What happened at the European Humanitarian Forum?

Thick on talking points and thin on new ideas, the event was an expression of aid sector anxieties about the future.

This is an image showing a panel of six people on stage. There is a podium and a large banner behind them that reads: European Humanitarian Forum 2024 Serena Vittorini and Geert Vanden Wijngaert/European Humanitarian Forum 2024
Namukabo Werungah (second from the left), a journalist with the New Humanitarian, joins a panel at the 2024 European Humanitarian Forum.

A gloomy third iteration of the European Humanitarian Forum took place in an overcrowded theatre in Brussels last week. The event, co-hosted by Belgium and the European Commission, opened with a tide of woe about the ever-expanding number of global crises and the challenges facing the humanitarian sector from various senior officials, setting the tone for the two-day event on 18 and 19 March.  

Standard humanitarian policy talking points were in abundance while solid ideas for solutions and discussions about related aspects of international policy – such climate and multilateral reform – were, as usual, scant. 

Martin Griffiths, head of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), captured the mood in one of his last public appearances before his surprise resignation on 25 March. He decried “an age of war in which reaching for the gun is increasingly the first option”. 

Humanitarians are “trying to change a business model” when the world is experiencing the worst conflicts and crises he has seen in his lifetime, and the aid sector “desperately” requires political support to try to keep pace, Griffiths added.

The few senior European officials present tried to show that support. But European leaders are increasingly focused on the June elections, where politicians hostile to aid are expected to make gains. 

In one noteworthy moment, the bloc’s foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, turned up the heat on Israel, saying – a day before the official warning came out – that the country was “provoking famine” in Gaza, and that starvation was being "used as a weapon of war". 

There were other small surprises at the forum as well. World Food Program (WFP) leader Cindy McCain said the organisation’s previously siloed internal bureaucracy was “gone” and had been replaced by a more integrated approach during a recent restructuring at the world’s largest, but cash strapped, humanitarian agency. 

Another break from the norm came when the director of Spain’s aid agency, Antón Leis García, called for more discussion around using taxation to fill humanitarian budget gaps.

Much of the discussion at the event, however, involved humanitarians talking to other humanitarians and reiterating well-worn calls for respecting international law, better coordination, localisation, and more flexible funding. But scant new funding money was announced, with government speakers simply highlighting the portions of their aid budgets already earmarked for humanitarian spending. 

Here’s an update from the forum on six trends shaping aid policy that we highlighted at the beginning of the year: 

Money: Learning to do less with less

Addressing the global humanitarian funding gap was one of the key themes of the forum. 

In some cases, funding shortages are the result of political choices, like the decision of several major donors to freeze funding to the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA. The freeze came following largely unsubstantiated Israeli allegations that a small number of agency staff in Gaza had participated in the 7 October attack on Israel by Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups. Several donors that initially paused their funding – including the European Union, Sweden, Canada, and Australia – have since reversed their decision. 

The wellbeing of Palestinian refugees in the five countries and territories where UNRWA operates – and especially in Gaza – will be the biggest casualty of the funding freeze, according to Natalie Boucly, deputy commissioner-general for programmes and partnerships at UNRWA. UNRWA’s procurement, staff morale, and planning were all harmed, she said, adding: “The impact of the [funding] pauses will be felt across the region.”

WFP’s McCain spoke about the “heartbreaking decisions” that have kept her “awake at night” as a result of the agency’s budget cuts, caused by rising needs and procurement costs and tighter aid budgets. She said the funding shortfall has seen food aid cut to 10 million people in Afghanistan, four million in Syria, and three million in Somalia. 

But McCain appears to have made little headway on finding solutions matching the scale of the challenge. The plans she outlined to reduce the funding gap were standard aid industry talking points: becoming more efficient and less siloed, tapping private sector money and philanthropy, and harnessing tech and innovation. 

García, from the Spanish Agency for International Development (AECID), was one of the few to offer something outside of the usual buzzwords. He argued that “we need to open a debate on more public funding” to fill humanitarian finance gaps. Spain, which recently passed legislation to increase its aid budget, will be hosting the fourth International Conference on Financing for Development in 2025.

The global debt crisis – the preoccupation of many Global South finance ministries – didn’t receive much attention. However, Harpinder Collacott, executive director of Mercy Corps Europe, highlighted the need for a platform to engage on the issue with China. The country is the “world’s largest official debt collector”, according to researchers, and is owed between $1.1 and $1.5 trillion by lower income countries – leaving less for governments to spend on their humanitarian responses. 

Politics: The rise of the right 

Ahead of European elections this summer, there were worries at the conference about the prospective rise of right-wing populist parties that are ideologically more opposed to international cooperation and sending money abroad. This is already being felt in some sectors: peacebuilding and conflict resolution is reeling from the effects of reduced Swedish funding, instigated by a right-wing coalition government last year.

“In a few months we will have European elections, and, usually, extreme right parties, the first budget they like to cut is the one to help others abroad,” said Xavier Bettel, Luxembourg’s minister for foreign affairs and foreign trade and a former prime minister. “We saw it in Sweden; we saw it in different countries.” 

