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Humanitarian aid & civil protection


When it comes to responding to a crisis – whether man-made conflict or natural disaster – the EU has one aim: to get help to those who need it as quickly as possible. With a longstanding commitment to helping the victims of such crises, it provides relief directly to people in distress, irrespective of their nationality, religion, gender or ethnic origin.

The EU is present in crisis zones around the world including Syria, Afghanistan, the occupied Palestinian territories, many parts of Africa, Central and South America and South-East Asia. It also runs relief operations in areas with long-running crises and post-conflict instability.

Pie-chart showing distribution of aid by sector. Food accounts for the largest portion

Distribution of humanitarian aid by sector (2011).

Enter ECHO

The EU's relief operations are handled by ECHO, the European Commission's humanitarian aid and civil protection department. ECHO’s wide-ranging activities reflect the proliferation of serious crises around the world and the EU’s willingness to take the lead in getting help to victims. In recent years, the average budget for humanitarian operations has been around €1 billion a year, which reaches more than 100 million people in need every year.

ECHO’s first duty is to help save lives, reduce suffering and protect the integrity and dignity of those affected. Emergency assistance can include tents, blankets, food, medicines, medical equipment, water purification systems and fuel. ECHO also funds medical teams, mine-clearance experts, and transport and logistical support. It has operated in more than 140 countries since 1992.

Man wearing EU vest talking to locals among rubble © European Union – EC/ECHO

After the 2011 Van earthquake in Turkey, an EU civil protection team helped deliver European assistance.

In addition to humanitarian assistance, ECHO helps with the coordination of civil protection across the EU. It operates the monitoring and information centre (MIC), due to become the European Emergency Response Centre (ERC) in the first half of 2013. The MIC/ERC is the operational heart of the EU's civil protection work and is accessible 24 hours a day. Any country inside or outside the EU affected by a major disaster can appeal for assistance through the MIC, which:

  • acts as a communication hub between the 31 participating countries (28 EU members plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway), the affected country and experts sent into the field
  • provides updates on ongoing emergencies
  • plays a coordination role by matching offers of assistance from participating countries to the needs of the disaster-stricken country.

Partner network

A Turkana woman in traditional clothes, with an EU aid worker wearing a Turkana headband and jewellery © European Union – EC/ECHO/Malini Morzaria

A Turkana woman dresses an Oxfam worker with her jewellery, bags and water/milk bottles, which the women sell locally.

ECHO does not itself have the humanitarian staff and equipment needed to deliver emergency relief supplies, provide rescue teams, set up emergency field hospitals and install temporary communications systems. Instead, it funds and coordinates these humanitarian operations, working through non-governmental organisations (NGOs), specialised UN agencies and the international Red Cross/Red Crescent, who do the work on the ground.

Helping hand

The EU's humanitarian assistance consists of:

  • resilience-building assistance, to help individuals, households, communities, regions and countries adapt and recover from shocks like drought, violence, conflict or natural disaster
  • emergency aid – funds to buy and deliver basic essentials like medicine, food and shelter, or to finance reconstruction work after a disaster
  • food assistance – funding to help provide drought and famine-hit regions with secure supplies until normal production can be restored, or by funding for emergency food supplies where man-made or unforeseen natural disasters cause shortages
  • aid for refugees – to tide them over until they can return home or settle in a new country
  • disaster risk reduction (DRR), which includes disaster preparedness and taking account of disaster risk reduction in all aspects of the humanitarian response.

Exit strategy and handover

Disaster relief and emergency assistance are almost by definition short-term. EU-funded operations generally last for less than 6 months. But the EU wants to ensure that, when humanitarian aid is withdrawn, the people it has helped can cope by themselves, or there is another form of longer-term development assistance available.

To reduce the risk of people being left with nothing, the EU asks its partners in the field to build in an exit strategy when they design a project. Either they should hand back control to a local authority or, failing that, ensure other aid structures can replace them after they leave.

EU Children of Peace: European Union, recipient of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize

The 2012 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the EU for its achievements relating to peace in Europe. In the spirit of solidarity with those less fortunate, the EU will use the prize money to help children who are denied the chance of growing up in peace. In fact, the EU will double the Nobel prize money to a joint sum of €2 million, which will go to four projects providing education for children affected by conflict. The selected projects will provide basic education in safe child-friendly spaces to 23,000 children in Iraq, Colombia, Ecuador, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Pakistan.

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Humanitarian aid

Published in February 2013

This publication is part of the 'European Union explained' series


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