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A Q&A with the world’s biggest aid donor

‘This is not the time to cut the aid budgets, this is a time to increase them.’

Janez Lenarčič sits wearing a suit in a leather chair. Felix Zahn/photothek
Janez Lenarčič, who runs emergency response for the European Commission's humanitarian aid arm, ECHO, spoke with TNH after launching an ambitious new strategy.

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At a time of skyrocketing humanitarian needs, while other governments are slashing aid budgets, the European Union has just increased its by 60 percent, making it the biggest humanitarian donor in the world.

As the EU announced its ambitious new aid strategy, The New Humanitarian spoke with Janez Lenarčič, who runs emergency response for the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office, or ECHO, to explore the thinking behind the move and find out how the bloc intends to address today’s growing challenges.

Compared to last year, 40 percent more people are in need of assistance, mainly due to the impacts of the pandemic, but the humanitarian donor base remains narrow. Last year, the EU reports, the top 10 donors globally accounted for 83 percent of total humanitarian funding. 

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“This is not the time to cut the aid budgets, this is a time to increase them,” Lenarčič, the EU’s commissioner for crisis management, told TNH. 

Among other things, the new EU strategy – announced on Wednesday in Brussels – looks to re-assert humanitarian principles, noting that the erosion of international humanitarian law has made it harder to deliver aid. It also proposes expanding the resource base and addressing root causes of need, including climate change. “If we do not step up our action in this decade, the impact may be overwhelming,” the commissioner warned. And on migration, Lenarčič was clear: Those entitled to international protection should be allowed to stay.

In this wide-ranging discussion, TNH asks Lenarčič about the new strategy, but also about vaccine nationalism, Europe’s much-criticised migration policies, the decolonisation of aid, and what keeps him up at night.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

TNH: The title of the EU’s new set of priorities is, “New challenges, same principles”. How has the humanitarian landscape changed in your view since the last EU strategy in 2015? Tell me about the new challenges the policy sets out to address.  

Lenarčič: The humanitarian situation has worsened, dramatically. There has been a steady increase in the needs, primarily due to the proliferation of conflicts. Last year, primarily due to the pandemic but also other factors like climate change and environmental degradation, we have recorded a serious spike in humanitarian needs. And this policy provides an outlook on how the EU intends to address this unprecedented situation. 

We want to stress that the fundamental principles governing humanitarian action remain as relevant as ever. And we are determined to reaffirm them and give the European Union some more teeth to strengthen respect for international humanitarian law and enable humanitarian action. 

The humanitarian world is becoming much more difficult and dangerous. We have witnessed the steady erosion of compliance with international humanitarian law, and that affects the ability of our humanitarian partners to provide aid. 

Lenarčič: If ever, this is certainly not the time to cut the aid budget; this is the time to increase it. We have increased the European Union’s humanitarian aid budget because we want to show leadership. Leadership is based on deeds more than words, and we want to show by example. 

We already are, together with European Union member states, the number one humanitarian donor in the world. That is in spite of the fact that the United Kingdom left us. And that was a big loss for European Union because the United Kingdom has been traditionally one of the most generous humanitarian donors. 

It is with great regret that I noted the decision by the British authorities to reduce the aid budget. And I hope that this decision can still be reversed. As I said, this is not the time to cut the aid budgets, this is a time to increase them. 

TNH: With more people in need than ever before, and the persistent funding gap, the current funding model looks increasingly unsustainable. As the head of one of the world’s biggest donors, how are you thinking of doing things differently?

Lenarčič: There are several ways we try to address the funding gap. One of them is to use the funds that we have in a more effective, more efficient way. We must ensure that the greatest possible share of mutual aid gets through to people in need, so we are trying to reduce the overhead costs. 

We want to increase the scope of the cash-based assistance because it's very effective, it's very efficient, and it also enhances the dignity of the recipients.

We want to extend the donor base. Currently, only a handful of countries provide an overwhelming proportion of humanitarian aid. If you look globally, it's basically the United States of America, Germany, and the European Commission who provide about 60 percent [of the total]. We want others to chip in. There are donors that could do much more. 

