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Humanitarian aid & civil protection


The European Union is committed to helping victims of man-made and natural disasters worldwide. It helps over 120 million people each year. Collectively, the EU and its constituent countries are the world's leading donor of humanitarian aid. Yet EU aid accounts for under 1% of the EU's total annual budget – just over €2 per EU citizen.

The Treaty of Lisbon provides the legal basis for aid. Its purpose is to help people in distress, whatever their nationality, religion, gender or ethnic origin. The EU is committed to a leading role in disaster relief.

Since 2010, the European Commission has established a more robust and effective European mechanism for disaster response. A single organisation now deals with both humanitarian aid and civil protection, which is more efficient.

The EU Civil Protection Mechanism operates together with EU funding for humanitarian aid to tackle the needs arising from a conflict or disaster. An example is the Ebola epidemic (2014 on). This mechanism has helped provide emergency supplies from EU countries, while the European Commission has disbursed over €400 million in humanitarian aid (data: February 2015).

Christos Stylianides, EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, has been responsible for ECHO since November 2014.

Humanitarian aid

The EU works in all major crisis areas, including Syria, South Sudan, Ukraine, Ebola-hit West Africa and the Central African Republic, and in countries facing post-conflict instability, such as the Ivory Coast. It helps save lives, reduce suffering and protect the security and dignity of those affected. The EU has been providing humanitarian aid since 1992 in over 140 countries.

The annual budget for humanitarian operations is now nearly €1 bn. Despite the limited budget, EU aid helps some 120 million people every year.

The EU helps raise awareness of 'forgotten crises' – often protracted crises which have escaped the attention of the media and the international community. Recently, it has helped focus attention on the humanitarian disaster in the Central African Republic.

How we work

The European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) handles EU-funded relief. Humanitarian aid is channelled through over 200 partner organisations and agencies on the ground, including:

  • non-governmental organisations (NGOs)
  • international organisations
  • Red Cross societies
  • UN agencies.

We provide emergency aid impartially, regardless of people's race, ethnic group, religion, gender, age, nationality or political affiliation.

The sectors that benefit most from EU humanitarian aid are: food & nutrition - 40%, shelter - 19%, healthcare & medical support - 14%

Sectors receiving most funding from EU humanitarian aid

EU Aid Volunteers

The EU Aid Volunteers initiative (2014 – 2020) will enable some 18,000 Europeans to volunteer in EU-funded projects worldwide. By the end of the programme:

  • around 4,000 will be trained and matched with humanitarian organisations for deployment in disaster-hit countries
  • 4,000 volunteers and NGO staff will benefit from training and capacity building
  • 10,000 online volunteers will support projects in their home countries.

Civil protection

Through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, the European Commission plays a key role in coordinating responses to crises in Europe and worldwide. The Emergency Response Coordination Centre monitors existing and potential crises round the clock.

It coordinates contacts between the country concerned, experts in the field and the countries participating in the EU Civil Protection Mechanism (EU countries, Iceland, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Norway).

Participants' offers of help are matched to needs.

Between 2010 and 2014, the EU has responded to over 80 emergencies worldwide:

In January 2014 new legislation on civil protection took effect. This provides a framework for closer cooperation on:

  • disaster prevention
  • risk assessment
  • preparedness & planning - including more regular joint training and exercises for European civil protection teams.

It also lays the basis for the voluntary pooling of experts and know-how from various EU countries.

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Humanitarian aid and civil protection

Manuscript updated in November 2014

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


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