Interview with Dominic Crowley, President of VOICE, on the European Humanitarian Forum

First European Humanitarian Forum. @ECHO

Defis Humanitaire interview with Dominic Crowley, President of VOICE, on the 2nd EHF : During the first EHF in Brussels in March 2022, NGOs regretted the lack of concrete outcomes and the lack of consultation and information sharing from the organisers ahead of the Forum. What about this second edition, co-organised by DG ECHO and the Swedish Presidency?

It would be good to recognise the fact that there were some tangible outcomes of the EHF 2022 in relation to the publication of guidance on the minimum environmental requirements, humanitarian logistics and cash programming.

It is also important to note that EHF 2022 was the first of its kind, and so there was a certain degree of learning by doing in its design and delivery.

The Forum certainly met the objective of raising the profile of humanitarian needs with European Union (EU) decision-makers, including Member States (MS) representatives, and of giving the wider humanitarian community the chance to more directly engage with political decision makers.

VOICE welcomed the fact that the Co-Hosts’ Statement focused on key areas of concern for our members, including the need to: respect International Humanitarian Law; address the seemingly ever-growing humanitarian funding gap; provide further investment to prevent climate disaster; and to strengthen local capacity.

In many ways, the Co-Hosts’ Statement picked up on the issues that VOICE raised in its Statement ahead of the European Humanitarian Forum which called on the EU and its MS to use the Forum to address the challenges of rising humanitarian needs, identify solutions to preserve humanitarian space, and to ensure the delivery of principled humanitarian aid.

Moving these key issues forward in a way that makes a difference for the scale and nature of needs on the ground, and of safe access of aid workers to disaster-affected populations, remains the key challenge for all of us.

In terms of EHF 2023, we appreciate the fact that DG ECHO set up a Partners’ Task Force to support the preparation for this year’s Forum. VOICE, together with UN, IFRC and ICRC representatives have met regularly over 2022 and 2023, to support ECHO to shape the Forum’s agenda, and to foster better information sharing.

While it is reassuring that the most pressing humanitarian issues featuring on the Forum’s programme: the climate crisis; the HDP nexus; respect for IHL; adherence to the humanitarian principles; humanitarian access; and the humanitarian funding gap, the fact that these reflect many of the issues from the last Forum reflect the depth of the challenges that exist in addressing them.

We are encouraged by the fact that the Partners’ Task Force was able to reach agreement with ECHO on the inclusion of a panel on gender, and we have advocated for a diversity of NGOs – national and international – to be represented on the panels.

We also welcome the fact that the DG ECHO Partners’ Conference, which had been suspended since 2019 due to COVID-19, is being re-established through a series of meetings, including the Partners’ Segment on March 22nd.

Attacks on civilians and infrastructure, as well as conflict between state and non-state armed groups, have led to massive population displacement throughout the West African region, causing unprecedented famine. European Union, 2022 (photographer: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds)

Défis Humanitaires : The European Humanitarian Forum 2023 aims to “jointly put forward innovative, sustainable, and efficient approaches to address the current challenges of the humanitarian world”. What are your expectations for this edition of the forum?

My main expectation for the EHF is that it should give key political stakeholders the opportunity to focus their attention on the record level of global humanitarian needs, and the record funding gap in meeting these needs. Consequently, my main hope is that all EU Member States will commit and put forward specific solutions to increasing the level of funding to support communities in need.

Going back to your previous question, and as stated in our document, VOICE reflections on the European Humanitarian Forum 2022, I feel that every effort must be taken to ensure that this Forum combines useful panel discussions with specific agreed outcomes to meet the key challenges that humanitarian actors face in the delivery of principled humanitarian aid.

Conflicts, the climate crisis, and chronic underfunding of humanitarian crises are all interconnected and they are driving humanitarian needs to record levels. I am afraid that if we don’t act now, these needs will escalate further, and we may reach a tipping point where it will be very difficult to meaningfully impact on the level of needs.

Défis Humanitaires : Holding the presidency of the Council of the European Union for this first semester of the year, Sweden is chairing the COHAFA (Humanitarian and Food Aid of the EU) meetings and is the last member of the TRIO (France, Czech Republic and Sweden), which jointly set some overall priorities from January 2022 to June 2023. These priorities include climate change, IHL, protection of humanitarians, Humanitarian- Development – Peace Nexus. How is Sweden making progress on these priorities and what do you think should be the priorities for the next six months?

VOICE has been engaging with the Council Presidencies ahead of and during their mandate. We have worked with our NGO members and the national platforms in France, the Czech Republic and now Sweden, which started its presidency on January 2023, to ensure that they consider the priorities of humanitarian NGOs and most importantly, the disaster-affected communities that they support.

Working with FoRS, the Czech national NGO platform, we organised a roundtable in Prague to reflect on the global and regional humanitarian context from the perspective of donors and NGOs, reviewing the impact of the Ukraine conflict on the delivery of principled humanitarian aid, and identifying solutions to cope with the increasing needs and funding gap ahead of EHF 2023.