It is with great regret that I noted the decision by the British authorities to reduce the aid budget. And I hope that this decision can still be reversed.

We will first start within the European Union, because in the European Union itself we also have an imbalance – there is also a fraction of members that provide the bulk of humanitarian aid.

Along with the European Commission, four other member states provide 90 percent of European humanitarian aid. I think we should distribute this more evenly. 

Another way is to try to reduce the humanitarian needs. Humanitarian aid alone is not going to provide solutions. Humanitarian aid is an emergency relief. It doesn't solve the crisis, it just alleviates the suffering of the people. 

So we need to look into the root causes of the individual humanitarian crisis, and we need to find long-term solutions. For that, we would like to work more closely with development and peace and security actors. Even if the causes are economic or social, we need to address those, rather than continuing to provide material aid for years and years. 

TNH: Despite years of humanitarian assistance in Syria and Yemen, the situation remains largely unchanged. How are you concretely working with development and peacebuilding partners so that we can make headway in addressing root causes and responding to long-term needs? 

Lenarčič: A while ago, we launched six pilot projects for the [humanitarian-development-peace] nexus. There are some positive results, and we need to expand. We will be preparing our Sahel strategy, and this will be an opportunity to push for stronger involvement of development partners. If you take the Sahel, the root causes were not addressed sufficiently. For eight years, the European and international humanitarian community have been involved intensively in the region, but the results are not there. So we need to adjust our approach in a way that pays attention to the root causes to prevent further deterioration, and hopefully move the region in a more positive direction. 

TNH: Access to the COVID-19 vaccine remains primarily with wealthy countries. At the same time, COVAX – the global initiative to ensure rapid and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines – remains underfunded. What is the European Commission doing to ensure greater vaccine equity and to avoid what the WHO director has called a “catastrophic global moral failure”?

Lenarčič: When the European Union started its negotiations with vaccine manufacturers, at the same time it launched one of the biggest contributions to the COVAX facility. So, from the beginning, the European Union has not forgotten the needs of others.

I should add that the development of vaccines has been supported to a large degree by European funds. So all those vaccines that are now out there, with few exceptions, have been developed with substantial financial support from the European Union. 

Europe is the last one to be accused of vaccine nationalism.

Also, most of the vaccines currently in circulation, including through the COVAX facility, are made in Europe. 

Europe is the last one to be accused of vaccine nationalism.

TNH: Climate change is said to be the biggest threat to face the world, on levels never seen before. The EU’s new strategy emphasises climate change adaptation and environmental considerations, areas that humanitarians have historically overlooked. Do you think the humanitarian system is equipped to respond to the climate crisis? 

Lenarčič: Humanitarian actors are already dealing with the impact of climate. I'm confident that we will be able to overcome the pandemic. But the impact of climate change will stay with us for years. I'm afraid that if we do not step up our action in this decade, the impact may be overwhelming. 

The IFRC World Disasters Report says that none of the 20 most vulnerable countries are among the 20 biggest per capita recipients of climate adaptation funding. So, not only are we not devoting enough funds, the funds being allocated for climate change adaptation are not going to the right places. That’s why we addressed climate change and its humanitarian impact in our strategy.

TNH: The EU Commission has provided millions of euros in humanitarian assistance for refugees on the Greek islands – including five million euros in the aftermath of the Moria fire last September. Yet there is a persistent humanitarian crisis on the islands, with overcrowded, unhygienic, and under-serviced camps, with many questioning where that funding has actually gone. What is the European Commission doing to ensure that camps being built on the islands with the Commission’s support live up to the pledge of “no more Morias”?

Lenarčič: I am responsible for the civil protection mechanism, and this was activated after the Moria fire. We were able to provide urgent relief in the sense of temporary shelter facilities for those people who, overnight, were left without a roof over their head. 

But that's only emergency assistance. The situation of migrants and refugees on the Greek islands requires a more comprehensive approach.

Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of the Greek authorities. But of course, in the spirit of European solidarity, the Commission has considerable resources to help address this issue. The situation continues to be unsatisfactory, to say the least. I think that it's another symptom of the fact that the European Union does need to put in place a comprehensive migration policy which will be based on solidarity and the protection of migrants and refugees.  

