The European Union as a whole is the world's biggest donors of humanitarian aid. Together, Member States and European Institutions contribute more than half of official global humanitarian aid.
The Commission's European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO) was created in 1992 [Regulation (CE) n° 1257/96] as an expression of the European solidarity with people in need all around the world. In its 20 year existence it has provided €14 billion of humanitarian assistance to victims of conflict and disasters in 140 countries around the globe. Over the last five years ECHO's annual budget has averaged €1 billion. In 2011 alone these funds reached nearly 150 million of the world's most vulnerable people in over 80 countries.
In 2004 ECHO became the Directorate-General for Humanitarian Aid before integrating Civil Protection in 2010 for a better coordination and disaster response inside and outside Europe. In 2010, Kristalina Georgieva was appointed as the first dedicated Commissioner for international cooperation, humanitarian aid and crisis response.
The EU's humanitarian assistance is based on the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. Every decision ECHO takes must be in accordance with these four principles which are at the heart of the European Consensus on Humanitarian Aid. As such, ECHO's humanitarian aid is distributed without regard for any political agendas, and without exception seeks to help those in the greatest need, irrespective of their nationality, religion, gender, ethnic origin or political affiliation.
When disaster strikes, help needs to arrive fast to meet victims' basic needs and to preserve their dignity. Helping the world's most vulnerable populations in crisis situations is a moral imperative for the international community and can make the difference between life and death.
Since its creation 20 years ago, ECHO has helped millions of crisis victims in more than 140 countries hit by natural disasters and man-made crises. It has provided emergency assistance and relief to the most vulnerable people in the most dangerous conflicts and disaster-prone regions.
Today ECHO has more than 300 people working in its headquarters inBrussels and more than 400 in 44 field offices located in 38 countries around the world. Immediately following a disaster they go to the crisis to carry out needs assessments, following this they monitor the implementation of the EU-funded humanitarian projects. This needs-based approach is a key characteristic of ECHO aid and how it is distributed.
In order to implement humanitarian operations, ECHO cooperates with over 200 partners (14 United Nations agencies, 191 non-governmental organisations and 3 international organisations: the International Committee of the Red Cross/Red Crescent, the International Federation of the Red Cross/Red Crescent and the International Organisation for Migration). In partnership with these humanitarian organisations ECHO has a very fast response capacity allowing funding and staff to be rapidly deployed to where help is most needed.
The consequences of disasters are devastating and varied: lives are lost, housing, crops and livelihoods destroyed. Humanitarian aid is provided in a variety of forms depending on the nature of the crisis. It can range from food, clothes, healthcare, shelter, water and sanitation to emergency repairs to infrastructure, demining actions, psychological support and education. Another type of crisis is the one forgotten by the world's media and most of its donors, and thus receives very little aid. ECHO conducts an annual 'forgotten crisis assessment' to identify such crises, ensure they get funding and attempt to raise their profile within the humanitarian community.
All of these ECHO funded projects share one common aim: to alleviate the suffering of the affected populations.
Unfortunately the need for humanitarian aid is not decreasing with time. The frequency and intensity of disasters continues to rise unabated: in 1975 there were 78 recorded disasters in the world, last year there were 385. In recent years we have witnessed a catalogue of disasters such as the tsunami in Japan, the earthquake in Haiti, flooding in South East Asia, Central America and Australia, and famine in the Horn of Africa. ECHO's response to this trend in the increasing number, frequency and intensity of natural disasters, especially those related to the effects of climate change, has been to incorporate disaster risk reduction (DRR) into its strategic planning. ECHO funding for DRR projects has increased significantly in the last decade, its current DRR policy prioritises support for activities that are 'people orientated': enabling local communities and institutions to increase their resilience to disaster by reducing their vulnerability to hazards.
In 2011 ECHO distributed humanitarian aid worth €1,1 billion. While this figure represents less than 1% of the European Union's total budget, it provided assistance to 117 million of the world's most vulnerable people in over 91 countries outside the European Union.
The EU Civil Protection Mechanism is made up of 32 states (28 EU Member States, plus former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway) which co-operate in the field of civil protection to better protect people, their environment, property and cultural heritage in the event of major natural or man-made disasters occurring both inside and outside the EU. The assistance can take the form of in-kind assistance, equipment and teams, or involve sending experts to carry out assessments. It relies on government resources and, if assistance is required in third countries, usually works in parallel with or hands over to humanitarian aid.
Cooperation during disasters that overwhelm national capacities is a strong expression of European solidarity. There is clear added-value in working together, pooling resources and maximising the collective European effort on site.
The key instrument for European civil protection is the Civil Protection Mechanism (CPM) which was established in 2001.
The operational heart of CPM is the European Commission's Monitoring and Information Centre (MIC) accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is currently being transformed into the European Emergency Response Centre (ERC). Any country inside or outside EU affected by a disaster and overwhelmed by its magnitude can make an appeal for assistance through the MIC/ERC.
Natural and man-made disasters know no borders. International co-operation in civil protection is on the increase as various countries and organisations come to each other's aid during an emergency. The European Civil Protection Mechanism has responded to many emergencies outside the EU. The European Union has a number of agreements with third countries, regional initiatives and international organisations to facilitate the provision of civil protection assistance and to undertake joint preparedness measures.
The European civil protection covers three phases of the disaster management cycle: Prevention, Preparedness & Response.
Investing in risk prevention and preparedness before a disaster takes place pays significant dividends compared to paying for relief, recovery and reconstruction afterwards. The European Commission supports and complements prevention efforts of Participating States in the CPM, focusing on areas where a common European approach is more effective than separate national approaches. Disaster prevention is possible by various ways such as creating an inventory of information on disasters, sharing of best practices, reinforcing early warning tools etc.
Preparatory measures are undertaken at EU level to allow rapid mobilisation of assistance intervention teams in case of emergency, as well to ensure effective response capability and complementarily of assets. The EU also supports cooperation projects helping to prepare communities and the general population. For this purpose it organises training programmes, exercises during simulated emergencies, exchange of expert's programmes, cooperation projects, and modules provided on voluntary basis by Participating States depending on the type and needs of the particular emergency.
The CPM interventions cover all types of major emergencies, including natural and man-made disasters, acts of terrorism and technological, radiological and environmental accidents, including accidental marine pollution. Assistance may include search and rescue teams, medical teams, shelter, water purification units and other relief items requested.
Both, humanitarian aid and civil protection aim to strengthen the disaster response capacity of the European Union taking into account the important role of disaster risk reduction and disaster preparedness.
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