EU disaster response: too little, too late?

We must not allow the development of the EU’s new External Action Service to succumb to short-termism, argues Erik Brattberg
Erik Brattberg
27 October 2010

In the aftermath of two major recent international emergencies – the January earthquake hitting Haiti and the recent flooding catastrophe in Pakistan – criticism of the EU’s reaction has been ferocious. Ranging from national leaders to Members of the European Parliament to NGOs, critics have lamented that the EU did ‘too little, too late’.

But is such criticism really fair? Can we expect the EU to carry out large-scale rapid response during complex emergencies occurring on the other side of the world? In fact, several reasons suggest we cannot.

First, consider that the EU is after all not the only player in the ballpark. In reality, the member states still play a leading role when it comes to disaster relief, controlling most of the resources and deployable personnel. The EU, in contrast, has very limited standing capacities on its own. For instance, under the current system, the Monitoring and Information Centre (MIC), which monitors disasters worldwide and coordinates participating states’ emergency assistance, has to rely on voluntary ad-hoc contributions (although a proposal has recently been put forth to change this). The reluctance of many member states to contribute with significant levels of personnel and resources to serve under EU-flag renders planning ahead for rapid response an extremely complicated task. And, thus, critics should make a clearer distinction in their criticisms: are they criticising member states’ response or the response of EU institutions?

Secondly, the changes and their effects brought about by the Lisbon Treaty are still unravelling. The Haiti earthquake occurred only two weeks after Cathy Ashton had assumed her position as the Union’s foreign policy chief. The new European External Action Service (EEAS) was still nascent eight months later during the Pakistan disaster. It will likely take years before the long-term effects of the Lisbon Treaty become visible.

We must also bear in mind that the EU’s shortcomings when it comes to disaster response are not unique. Other actors of the international donor community have received their fair share of criticism as well. For example, the United States has yet to pay out the $1.15 billion it pledged toward reconstruction in Haiti back in March. Furthermore, a report by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee reveals a lack of strategic thinking and significant coordination problems among the international donors assisting during the Haiti earthquake. No system is perfect when it comes to assisting countries during complex disasters.

In fact, setting our expectations too high might even be counter-productive, forcing EU leaders to become preoccupied with short-term solutions at the cost of risking loss of direction over long-term priorities. After all, the long-term vision of the EEAS was primarily about drawing together the Union’s vast economic and political instruments, development and humanitarian aid, plus civil and military crisis management capacities and providing policy vision.

Perhaps the most important reason not to overly criticize the EEAS, however, is that the real impact of disaster management is felt in the long term. Experts predict that the occurrence of natural disasters is likely to continue growing in both scope and scale over the years to come. Many weak and fragile states are particularly vulnerable to these types of disasters, lacking adequate emergency response capacities, infrastructure and health services. International assistance should therefore focus on building resilience in these countries by improving both preparation and focusing on long-term reconstruction and development.

International donors also have good reasons for focusing on the long term: since major emergencies are no longer isolated events, inadequate handling of severe natural or man-made emergencies in fragile states could easily spill over, also affecting societal security elsewhere in the world, including Europe, in the form of refugee flows, the spread of infectious diseases, rising regional instability, or environmental collapse. Nowhere are these kinds of “transboundary” threats as vivid as in Pakistan where fears now loom that the floods may have allowed Taliban insurgents and other militants to regroup amid widespread chaos and destruction. The floods have also had a dire impact on the economy, destroying both infrastructure and people’s livelihoods. In a country where poverty constitutes a strong breeding ground for extremism, this is worrying news – not least for Europe.

And yet, all of our attention is focused on the short term. Of course this is understandable and necessary, but we should not lose sight of the wider picture. Providing long-term assistance could be an EU forté. While the EEAS has taken over much of the Commission’s work in this area, six Directorate-Generals (DG) – External Relations (Relex), Development (Dev), Humanitarian Aid (ECHO), EuropeAid (Aidco), Trade, and Enlargement (ELARG) – retain external competences. As the world’s largest humanitarian donor, the EU has a range of tools and instruments for funding prevention, reconstruction and development assistance such as the Instrument for Stability (IfS), the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) and the Development Cooperation Instrument (DCI). Europe is also a leading trade partner of many developing countries.

The EU’s expertise in long-term assistance does not mean, however, that it should neglect helping out in the short term. But what it does mean is that the EEAS must not be allowed to become subject to political short-termism. Instead, it should focus on building a holistic approach to disaster assistance by better integrating its short and long-term instruments. This would include focusing on the integration of development and humanitarian aid on the one hand, and strengthening the relations between development and humanitarian aid and state building on the other. In this regard, the European Emergency Response Capacity, announced on 26 October 2010, could prove a useful mechanism for bringing together ECHO and MIC.

In sum, considering the nature of modern transboundary crises, focusing on the wider picture and devoting resources to long-term disaster management seems the right way forward.

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