we can use them” to “how we complement them so they can do their job better”. Concrete suggestions for strengthening DG ECHO’s support of local actors included mapping out local capacities (e.g. in Humanitarian Implementation Plans) or specifying a dedicated share to be allocated to local actors in its funding to partners. Follow-up actions for DG ECHO include the development of a ‘guidance on the promotion of equal partnerships with local responders’ which will be supported by a consultative process in the coming weeks. 

Potential of digitalisation

The Forum also addressed digitalisation, outlining the opportunities and operational benefits of digital tools as well as the risks associated with their use. Some of the challenges in this area include the need to enhance the employees’ digital skills and scaling up innovations which requires partnering up with the private sector. DG ECHO has a key role to play in terms of interoperability, digital inclusion and standard setting and policy making on data responsibility and protection.

The first European Humanitarian Forum was an important milestone that brought together a wide range of EU partners around key topics, by offering a space to discuss future actions and build bridges between practitioners and policy-makers. The key next step now will be to demonstrate the political will to follow up on the recommendations that emerged during the discussions and turn them into clear commitments to ensure that it wasn’t simply a talk shop and networking event.


Authors: Dr. Ina Friesen Senior Researcher (DIE) and Pauline Veron Junior Policy Officer (ECDPM).

Photo by Aryan Singh on Unsplash.

The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ETTG.

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