Europe: humanitarian aid in question

Solidarités International teams prepare for a cash distribution in Chad in 2018, ©Solidarités International

DG ECHO, thoughts and wishes of a humanitarian

When I was kindly asked to take advantage of the very interesting space offered by the Humanitarian Challenges website to talk about DG ECHO, I hesitated very little because it is a “humanitarian object” which concerns my current position within SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL and which is close to my heart.

This article is not an academic research paper but a simple transcription of the experiences and perceptions of a practitioner of humanitarian action towards one of the major actors that he has worked with over the last two decades. It is a subjective and lived experience, full of compliments and reproaches but also full of expectations and hopes.

A donor “in our image”

My first contact with DG ECHO was in 2004, in Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I was quickly seduced by the image of a donor present on the ground, aware of the needs, committed to a principled approach and positioned as a co-constructor of the response that SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL wanted to implement at the time in the East of the DRC (Ituri, Kalemia, Goma…)

Throughout my life as a humanitarian, I have interacted with members of DG ECHO, both in the field and at headquarters, on the main humanitarian crises of the last two decades (Darfur, Afghanistan, the Malian crisis, the Syrian crisis, Haiti, Nigeria…). For someone who works in a humanitarian organization that wants to be independent but cannot function without institutional funding, DG ECHO has always been a privileged donor.

First of all, the positioning of the European Union as a “soft power” in international relations is a reassuring element in terms of the positive (or at least “not negative”) perception that the various stakeholders may have of European funding for humanitarian projects. Thus, the absence of direct political orientation of the majority of DG ECHO’s funding allows its NGO partners to maintain a very high level of independence and neutrality. Of course, this is a general trend, even if certain positions and certain funding, notably on the problems of migratory flows to Europe, remain highly politicized.

Secondly, it should be noted that the majority of DG ECHO employees with whom I interacted in the field were former employees of humanitarian NGOs. We spoke the same language, had the same considerations and were also attached to notions of principled positioning, which unfortunately have now sometimes been abandoned. DG ECHO is one of the most vocal donors on issues of respect for International Humanitarian Law and is one of the most sensitive donors to issues of respect for the humanitarian principles of neutrality, independence and impartiality. Beyond its discursive posture, this strong identity can be seen in each country where DG ECHO is active and is constantly reflected in the exchanges between its employees and other humanitarian actors, in the choice of areas to intervene, in the priorities to be defined, in the projects to be financed…

Haiti, ©Solidarités International

Also, DG ECHO is one of the donors closest to the field. This is undoubtedly an institutional desire, but in my experience, it has often been a tangible reality. Where many donor representatives have a limited capacity to travel and visit the direct terrain of humanitarian action, DG ECHO shines in its ability to deploy national or international staff to the heart of the places where the projects it funds are implemented. Not only does this approach clearly improve its capacity to effectively monitor the implementation of the projects it finances, but DG ECHO also shows that it is not in the business of transferring risk to its partners. This is a very important position in a humanitarian environment that is increasingly governed by a logic of risk transfer from donors to international actors and then to national or local actors.

Finally, DG ECHO pays particular attention in its various programs to reaching vulnerable populations whose access to humanitarian aid is limited or non-existent. This commitment is often in line with a central strategic leitmotif of SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL. Indeed, SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL has made access to affected populations a major issue in its humanitarian work and has chosen to invest particular efforts in this direction. These efforts are permanently visible in its areas of intervention and its perpetual propensity to “go where others do not go”.

It is said that you have to be tough to be tough. I also wanted to transcribe in this article, elements that question me in the current and projected functioning of DG ECHO. I am going to talk about trends that I find harmful, about orientations that I consider irrelevant, about decisions that I perceive questionable. My opinion is my own, but I hope that some of my questions will be listened to and some of my wishes will be heard… Some of the themes dealt with below are part of the continuous advocacy that SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL is doing with DG ECHO, either directly or through our participation in the essential platform that is VOICE, a voice for European humanitarian NGOs.

Funding that remains below the needs

The increase in the financial volume of humanitarian aid allocated by DG ECHO is a trend that has been observed over the last 10 years and that continues. Unfortunately, and DG ECHO itself shares this observation, humanitarian needs are growing faster than this trend and the famous “response gaps” remain significant and are even growing. Today, the prospects for the evolution of European humanitarian funding between now and 2027 do not seem to take into account the worrying trends of increasing scale of crises and their prolongation over time. It is crucial that an actor as important as DG ECHO in the humanitarian sphere be able to develop its capacity for action and funding in line with the continuing increase in humanitarian needs throughout the world. It is crucial to support DG ECHO in its efforts to increase its capacity through permanent advocacy work with European decision-makers, whether at the national level or in the European institutions.