During this roundtable, VOICE reiterated the messages stated in our Policy Resolution, An urgent call to protect principled humanitarian aid, in which we made recommendations to the EU and its MS to consistently uphold principled humanitarian aid worldwide, to protect civilians, and to support access to humanitarian aid.

One of the panels at the Prague roundtable “New humanitarian trends and aid challenges in light of the conflict in Ukraine”. @VOICE

On the triple nexus and the climate crisis, we bring the expertise of our members through the work of our Resilience-Nexus Working group. At the EU level, there are lots of discussions around the triple nexus as the key solution to many challenges. However, we would like to see how the EU and its Member States are planning to operationalise it, considering the different financial frameworks and tools and, in particular, the concerns of humanitarian NGOs about the increasing risk of the politicisation and instrumentalisation of humanitarian aid as a consequence of nexus approaches. The VOICE perspective is that any nexus approach must be in line with the fundamental principles of humanitarian aid – humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence – and be informed by the specific context.

Then Climate crisis is another key issue on which we are working. Climate change is among the root causes of humanitarian crises around the world, fuelling conflicts, generating food insecurity, water shortages, displacement and threatening livelihoods. In the fight against the effects of climate change, the role of donors is vital. We believe that the EU and its MS must scale up climate finance aimed at building climate resilience so that the most marginalised communities are able to build mitigating measures to climate disasters and strengthen their resilience.

There are a lot of discussions at the EU level, and we are happy about the focus that has been given by the Council Presidencies to these key areas. However, more needs to be done to build climate resilience, to operationalise the triple nexus, and to ensure the promotion of IHL.

We hope the Swedish presidency will make significant progress in these areas in the next months, and that the next Trio, will keep these topics high on their agenda, and enhance MS commitments and actions to overcome these related challenges.

Défis Humanitaires : The Trio’s priorities also include a global effort to increase resources for humanitarian action in the face of growing needs. Between 2018 and 2021, the international humanitarian aid budget steadily raised from $15 to $19 billion, while required funding increased from $25 to $38 billion. The continuing war in Ukraine and the earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria will further increase those figures. What do you expect from the EHF in order to better respond financially to humanitarian needs worldwide?

The conflict in Ukraine and its global economic repercussions have exacerbated humanitarian needs, already at an all-time high because of the impact of the ‘three Cs’ – Conflict, Climate change, and COVID-19, and the chronic underfunding of crises. As you rightly state, one in every 23 people is now in need of humanitarian assistance (GHO 2023) – an unprecedented level of need, but a level that has been steadily growing over the last few years.

My main concern though is whether Ukraine and the impact of the earthquakes on Turkiye and Syria increase the global humanitarian budget, or whether these newer crises place additional stress on already overburdened global budgets.

The EU, with its MS, had traditionally been the biggest donor of humanitarian aid, and it is still among the biggest ones (FTS, UNOCHA). However, since 2021, the US is now the largest single donor, and what is more worrying is that only two EU MS (out of 27) are among the top ten global humanitarian donors. The EU and its MS need to do more, and we are pleased to see that EU citizens are supportive of this – according to the latest Eurobarometer, 91% of respondents think that it is important that the EU funds humanitarian aid activities, and 89% think that the EU should maintain or increase the level of support to people in need of humanitarian aid. The Forum might be a key opportunity to get a serious commitment from MS to increase their humanitarian aid funding.

VOICE urges the EU to reach more people in need worldwide by ensuring additional, flexible and predictable funding on a yearly basis. We call on the EU and MS to be principled donors and to allocate funding on the basis of identified humanitarian needs rather than political or economic considerations.

The Ukrainian conflict has highlighted the risk of different standards being applied to humanitarian crises and, more broadly, of the need to respect humanitarian principles. The speed and scale of donors’ funding for the Ukrainian crisis have been remarkable and should be replicated for all humanitarian crises. Everyone in need should receive fair, equitable and consistent humanitarian assistance and protection.

Ukrainian refugees walk on a bridge in the border buffer zone with Poland at the Zosin-Ustyluh border crossing in western Ukraine on March 6, 2022. – More than 1.5 million refugees fled Ukraine within a week of the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, more than half of them to Poland, according to the U.N. refugee agency. (Photo by Daniel LEAL / AFP)

Défis Humanitaires : What is the humanitarian NGOs’ perspective on how to deliver more efficient aid with the means available to better respond to growing needs?

Considering the increasing funding gap, the need to create a more efficient and effective humanitarian system is more relevant than ever.

The need to have predictable funding is one of the main calls of humanitarian NGOs, and it is one of the commitments of the Grand Bargain 2.0 that was confirmed by donors and humanitarian actors in June 2021.

Consistent with the Grand Bargain 2.0’s priorities, localisation is critical for more effective aid. VOICE welcomes the recent initiative by DG ECHO to draft a Guidance Note “Promoting equitable partnerships with local responders in humanitarian settings”. VOICE has been consulted on the document and we are looking forward to seeing the final version of this document at the dedicated session during the EHF 2023.

