An Uncertain Future for EU Humanitarian Assistance?

As NATO operations formally came to a close over Libya on November 1st, the largest development aid donor bloc in the world, the European Union, has stepped up to help the transitional government rebuild the war-torn country. Yet, it is less well known that urgent humanitarian assistance was already being provided directly to the population through the European Commission’s Directorate General of Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (DG ECHO).

However, the recent creation of the EU’s new diplomatic corps for managing the Union’s foreign affairs – the External Action Service (EEAS) – is creating a confusing policy situation. As Libya has recently proven, conflicts of interest between departments and controversy over the neutrality of aid could damage the smooth delivery of humanitarian assistance.

With a budget that now matches the unilateral contributions of EU member states, DG ECHO has been an important donor in Libya, where around $127 million in assistance has been provided thus far. The majority of these funds flow through regional and international humanitarian actors operating in the region, in a system similar to most state aid.

The clarity of this chain of aid delivery has now been called into question by the introduction of the EEAS to the picture. Formed a year ago as the designated agency for coordinating the EU’s so-called Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), the EEAS has a clear function in establishing diplomatic contacts in complex and ongoing crises.

Things start to become complicated when one considers what this would look like “on the ground.” In Libya, EEAS officials have been actively coordinating with the NTC for some time. As one EEAS official put it, “there was a real European visibility – we had a flag over our building in Benghazi and Tripoli, and it was the EU flag.”

This raises a key issue about the neutrality of aid. It is well established in the aid community that organisations administering aid in conflict zones must maintain neutrality. If not, they risk exposure to accusations of political bias in the conflict, or worse, active hostility. This risk is one factor in the so-called "politicization of aid."

In the Libya case, there is little risk of the generally grateful population attacking aid donors for ties to the EU. But as the EU continues to broaden the role of the EEAS, it will increasingly find itself “flying the EU flag” whilst simultaneously providing humanitarian aid funds via DG ECHO.

Aid organisations will thus find themselves faced with a conflict of interests. On the one hand, there will be an EU diplomatic mission designed to further the interests of the CFSP, and on the other, an EU department will be providing the lions share of humanitarian aid for the charities and NGO’s operating in that conflict. The risks of bias are glaring and dangerous.

Photo Credit: B.R.Q