Interview with Maria Groenewald, Director of VOICE

Alain Boinet : You are the new director of VOICE (Voluntary Organisations in Cooperation in Europe – Coordination of Humanitarian NGOs in the European Union) based in Brussels. Thank you for this interview. Could you first introduce VOICE to our readers? 

Maria Groenewald : Hello Alain! First of all, I would like to thank you for this invitation. It is an honor for me to be the new Director of VOICE and to participate as such in this interview.

VOICE is the network of humanitarian organizations in Europe. It has 80 members in 18 European countries. A common value unites us all, that of the respect of humanitarian principles and International Humanitarian Law. The strength of our network lies in the diversity of our members who work in different sectors, with different means, different structures… Together, we represent the main humanitarian interlocutor with the European Union, in particular with DG ECHO.

Alain Boinet : You participated in the first European Humanitarian Forum (EHF) from March 21 to 23 in Brussels. What do you think of this initiative of the French Presidency and the European Commission with DG ECHO, how did this Forum go and what are its concrete responses to the extent of the urgent needs for humanitarian aid?

Maria Groenewald : Firstly, VOICE welcomes the organization of this first European Humanitarian Forum. It was a good opportunity to highlight the importance of humanitarian aid, its principles and its challenges. These moments are important because they allow us to show external actors, especially political ones, that humanitarian aid concerns us all. The events in Ukraine illustrate this. According to the United Nations, more than 274 million people in 2022 will need humanitarian aid. That’s not counting the 15.7 million Ukrainians in need since the beginning of hostilities. It is imperative to talk about this, to have discussions, at the political level, about humanitarian aid and its challenges.

Secondly, many of our members appreciated this moment of face-to-face meeting after two years of covid period. It was a moment of networking between NGOs but also with political actors, the European Commission, DG ECHO… However, the discussions were a bit limited in terms of participation, debates and spontaneous exchanges. The format of the forum should therefore be reviewed to allow for more exchanges. Also, although many important topics were discussed, the choice of topics was not done in a sufficiently participatory manner.

At VOICE, we would like to collaborate more closely with DG ECHO and the Swedish Presidency of the Council of the European Union in the preparation of the next Forum in order to bring the NGO perspective, to propose a more participatory approach and to lead to concrete commitments from the main actors. We would therefore like to exchange ideas well in advance of the event on the most relevant topics to address in order to really move things forward. Obviously, all topics are important but focusing on certain topics could also be more effective.

Maria Groenewald (left) Director of VOICE, Dominic Crowley (right), President of VOICE, and MEP Barry Andrews (middle), in a meeting on the margins of the European Humanitarian Forum 2022

Alain Boinet : Humanitarian funding is not sufficient to meet the needs identified this year, which concern 300 million people at risk in the world due to a crisis (conflict, disaster, epidemic).  On average, 40% of the funds needed for emergency aid are missing! What was the European Commission’s response to this issue at the EHF and what should we do ourselves?  

Maria Groenewald : This is a major issue, but also one of the most complicated.  It is all the more important when we observe in recent years a continuous increase in the number of people in humanitarian need – a much faster increase than the increase in funding. It is therefore essential to work together to find solutions and exchange innovative ideas.

At the European level, DG ECHO has again increased its budget for humanitarian aid for the year 2022. Furthermore, the issue of broadening the donor base is one of DG ECHO’s priorities, and as such, the topic was also addressed during the forum. It is therefore positive to see that the issue is widely recognized by DG ECHO and that advocacy efforts to broaden the donor base are being implemented. This remains a very difficult task and VOICE would like to see more efforts from the Member States which, in our opinion, have a non-negligible potential to increase humanitarian funding. The capacities of our network, and the presence of our members in the different countries of the EU, could allow us to participate in an effort of argumentation and persuasion.

