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Why aren’t EU states delivering on their humanitarian aid pledges?

The EU is the world’s largest humanitarian donor, and it is facing a funding gap of almost half a billion euros.

A camp for internally displaced people in Syria. The EU may soon have to cut its humanitarian aid to Syria. Photo:Getty.

The EU is the world’s largest humanitarian aid donor, funding over 50 per cent of humanitarian aid projects. It is currently facing a worrying funding crunch, with the Guardian reporting it is facing a €480m shortfall. Unless member states respond quickly by releasing funds, this means the EU will have to make further cutbacks to its projects, may have to lay off staff and will be less able to respond to new emergencies. So what has gone wrong?

The EU humanitarian fund was already €130m in the red at the start of 2014, having overspent last year, and it is responding to an almost unprecedented number of high-level emergencies at the same time: the civil war in Syria, violence in the Central African Republic and South Sudan, and the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.

The other problem is that there is a gap between what EU member states have pledged in aid, and what they have actually delivered to date. Member states are reluctant to fund EU aid projects when they face public spending squeezes at home.  The resources director of the EU’s humanitarian aid directorate (DG Echo), Walter Schwarzenbrunner, told the Guardian he needs to receive another €400m, with €150m arriving before the summer to avoid “real crisis”. He has already made cuts to humanitarian relief to the drought-prone Sahel, and unless this money arrives by July, Schwarzenbrunner believes they will have to cut back on life-saving projects in priority areas, including Syria, CAR and South Sudan.

The global recession might have dampened support for humanitarian aid projects among Europeans who feel they want to see the money spent at home, but a recent survey found that 8 out of 10 EU citizens still believe humanitarian funding is important (although one in four would rather more of this funding was directed through individual member states rather than the EU). 

They are right, too. For a start there’s a strong moral imperative to support victims of natural disasters or war. But if you prefer to take a more pragmatic (or cynical) approach to international affairs there’s a strategic case to be made for humanitarian aid: it is a powerful source of “soft power”, a tool for diplomacy and a way of projecting values such as respect for human rights overseas. Humanitarian aid can promote stability and security, too. At a time when the EU’s foreign policy response to crises like Syria and Ukraine has exposed the bloc as weak, indecisive and short-sighted, decisive action on humanitarian funding is even more important.