Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council on the EU’s humanitarian action: New challenges, same principles (Brussels, 10.3.2021)

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1. Introduction: new and old challenges for EU humanitarian aid

The European Union together with its Member States is the world’s leading humanitarian donor, accounting for some 36% of global humanitarian assistance. In a world where the footprint of conflicts and disasters is expanding steadily, humanitarian aid is a key pillar of the EU’s external action and an important part of its ability to project its values globally.

However, humanitarian aid is now facing an unprecedented set of challenges, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Humanitarian needs are at an all-time high, driven largely by the resurgence in state-based conflicts, combined with the impact of climate change, environmental degradation, global population growth and failed governance. Yet, the gap between humanitarian needs and the resources available globally is increasing. Basic norms and principles are being challenged as rarely before, making the delivery of aid more difficult and dangerous.

This Communication sets out how the EU, working with its diverse humanitarian partners and other donors, can step up to this challenge.

Humanitarian needs: a rising curve – driven dramatically upward by COVID-19 and climate impacts

Never has the EU’s global responsibility as a humanitarian actor been more pronounced than since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, 150 million people are projected to have fallen into extreme poverty as a result of the pandemic. COVID-19 has exacerbated pre-existing fragilities and inequalities and further amplified humanitarian needs. The United Nations (UN) estimates that almost 235 million people – 1 in 33 people worldwide – will need humanitarian assistance in 2021. This is an increase of 40% from 2020 estimated needs (prior to COVID-19) and a near tripling since 2014. The number of forcibly displaced people has doubled since 2010, reaching 79.5 million by the end of 2019. The average humanitarian crisis now lasts more than 9 years, and many, including in Europe’s neighbourhood, last considerably longer. As a result, too many humanitarian crises are ‘forgotten’.

The EU and its Member States have reacted by putting together, since April 2020, a Team Europe response package of EUR 38.5 billion, EUR 3.49 billion of which are dedicated to the emergency response and humanitarian needs deriving from the pandemic.

Climate change is exacerbating environmental degradation and the consequences of unsustainable management of natural resources while adding to humanitarian needs. In addition to increasingly frequent and severe natural hazards triggering disasters, climate change and environmental degradation are among the root causes of conflict, food insecurity and displacement. In 2018, around 108 million people required international humanitarian assistance as a result of storms, floods, droughts and wildfires. By 2050, over 200 million people could need humanitarian assistance every year as a result of climate-related disasters and the socioeconomic impact of climate change.

A growing funding gap – and a stubbornly narrow donor base

In 2020, all UN humanitarian appeals jumped to almost EUR 32.5 billion – the highest figure ever, owing also to the impact of COVID-19. Moreover, there is a funding gap of EUR 17.5 billion – more than half the total. According to the UN, an initial EUR 29 billion are needed to cover the UN humanitarian appeals in 2021. While the EU and some other donors have substantially stepped up their efforts in recent years, with global humanitarian funding for the UN humanitarian appeals increasing from EUR 4.1 billion in 2012 to EUR 15 billion in 2020, the global humanitarian funding gap has nevertheless been expanding rapidly. This gap is likely to grow further as donor economies will remain under stress from the economic and social fallout from COVID-19. Some major donors have already announced cuts in their aid budgets or in their contributions to major crises. Worryingly, global humanitarian funding continues to rely heavily on a very limited number of donors: in 2020, the top ten donors globally accounted for 83% of reported funding. The same applies inside the EU, where the overwhelming bulk of the overall EU’s humanitarian funding comes from the budget of a very small number of Member States and that of the EU. This is not sustainable.

Impediments to humanitarian aid access and delivery

In many conflicts, direct and often deliberate attacks by belligerents against civilians, hospitals and schools in violation of international humanitarian law are increasing. In 2019, there were 277 reported attacks against humanitarian aid workers, with 125 killed. In many crises, aid agencies also have to deal with administrative impediments and other restrictions, which may limit their ability to access affected people. COVID-19 lockdowns and ensuing movement restrictions have added another layer of challenges to the delivery of aid to affected populations.

In light of these trends and challenges, the EU must give renewed impetus to its humanitarian aid policy so that it can more effectively address growing humanitarian needs and support a better enabling environment for the delivery of principled humanitarian aid. At the same time, it will continue to work closely with development and peacebuilding actors to promote long term solutions.