What about the share of NGOs in DG ECHO’s funding?

In parallel with the increase in DG ECHO’s budgets, I have observed in recent years an increase in the share of this budget going to international organizations (other than NGOs) and in particular to organizations in the UN system. Moreover, between 2016 and 2019 the share of DG ECHO funding going to NGOs has decreased despite the general increase of DG ECHO budgets: it has gone from more than 800 million Euros to less than 700 million Euros. Despite the fact that the UN system is necessary for the humanitarian response as a whole, it remains essential to maintain, if not develop, the share of NGOs in the response. The plurality, independence, flexibility, creativity… of NGOs makes them a privileged channel that should not be neglected by DG ECHO.

It is easy to imagine that one of the reasons behind this trend is the capacity of UN organizations to manage very large volumes of funds, thus facilitating the administrative processing carried out at DG ECHO level. This being said, it should not be forgotten that many of these funds end up in the hands of the NGOs, indirectly, which amounts to taking significant administrative costs from humanitarian budgets by shifting the administrative cost from DG ECHO to the UN agencies. This “middle man” approach contributes greatly to reducing the real efficiency of aid, but it is hardly visible at the level of DG ECHO, which thus becomes capable of managing larger budgets without increasing its payroll or administrative costs.

It is desirable that DG ECHO support the coordination role, the production of technical and methodological value, the link with the States, and the direct implementation of the UN system, and not the role of intermediary donor which, in the end, only contributes to artificially reducing the perception of the administrative cost when in reality this cost is increasing.

For the search for coherent and real efficiency

Efficiency is a virtue in the implementation of any humanitarian response. However, it is important to take into consideration the minimum standards of a quality response when analyzing the budget for a given project. Under the new system in place since the beginning of 2021, the costs of Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability and Learning (MEAL) are considered by DG ECHO as support costs on which an unspoken objective of a reduction to the “strict minimum” applies. This example is a worrying element that shows a certain intrinsic inconsistency when DG ECHO, rightly, increases its expectations in terms of quality of implementation but is not ready to assume financially these requirements.

Moreover, we are seeing more and more organizations financing their so-called “support” costs from their own funds or from funds from “less watchful” donors in order to present DG ECHO with artificially “efficient” budgets. This practice of “hidden costs”, which is sometimes unfortunately promoted by DG ECHO representatives, in my opinion distorts the notion of efficiency and exploits it. Unfortunately, I do not have a ready-made solution to this problem, but I nevertheless call for a more comprehensive reading of the notion of efficiency and a more humble approach to the notion of cost per beneficiary, which remains difficult to make relevant as an indicator for a given project and must be analyzed in a much more global way.

The “crisis modifier”, an excellent modality that should not replace a strong commitment by DG ECHO to the financing of “RRM” mechanisms

More and more ECHO HIPs (Humanitarian Response Plans or programs) contain a mention of the “crisis modifier” modality. This modality allows DG ECHO’s partners to include in their activity proposals estimated amounts that can be released under certain conditions to respond to rapid onset humanitarian needs. This allows humanitarian actors to implement a rapid and adapted response that goes beyond the “normal” framework of the project initially submitted and implemented. The existence of the “crisis modifier” provides a flexibility often required in humanitarian crises where rapid contextual changes can often occur and change the dynamics of needs (conflict, population displacement, floods, droughts…).

Notwithstanding the real virtue and necessity of such a modality, it should not, in my opinion, be perceived as a replacement for RRM (Rapid Response Mechanisms). The RRM is a mechanism that was created in 2004 as a result of a collaboration between SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL and UNICEF in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. RRM is an integrated, multi-sectoral, multi-actor approach, adapted to the vast majority of humanitarian crises and which includes a common methodology for pre-positioning, needs analysis, and a coordinated system of activities, referral and monitoring and evaluation of the response. Since its inception in 2004, the RRM has been used in almost all humanitarian crises (South Sudan, Darfur, Afghanistan, Yemen, CAR, Nigeria, Mali…) and SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL is working with other NGOs to deploy this mechanism in every context where it is appropriate.

Goundam, ©Solidarités International

The systemic and multi-actor nature of RRM is necessary to ensure a quality response in contexts of recurrent localized and intense crises. This systemic approach remains de facto absent from the “crisis modifier” modality and its use should not be at the expense of a general strengthening of RRM mechanisms and a continuation of DG ECHO’s strong commitment to their funding.