In parallel, and although the increase of humanitarian funding by donors remains a sine qua non condition to face the growing humanitarian needs, we are engaged at VOICE in a reflection on the modalities of use of these funds. Our Grand Bargain 2.0 working group is addressing this topic, and our VOICE Policy Resolution 2021 has focused on this issue. How can we operate more effectively in humanitarian action? Because the big question is: how can we invest the means at our disposal in the most efficient way? This is also the reason why, for the next forum, we would like to see more discussions inviting NGOs and other actors to think about innovative ideas in the context of the question of the optimal use of limited funding and the impact of humanitarian actions. One example is digitalization.

Alain Boinet : The President of the European Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen, has declared the European Union to be the largest humanitarian donor in the world. What is DG ECHO’s budget in 2022? 

Maria Groenewald :

The EU budget for humanitarian aid in 2022 is 1.8 billion euros, a figure that has increased since last year. By 2021, the European Commission was the second largest public donor in the world, behind the United States.

VOICE insists every year in its advocacy with the European Union that special attention be paid to the humanitarian budget. We know that every year the humanitarian needs increase. The allocated budget must therefore be coherent and increase as well.

Although the increase of the budget in 2022 is a positive sign, there remains the question of the distribution of these funds between the humanitarian crises and the different parts of the world.

President Emmanuel Macron’s speech at the European Humanitarian Forum in March 2022 @European Union (Yasmina and Djamel Besseghir, 2022)

Alain Boinet : Among the issues on the Forum’s agenda was the development of European humanitarian response capabilities. There was talk of ready to intervene teams, pre-positioned equipment, possible air and land bridges. Does this mean that DG ECHO is planning to become operational or rather that it wishes to develop such capacities with its current partners, as was the case during COVID 19 with the Humanitarian Logistics Network and the air bridge set up to deal with the interruption of air transport at the time? 

Maria Groenewald : Most of our members are NGOs certified with DG ECHO and have been working closely with them for years. This Humanitarian Partnership (formerly the FPA – Framework Partnership Agreement) with ECHO is necessary to have the right to submit a proposal to receive funding for the implementation of a humanitarian project.

VOICE has regular exchanges with ECHO as we also have the task of being the main interlocutor between ECHO and the partner NGOs for all technical and operational issues within the framework of this Humanitarian Partnership. In this respect, we are always open to innovative ideas and approaches in order to work better together and to continue to respond to crises as quickly as possible.

Regarding the humanitarian airlift that you mentioned, it is an idea that originated with French NGOs, including some VOICE member NGOs. We are very excited to see that ECHO continues to use this means of operation which greatly assists our members in solving logistical challenges in a timely manner. However, this ‘European Humanitarian Response Capacity’ has so far a mixed record with VOICE, although it is important to note that this tool is not yet fully developed and deployed. It is therefore necessary to wait a little to know the real impacts of these operations.

According to VOICE, it is not necessary for ECHO to become an operational operator, because the NGOs are the first to respond in the emergency to various crises. Our members, international NGOs and their national partners are experts in this field. However, there are also positive points in this cooperative approach. For example, an increased contribution from DG ECHO for pre-positioning of stocks to reduce logistical challenges once a crisis starts is a positive idea. However, it is important for us to stay in regular contact with ECHO on this issue, to make sure that there is no duplication of existing mechanisms.

European Humanitarian Forum in March 2022 @European Union (Yasmina et Djamel Besseghir, 2022)

Alain Boinet : One of the major issues discussed at the Forum was that of local capacity building. In the final declaration of the Forum, there is mention of a consultation process on this subject. What is the agenda of this consultation and how will VOICE and the partner NGOs participate in it?

Maria Groenewald : Indeed, we were happy to see that the topic of localization was very present during the forum. It is an important topic for most of our members who, as you said, already work closely with their local and national partners.

Moreover, the development of these new guidelines and the consultation process that accompanies it are not a surprise, since they were announced in March 2021, when the Commission’s Communication on humanitarian action was published. We are very pleased that DG ECHO has decided to prioritise this topic through the launch of this consultation, which we hope will be inclusive and transparent.

