EU leadership in an age of crises

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Jan Egeland, General Secretary at Norwegian Refugee Council

Jan Egeland, General Secretary at Norwegian Refugee Council

The world needs an outward-looking European Union that uses its unique suite of hard and soft power to make vital change around the world, argue Jan Egeland and David Miliband who call upon the Commissioner-designate for humanitarian affairs, Christos Stylianides, to give urgent attention to three key challenges.

Jan Egeland is the General Secretary at the Norwegian Refugee Council, and David Miliband is President and CEO of the International Rescue Committe.

The incoming President of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, likely agrees with President Obama’s recent summary of the state of the world: “If you turn on the nightly news you would think the world is falling apart”. From South Sudan to Gaza; war-torn Syria to Ebola-stricken West Africa, this has been a summer of suffering.

The new Commission will have to deal with more international crises than at any previous time in the history of the European Union. The next Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs will have to make difficult decisions on how to access, protect and assist unprecedented numbers of refugees and conflict victims from Syria, Iraq and Gaza to South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Somalia.

The European Union is the largest provider of foreign assistance in the world. Under the able leadership of the outgoing Commissioner, Kristalina Giorgieva, the EU has also taken important steps towards becoming one of the world´s most influential donor. Giorgieva has mobilized unprecedented funding for millions in desperate need in, and she has influenced leaders far beyond Europe to realize the magnitude of neglected crises like the one occurring in the Central African Republic.

The UN has declared the highest level of humanitarian emergency, level 3, in four countries simultaneously. For the first time, since the aftermath of World War II, the number of refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people worldwide exceeded 50 million people. Climate change will cause increased displacement through more severe natural disasters.

Emergency relief has in recent years become more effective and cost-efficient, even in the most extreme of circumstances. Mortality and disease have decreased and nutrition, sanitation and education have improved compared to most emergencies during the past two decades.

This progress is now threatened. This age of crises place unprecedented demands on the international aid system. We suggest that the Commissioner-designate for humanitarian affairs, Christos Stylianides, give urgent attention to the following three challenges.

First, we must get access to all in great need and protection for aid workers. In Syria, alone, as many as 4.7 million conflict victims are in areas that are difficult or impossible for humanitarian organizations  to reach, because parties to the conflict block us, it is too dangerous for our staff or we face ´administrative impediments´ imposed by local or regional authorities. It is a sad truth for us to report that the second UN resolution mandating cross border aid deliveries into Syria has not had the impacted necessary to meet the scale of needs.

Last year, 460 aid workers were killed, seriously wounded or kidnapped world-wide, which is more than twice as many as in 2012. We must get increased focus from the EU and the UN on how and why civilians and relief workers from Aleppo to Mogadishu continue to be attacked in violation of all international law agreed over the last two centuries.

Second, too many fleeing conflicts or natural disasters become trapped in protracted crises. Future humanitarian interventions need to be about economics as well as social services. We cannot continue returning again and again to the same places with emergency aid. Millions of Afghan refugees have been in exile for more than three decades in spite of enormous sums spent on security, development and humanitarian aid in Afghanistan. The response to the Ebola crisis should of course address immediate threats of infection but the crisis is another example of national health systems not strong enough to cope. So we must tackle the disease of protracted crisis and un-preparedness as well as its cyclical symptoms.

Finally, there is the need for reforms to the way we deliver aid – to strengthen the voices of beneficiaries, to build stronger partnerships with local communities, to make programs more sustainable, to develop a stronger evidence base of what works.  The spate of man-made and natural disasters enveloping innocent civilians has over-stretched resources. Staggering numbers of displaced people in urban areas residing in fragile, conflict-affected countries have strained the humanitarian sector’s ability to respond as quickly and effectively as we wish. That means working smarter not just working harder.

We are used to thinking about how political instability causes humanitarian tragedy. It still does. But in the modern interdependent world there is increasing evidence of humanitarian tragedy causing political instability.

So Europe’s new leaders have a chance and a responsibility to think strategically as well as tactically. The world needs an outward-looking European Union that uses its unique suite of hard and soft power to make vital change around the world.  There are more than enough resources to make sure the world does not fall apart.

This OpEd was first published on

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