The ERC (Enhanced Response Capacity), a superb mechanism that disappoints with weak means

The ERC is a “separate” funding mechanism from the traditional HIPs with a mandate to strengthen the institutional or organizational capacity of the humanitarian community to better respond to the needs of crisis-affected populations. This mechanism is a gem of opportunity because it is able to address structural issues that can have a very significant leverage effect on the overall humanitarian response. Solidarités International has recently taken advantage of this mechanism to continue its collective work, within the Humanitarian Logistics Network, to strengthen the pooling of efforts in terms of logistics. Unfortunately, the resources made available to this mechanism are not commensurate with the needs for systemic strengthening of the humanitarian response. In 2020, about 5 million euros were allocated to this mechanism, which may represent a good effort for many. But when you consider the need for innovation, adaptation, transformation, reinforcement… of humanitarian actors in the face of the diversification of contexts and problems of the response, this amount is unfortunately very small. Given the major and ongoing challenges of structuring the sector, a significant strengthening of the ERC is desirable so that DG ECHO can better leave its positive mark on the humanitarian environment as a whole.

Capacity building, a highly questionable “ineligibility”

The fact that capacity building activities are not covered, particularly for the national staff of international NGOs financed by DG ECHO, is an unfortunate element which limits the capacity of these NGOs to invest in developing the skills of their employees. National employees who make up around 90% of the payroll of NGOs (particularly French ones) and who therefore bear the burden of the quality of the response on their shoulders.

Admittedly, DG ECHO is not a development actor, but a long-term vision would easily allow for a very interesting return on investment in terms of the quality of the response, including aspects of efficiency and cost reduction. In reality, development donors are rarely interested in funding humanitarian training and thus, only organizations with their own financial capacity from donations can invest substantially in training their staff. Since most international NGOs do not have sufficient capacity of their own, capacity building activities often fall by the wayside in the face of other needs.

The impact that such training can have on the response is obvious and I remain convinced that DG ECHO should review its copy in this area and have a proactive policy of supporting its partners in terms of staff training and capacity building actions in general.

Towards a greater bureaucratization of European humanitarian action?

I have always felt that there is a permanent tension within DG ECHO between the “European civil servant” and the “borderless humanitarian”. A clear desire for simplification and non-bureaucratization that is constantly coming up against an administrative framework that is, to say the least, suffocating… I have worked on several Common Partnership Frameworks (CPFs) and we are beginning to discover the new framework (Humanitarian Partnership Certificate) that took effect on January 1st 2021. Unfortunately, for the moment, the trend is not really towards simplification: HR costs to be followed in daily rates, VAT reporting, additional detailed financial reports, a new budget format, 70-page contracts, a DG ECHO that is “falling in line” with formats, frameworks, tools… European bureaucracy that we have managed to partially avoid until now.

With the new system, we have the impression that DG ECHO has lost the battle of simplification in the face of pressure from the other directorates of the Commission. We do not have enough hindsight yet, I admit, but the simplification commitments of the “Grand Bargain” are far from us. Thus, DG ECHO is moving even further away from the “8+3” harmonized reporting model with this new system, for example.  New rules, new requirements, a framework that is still not harmonized between donors… Humanitarian aid is burying efficiency under the weight of donor accountability frameworks and DG ECHO, from which we had high hopes, is not freeing itself from this dangerous trend, quite the contrary.

Talking about DG ECHO is an arduous undertaking; this donor is so central to the global humanitarian response that one could write books on the subject. The message I wanted to convey through this article is that DG ECHO’s role in the humanitarian response is a major issue for the entire sector.

A DG ECHO that keeps its principles, fights for its values (sometimes at the cost of power struggles with other entities of the European institutions), continues to develop in quantity and quality is a necessity for the global humanitarian response. DG ECHO, a European institutional entity, must keep its “non-governmental” roots, its spirit of “borderlessness”, its intransigence on principles and a permanent search for administrative simplification which must preserve humanitarian action from the bureaucracy that sclerotizes it.

Hassan El Sayed

Who is Hassan El Sayed?

An engineer from the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées and a graduate of the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences-Po), Hassan El Sayed joined SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL as soon as he finished his studies in 2004.

Over the course of eight years, he multiplied his missions and positions within the SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL family, between the field (Congo, Sudan, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Syria, Afghanistan, Mauritania, Indonesia…) and headquarters, and only left the association to return to his native Lebanon.
“It is with SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL that I was born to my humanitarianism and that I was able to put words and actions on a desire and principles that had been lulling me since adolescence.

After a field experience with Première Urgence Internationale, he joined the Headquarters of his second NGO of heart and navigated between several positions (Geographic Manager, Emergency Manager, MEAL Referent, Director of Operations…) until 2018 when he spent a year at Bioforce as Director of Operations before “coming back home” and rejoining SOLIDARITÉS INTERNATIONAL in August 2019 and taking the position of Director of Transparency and Institutional Development in August 2020.