VOICE has 2 working groups that deal, among other topics, with localization. First, there is the Watch Group, the working group in charge of topics related to the Humanitarian Partnership, and the Grand Bargain 2.0 working group. We are going to participate in this consultation because as you mentioned, there are already working cultures between our members and their local partners, good examples of collaboration that we could build on and learn from. This would allow us to put in place a localization approach supported by DG ECHO. It is also important for us to initiate a cooperative approach between different NGOs, national and international, to work better together. I personally believe that we need each other. Of course, there are still many barriers to implementing equitable partnerships. However, we should not see each other as enemies but as partners who need to find new ways to work better together, in a cooperative manner, building on each other’s expertise. I hope that DG ECHO’s new guidelines on localization will move in this direction.

The Vanderbijl Park refinery of iron and steel giant ISKOR in South Africa. Farmland bordering the industrial area. 2007. Photo : © John Hogg/Banque mondiale (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Alain Boinet : Climate change and its consequences for populations in crisis situations is a major concern for humanitarian actors. Several reference documents have recently been published on this subject. But what initiatives and measures are planned to respond to the consequences of climate change in the field?  

Maria Groenewald : Climate change and resilience in humanitarian aid was the 2nd most common topic, along with localization, in the forum discussions. Moreover, this major topic, beyond the humanitarian sector, is, compared to other topics, a little less difficult to address with a donor such as ECHO, as there is a consensus on the gravity and urgency of the situation. Indeed, the number of refugees and internally displaced persons due to climate change is alarming, not to mention the frightening forecasts for the years to come. Moreover, 11 French NGOs, including several members of VOICE, issued a statement after the forum in reaction to the launch of the Donors’ Statement on Climate and Environment. We mentioned their statement in our own post-forum statement, as we particularly support their demands: additional funding to address these challenges is imperative. We must continue to discuss this issue, especially in the context of the next forums, which must result in clear commitments from the Member States and the European Commission. The unanimous recognition that we cannot ignore the climate emergency any longer is good news, but it is only a first step, the next one being to discuss the financial means.

Finally, it is necessary to clarify that while we are ready to do our part, as international NGOs, with the support of humanitarian donors, we are not the solution to this climate crisis. I don’t think that is what is expected of us. However, the climate issue is at the heart of VOICE’s advocacy strategy with the European Commission because each euro invested in anticipation actions is 1 euro that will not be spent later on humanitarian aid. VOICE also hopes that DG ECHO will continue to be more committed to supporting these anticipatory actions, with additional financial means, without impacting on the other lines of the humanitarian budget.

Alain Boinet : Among the recommendations of this document published by the 11 NGOs you mentioned, it is stated that “we invite the European Commission to set up an accountability mechanism through annual public reporting for which the European Humanitarian Forum could be the venue.  What do you think of this proposal? 

Maria Groenewald : We fully agree with this proposal. This mechanism seems to me to be necessary because by improving transparency, it will influence decisions on the distribution of funding. In theory, all the figures are available online. But in reality, it is not easy to understand the current state of DG ECHO humanitarian funding and the source of this funding. There is also a lack of information on the logic behind the distribution of the amounts. Why this amount for the Sahel, this amount for Asia or this amount for Latin America?

This discussion is all the more relevant in the context of the crisis in Ukraine, where significant amounts have been mobilized. We welcome the deployment of financial aid from the European Union and DG ECHO for the crisis in Ukraine, but this should not reduce the budgets for other humanitarian crises, including long-term crises, which are sometimes forgotten.

So every effort towards more transparency is an effort that VOICE welcomes, in particular to hold donors accountable. We must ensure that the interests of the people receiving humanitarian aid are at the heart of all decisions.

Alain Boinet : The war in Ukraine and its dramatic consequences for the population, the reception of numerous refugees in neighboring countries, the consequences on food security in many countries, particularly in the Near and Middle East and in Africa, leads to an exceptional international humanitarian mobilization. But the budgets have already been voted while Ukraine must be helped while not abandoning anyone in the other ongoing crises. How to act with the European Commission and other donors in order not to forget anyone? What can and must VOICE and its partners do for this?  

Maria Groenewald : This is obviously a complex issue, but it is a crucial one. The crisis in Ukraine has clearly shown that the European Union and DG ECHO are actors that can react quickly and mobilize the additional funding needed to deal with a crisis that few people had anticipated even 3-4 months ago. We would like to see this speed of action and financial commitment applied to other current and future crises.