NGOs deliver the majority of humanitarian projects worldwide and need to be able to adapt to a constantly changing humanitarian context. To facilitate this, they need funding to be predictable, timely, flexible and longer-term in order to guarantee the continuity of the project. The response to the COVID-19 pandemic showed that project flexibility is possible and worthwhile. We just need the political will to make it happen.

However, the funding gap cannot be closed in its entirety by further increased efficiencies. The bottom line is that more funding is needed, and the sustained failure to meet humanitarian needs over the last decade has left an ever greater number of people ever more vulnerable to shocks and stresses – some of which they might have previously been able to withstand.

VOICE President Dominic Crowley spoke at the event “Funding imbalances: How uneven prioritization and inadequate funding affect humanitarian aid. @VOICE

Défis Humanitaires : On 9 December 2022, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2664 on the humanitarian exemption from the application of the sanctions regime under anti-terrorism laws. Do you think this will be the case in all countries where humanitarian organisations operate and what should humanitarian NGOs do to protect themselves from financial and legal risks?  

In a sense, that is the big unanswerable question. Of course, I would like to be able to just say ‘yes’ in response to it – but life is seldom that simple.

Counterterrorism measures, sanctions and subsequent restrictions, are a major challenge for the delivery of principled humanitarian action. According to the findings of the 2021 VOICE survey report, 42% of respondents among humanitarian workers said that these measures affected decisions relating to their programming, preventing them from carrying out certain humanitarian activities, or impeding access to areas where needs are acute. Sanctions and counter-terrorism measures are foreign and security policy tools that can cause legal, financial, reputational and security risks and challenges for humanitarian organisations operating in sanctioned environments, and it is vulnerable civilians caught in crises in sanctioned environments who all too often end up paying the ultimate price of these measures.

The UN Security Council resolution establishing a standing humanitarian exemption to all current and future UN sanctions regimes – if implemented by all governments – would be a historical measure, and we hope that the EU and its MS will adopt the exemption into all of their sanctions regimes, including the EU autonomous sanctions regimes.

Défis Humanitaires : How would you like to conclude this interview?

One of the most challenging issues that we face – and one that I have not really touched on in my previous answers – is the steady and alarming deterioration in global food insecurity. According to the Global Hunger Index, 44 countries have ‘alarming’ or ‘serious’ levels of hunger, and a further 46 will fail to reach a ‘low’ level of hunger by 2030. Perhaps predictably, Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are the regions with the highest levels of hunger. Despite repeated urgent calls for action, global progress against hunger has stagnated and even reversed in recent years, and Sustainable Development Goal 2 of reaching Zero Hunger by 2030 seems further away than ever.

As I said earlier, the interconnected factors of conflict, extreme weather-related disasters, and the economic consequences of COVID-19, and the impact of the conflict in Ukraine on the export of grains and fertilizers, have strained an already dire situation.

Severe drought threatens famine in Somalia, where the UN estimates that 5.5 million people are at risk. Young girls line up at a feeding center in Mogadishu. UN Photo/Tobin Jones

As we can see in our recent VOICE out loud: Fighting against hunger: a humanitarian lens, humanitarian NGOs are putting their expertise and professionalism into this fight, setting up climate adaptation programmes to enhance communities’ resilience through anticipatory action, disaster risk reduction, early response mechanisms, and flexibility, as well as in working with other actors to promote multi-sectoral responses. But this is not enough. We need political will. The EU and its MS must seriously respond to the urgent call launched by our members and step up their efforts to tackle the underlying causes of food insecurity.

I was happy to see that one of the high-level panels of EHF 2023 is “Responding to an unprecedented global food crisis and averting famine”. The Forum is a key opportunity for the EU to collectively go beyond their current commitments, and to make a more meaningful contribution to the fight against food insecurity which is killing people, destroying lives and human dignity, and affecting all of us.

I would take this as a way to finish this interview on a positive note. I genuinely feel that the collective commitment of the wider humanitarian community to work collaboratively to meet the record and growing level of needs is stronger now than ever. We know what needs to be done to address some of the key challenges, and I hope that EHF 2023 will be a time when the EU and its MS take genuine collective measures to better meet the record level of needs.

Dominic Crowley

Président of VOICE

Over the past 25 years, Dominic has worked with NGOs, first in various conflict contexts and, since 2000, with Concern Worldwide in Ireland, where he has been Emergency Director since 2013. He is responsible for developing and overseeing the organization’s humanitarian policy and leads a team of 25 people responsible for a wide range of sectoral policies and emergency response. He has been deployed to many major disasters over the past decade and has a deep understanding of programming issues.
With 12 years of participation on the VOICE Board, Dominic has considerable institutional memory of the network and has contributed significantly to establishing VOICE as a credible network to advocate for the relevance, role and diversity of humanitarian aid NGOs, and to assess and analyze changes in our operating environment.
Dominic’s experience and commitment allow him to combine elements of policy with the practical realities of the field. He believes that it is essential that humanitarian policy and advocacy be grounded in program realities and that programs be consistently based on core humanitarian principles and standards. Dominic has a deep understanding of the issues facing humanitarian NGOs in the 21st century, and is highly committed to addressing these challenges.

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