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Improving Humanitarian Assistance: A Transatlantic Agenda for Action
Andrea Binder, Kai Koddenbrock and Julia Steets

Recent political changes in the U.S. and the EU possibly open a window of opportunity for enhanced humanitarian cooperation. While this offers the chance to overcome old policy faultlines and increase mutual learning, such a bridge over the Atlantic must avoid exacerbating the “Western bias” in the current humanitarian system. Following some reflections on the framework in which enhanced humanitarian cooperation could take place, this article discusses possible avenues for working together on implementing lessons learned and LRRD.

 Emergency response and preparedness: A common global challenge

The number of emergencies the global humanitarian system has to deal with has risen continuously since the end of World War II. It is poised to rise even further due to the effects of climate change. This, combined with population growth and urbanization, will mean that more and more people will be affected in the future. Over recent decades, emergency response activities have become more effective, resulting in a decline in disaster-related deaths and improved assistance for the victims of conflicts and complex emergencies. This is due to improved national emergency response systems, the professionalization of humanitarian agencies, and the great increase of resources available for humanitarian assistance, now estimated to be at least $12 billion per year [1].

At the same time, a severe identity crisis is undermining the ability of humanitarian actors to respond coherently and effectively to the challenges of the future. The current humanitarian system is built on the principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence. Yet, these principles have come under pressure as humanitarian actors face difficulties providing assistance effectively and on the basis of need. Several developments explain the challenge: the nature of conflicts has been changing, blurring the lines between combatants and civilians; humanitarian actors are increasingly pressed to address root causes, especially in protracted crisis situations; and integrated approaches are being developed that link humanitarian to development assistance and include military and private actors in response activities [2].

To deal with this identity crisis, humanitarian actors, including donors and implementing partners, have to make tough choices. There are three options. They could revert to a strict interpretation of humanitarian principles, accepting a narrow mandate that would not cover local capacity building, addressing root causes, or linking relief and development. Alternatively, they could widen their mandate to include these and other similar activities to respond to a wider set of needs, while acknowledging that this would further blur the distinction between humanitarian assistance and other policy areas and would probably exacerbate access and security problems. Or, they could continue to pursue the currently popular approach of “strategic muddling through” claiming strict adherence to humanitarian principles, while expanding activities and mandates in practice. In this case, however, humanitarian actors would have to accept that the contradictions inherent in this approach will lead to a loss of credibility, as well as to operational problems.

 A critical role for the EU and the U.S

To make the humanitarian system fit for the challenges it faces and ensure that it becomes more effective and efficient at saving lives and alleviating human suffering, humanitarian actors need to improve their policies and operations, enhance the coherence of the humanitarian system, and redefine the position and role of humanitarianism within the broader aid and policy spectrum.

The transatlantic donors play a critical role in achieving these goals. Together, the European Commission, EU member states, and the U.S. Government provide almost two thirds of global humanitarian assistance. Through their policies and funding decisions, they have an important influence on the performance of the humanitarian system. They shape norms and policies at the global level through their participation in multilateral organizations and multi-stakeholder initiatives, including the United Nations, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Good Humanitarian Donorship Initiative (GHDI), and the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP). Due to their extensive field presence, they also have a direct impact on operations.

[1] In 2008, $12 billion were reported to the financial tracking system of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), available at http://www.reliefweb.int/fts (last accessed June 2009). Other estimates are even higher, cf. for instance Development Initiatives, Global Humanitarian Assistance 2007/2008 (Somerset: 2008).

[2] “Humanitarian space” is a concept to denote the neutrality and independence of humanitarian actors from military and political forces that allows them to provide lifesaving aid to those in need on both sides of a conflict.