The situation of migrants and refugees on the Greek islands requires a more comprehensive approach.

The so-called migration pact represents the best possible compromise of very divergent views among EU member states on this issue, and I hope it will be adopted before long. 

TNH: Rights groups have criticised EU countries, saying they have turned their backs on asylum seekers and migrants. Is this inconsistent with the humanitarian principles that your new strategy says its striving for? 

Lenarčič: Within the European Union, we do not have a humanitarian mandate, but we do try to address the humanitarian aspect of migration.

Of course, we need cooperation by member states, because they are ultimately the ones who decide on who will be admitted to the [European] Union's territory and who will not.

I would like to emphasise that I am firmly convinced that the European Union should remain open for all those who are in need of international protection, while, obviously, those who are not entitled to international protection cannot stay in Europe. That’s how it is. I think that the latest proposal by the Commission tries to solve these difficulties in the best possible way. I continue to hope that the member states will be able to agree. 

TNH: Reforms like the Grand Bargain have attempted to get more funding to local NGOs, but many donors, like ECHO, face legal barriers to directly funding local groups, and funding for them today stands at two percent of overall humanitarian funding. How  is ECHO overcoming those legal barriers to get more money into the hands of local organisations?

Lenarčič: You are correct that the European Union's humanitarian aid can only be provided to humanitarian partners based in the European Union, in addition to United Nations agencies. However, this does not provide a barrier to localisation. We take seriously our commitments under the Grand Bargain, and there are ways to support local responders that we use. 

First, a large number of our humanitarian partners – especially the NGOs, international NGOs – do have local branches, so there is no issue with localisation. Second, where that is not the case, we can use country-based pooled funds, usually managed by the United Nations. 

What is actually the biggest barrier to localisation is the capacity of local actors. Most often, the local organisations lack the capacity to fulfill all the criteria with regard to accountability, transparency, sound financial management – criteria that we are bound by because of our budget authorities, and because of the European Court of Auditors, which will require careful and responsible management of resources, which is only natural because this is European taxpayers’ money. 

We take our Grand Bargain commitments seriously. On the other hand, we insist that this is a two-way street. If, on one hand, we are committed – and we are, genuinely, to greater localisation through more flexible funding – to multi-annual programming and so on, in return, we expect increased accountability, increased transparency, and better visibility for the donor.

We owe it to European Union taxpayers that the world knows what their funds are being used for. 

TNH: The resurgent Black Lives Matter movement has spawned calls to decolonise aid. Listeners to the Rethinking Humanitarianism podcast have sent in feedback saying they believe donors have perpetuated a colonial approach, by prioritising organisations that act in a colonial manner. What are the conversations that you are having at HQ to ensure that these colonial patterns are discontinued?

Lenarčič: First of all, for the European Union, humanitarian aid is principled aid. We provide a tool where it is needed. And, in doing so, we disregard all political, economic, security, or neocolonial considerations. All of that is ignored. The only criteria for our European humanitarian aid is the needs. If there is a need, we try to supply the aid. 

We do so through our trusted partners, the United Nations agencies. The UN is a symbol of decolonisation. It's not easy to become a partner of European Union in humanitarian aid. Those who would like to... need to fulfill the criteria. We have a rigorous process of vetting the partners, so that we make sure that they are committed, in practice, to the humanitarian principles. So, you cannot imagine being further from colonial mentality than in what we do as the European Union in humanitarian aid. 

TNH: We’ve discussed climate change, migration, the fundscape landscape. Of everything that comes across your desk, what keeps you up at night? 

Lenarčič: I was asked at the beginning of my mandate, what I would like to see at the end of it. My response is that I would like to see less humanitarian needs, less humanitarian crisis, less work for my successor. And sadly, the trends so far are going in the opposite direction. There is still time, so my hope is not lost that in the remaining part of my mandate we will be able to see a reversal of the current trends there.

TNH: And where do you see positive developments in emergency response? What gives you hope?

What gives me hope is the enormous support of European citizens for what we do. More than 90 percent of the citizens of the European Union support humanitarian action, believe that it is important, and believe that it is a demonstration of EU solidarity. 


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