Others also highlighted Europe’s self-interest in aid spending. “[We] have a direct political interest in being more generous towards [those] who are less fortunate than ourselves. Let us not forget that the 2015 migration crisis was partly caused by the shortage of funds for feeding refugees,” said Radosław Sikorski, Poland’s minister of foreign affairs.

Sikorski said Poland spent 16 billion euros for relief to Ukraine in 2022 and 2023, making it a “major humanitarian donor” in the response. Poland’s humanitarian budget for 2024 is 10 billion euros, Sikorski added.

Gangs: A challenge for aid groups 

Another increasingly pressing crisis trend attracting more humanitarian attention is spiralling crime, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean

Despite the severity of violence in countries like Haiti and Honduras – which speakers likened to armed conflict – humanitarians are generally not used to working in the particularly unstable environments where organised criminal groups run the show. Likewise, criminals are also not used to interacting with humanitarians and are not familiar with the role that aid agencies play. 

Humanitarian responses are not adapted for these situations, said Marcia Vargas, operations manager at the Center of Competence on Humanitarian Negotiations. 

A key challenge is that international humanitarian law does not apply to aid workers in these environments, like it does elsewhere. As a result, humanitarians are not protected in their work by local laws. “We need to talk to the [criminal] group but cannot. It’s illegal… So how do we connect with them?” Vargas said. 

This is particularly necessary in areas where the state is not present, such as the Amazon, and where criminal governance is the predominant form of order, according to Bram Ebus, a consultant for the International Crisis Group. 

“Colombia is restricting negotiations between NGOs and armed groups. But if the state is not present in a territory, NGOs should at least be able to talk with these criminal actors and non-state armed groups to be able to broker access to these areas,” he said, citing one example. 

Ebus called for a “rulebook” to define the “rules of the game and strategies” around how humanitarians can engage with criminal actors and non-state armed groups. This should be discussed at a regional and multilateral level, he added. “[But] the basis for discussion should be [affected] communities themselves,” he said.

Climate: Humanitarians push into resilience

The humanitarian push into climate resilience – taking on longer term projects more akin to traditional development-style work – was a strong theme of the COP28 summit. Remarks at the European Humanitarian Forum indicate that the trend is likely to continue, even at the cost of life saving emergency aid. 

WFP’s McCain staunchly defended the agency’s moves into resilience – even while it has cut food aid distribution. She talked about the change in terms of improving agency efficiency and “prioritising what’s working”. 

“Making sure people can feed themselves is part of the business of ending hunger; [giving people the tools] to feed their families is most important… It’s also about giving hope,” she said.  

Dominic Crowley, President of VOICE, a network of European NGOs, also said he was pushing for anticipatory action, a form of resilience, “to be high on political and funding agendas”. 

“[It was] so much harder to get funding for anticipatory action, even though research shows it's far more cost effective and appropriate,” he said. 

On the same panel, Gloria, a Ugandan youth climate advocate with Plan International, whose full name is being withheld to protect her identity, made a similar call. “We need to prepare [communities] to be ready before the crisis comes… We shouldn’t be waiting for a crisis to come,” she said. 

Missing: A focus on Global South leadership

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a European political event in Brussels, there was little attention paid to political movements originating elsewhere in the world – despite the initiatives like the Bridgetown Agenda having the potential to ease the squeeze on humanitarian budgets. 

Michael Koehler, ambassador and co-lead of the Grand Bargain, noted the current trend toward a more multipolar world economically and politically. “If the UN system wants a future, it needs to be part of that system,” he said. 

Alongside traditional donors, Koehler foresaw two new categories of states becoming increasingly active. The first was Gulf states, who he said were “very active, not disengaged but… not part of international coordination efforts”. As a result, the existing system doesn’t really know what they are doing, he added.  

The second group was middle income countries facing frequent natural disasters, such as Malaysia and Brazil. They are also not in established coordination mechanisms but should be made “part of the process”, Koehler said.  

Mistrust: The waning belief in multilateralism

Declining trust and belief in the multilateral system was a pervasive theme at the conference. 

Borrell, the EU foreign affairs chief, said he hoped the event would be a “clear message of European support” for the Summit of the Future, the UN Secretary-General’s event to reset the multilateral system, which will take place in September.

Europe’s role in the erosion of trust in the system was acknowledged by Belgium’s development cooperation minister Caroline Gennez. EU countries “have to do better” at consistently upholding their principles or face accusations of double standards, according to Gennez. “There should be nothing wrong with saying we need adherence to international humanitarian law,” she said. 

Meanwhile, OCHA isn’t expecting the current trend of spiralling crises and insufficient solutions to change much, according to the agency’s representative in Geneva, Ramesh Rajasingham. 

Rajasingham said a “tipping point” is approaching in how the humanitarian sector works. He predicted it will come from the communities affected by crises, because they “want more than relief; they want their dignity back”. 

“I don't think they will accept the way things will operate now… [Our role] is to listen to those voices,” he said. 

Edited by Eric Reidy

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