Delivery of aid by cargo plane from France to Moldova, coordinated by the EU’s civil protection mechanism. © Union européenne, 2022 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Of course, the impacts of this crisis extend far beyond Ukraine. It is also affecting neighboring countries that are hosting refugees, and rising prices are particularly threatening food security in other parts of the world. VOICE plays a role in influencing the agenda at the political level, including on this last point. For example, the topic of the relationship between hunger and conflict was not on the initial agenda of the European Humanitarian Forum 2022. After a meeting between our members and the Deputy Director of DG ECHO, Michael Köhler, in November 2021 where we pointed out the absence of the topic, the organizers of the Forum – DG ECHO and the French Presidency of the EU Council – agreed to add the topic “Hunger & Conflict” to the agenda. In the meantime, the conflict in Ukraine has broken out, and it has become even more topical to discuss this topic during the Forum.

So yes indeed, we are the main interlocutor between certified NGOs and ECHO to discuss all the technical issues but the biggest part of our work is to ensure a space for the most important topics at the heart of the debates here in Brussels with DG ECHO and the member states and to influence the way they are discussed. Promoting humanitarian aid and engaging more member states are also part of our objectives. This new crisis in Ukraine and its global effects shows that humanitarian aid is not something that only concerns a small group trying to help people in need. No, it is something that concerns everyone, and in particular all Member States.

Finally, about the issues around International Humanitarian Law, which is sometimes questioned a little bit, I think we have to use every possible opportunity to explain systematically what International Humanitarian Law is and why it has to be respected, in any crisis, war or confrontation, because the implementation of humanitarian aid is based on and depends on this law. It is also important to understand that it is not a question of solidarity. Everyone feels solidarity with Ukraine for good reasons. But respect for IHL goes beyond that, our NGOs are obliged to follow the principles of humanitarian aid to ensure that this aid reaches the people in need. That is the ultimate goal of our action, the rest is politics. As you said earlier, we are not political actors but humanitarian actors and everyone has to play their role.

Alain Boinet : How would you like to conclude this interview? 

Maria Groenewald : There are 3 important points for me. First of all, we at VOICE are ready to continue the dialogue with DG ECHO and the Member States on all the topics we discussed during the forum because they are major topics, but also to allow for continuity and follow-up of the statements made at the forum. We need to make sure that the discussions turn into actions on key topics such as localization, the search for alternative donors, the issue of climate finance, more cooperation for more efficiency… We need to maintain the link between the 2022 and 2023 forum and start the next forum by discussing our progress on the different topics.

Secondly, it is essential to continue, together, the promotion of the respect of International Humanitarian Law and humanitarian principles. The recent events in Ukraine have clearly shown that these principles are being called into question, which puts our colleagues working in the field at risk.

Finally, the question of European Union sanctions and anti-terrorist measures is a major issue. We do not question the necessity of such measures but they must not prevent humanitarian organizations from implementing their actions in a rapid and efficient manner.

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Who is Maria Groenewald ? 

With over 15 years of experience in the NGO sector, Maria Groenewald has developed strong advocacy and project management skills in both the humanitarian and development fields. After studying political science, communication science and sociology in Germany and France, Maria started her career working for Johanniter International Assistance, where she gained extensive field experience in Africa. Maria then joined Plan International Germany, where she held various positions for more than ten years, including Head of Humanitarian and Development Programs in Asia. In the four years prior to joining VOICE, Maria was based in Brussels as Senior Resource Mobilization Manager at Plan International Germany with a focus on funding and relations with DG ECHO and DG DEVCO (now DG INTPA).

Specialized in humanitarian and development programming, nexus, activity development, resource mobilization, programming related to children’s rights, humanitarian partnership (in particular with DG ECHO) and the Grand Bargain, Maria joined the VOICE secretariat team in February 2021 as Program Coordinator. She became Acting Director in July 2021, before being appointed as the new VOICE Director in November 2021.

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