Since the last European elections in 2019, the world has changed dramatically. The number of people in humanitarian need has more than doubled to nearly 300 million. Displacement has soared by almost 40% to 110 million. And the global population facing acute food insecurity has risen by 160% to almost 350 million. For many people across the globe, this is the worst of times. 

It is crystal clear that the approach and actions of the international community, including the EU, has not kept pace with this rapidly escalating level of humanitarian need. 

The communities that the IRC works with in 40+ countries across the world continually face the consequences of the dangerous disconnect, and we have learned many lessons from them on what needs to change. 

What has changed in the past 5 years?

The nature of conflicts is changing and becoming increasingly protracted, often spilling across borders and becoming internationalised. Civilians are routinely caught between states and armed groups, and wars are fought for longer - without regard for International Humanitarian Law (IHL) or respect for humanitarian access - vital to ensure aid can reach the people who need it most.

Climate change is a “threat multiplier”, amplifying the existing risks, cracks and inequalities in societies that already exist in fragile states or those affected by conflict. 

Economic turmoil is plunging people into extreme poverty, as states struggle to recover from the negative economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and fallout of the war in Ukraine. Global interest rates are driving up significant debts for countries affected by fragility and conflict, resulting in fewer resources for healthcare, education and climate resilience and perpetuating a vicious cycle.

Women and girls bear the brunt of these interlocking crises, disproportionately facing high barriers to accessing humanitarian support, legal assistance, work and education, therefore heightening their risk of sexual exploitation and other forms of gender-based violence.

Amidst this context, most EU member states are failing to meet their pledges for refugee resettlement and other safe pathways to protection. Recent practices by EU countries including hardening their borders will never be a workable solution towards safe, legal and orderly migration, but rather result in violations of the fundamental rights of people seeking safety, including pushbacks and denial of access to asylum. The need for a safe, orderly and humane European response to asylum and migration has never been greater. With smart strategies and investments, migration could be managed in a way that brings benefits for both new arrivals and host communities.

The EU has the means and the influence to tackle these global challenges, but will need to fundamentally rethink its way of working and take a fresh approach to reach those in need of humanitarian aid.

7 ways the EU can redefine its response to a world of uncertainty and compounding crises to truly raise the bar

In 2024, the stakes have never been higher - neither for people caught in crisis globally, nor for the European Union as it seeks solutions to these challenges.

1 - Focus on fragile and conflict-affected states and take a 'people first' approach

To stop spiralling crises, the EU must focus its attention and resources where the concentration of humanitarian needs is greatest: the small handful of countries representing fragile and conflict-affected states (FCAS).

However, the current funding gap in these countries is growing and current aid delivery models are not fit for purpose.

The EU should:

  • Commit half of all bilateral Official Development Aid (ODA) to fragile and conflict-affected states.
  • Encourage EU states to spend at least 0.7% of their Gross National Income on ODA.
  • Invest in delivery models that work in the places with the greatest concentration of needs.
  • Support civil society organisations through scaled up ‘people first’ partnership models which help meet the challenges encountered in fragile and conflict settings.
  • Drive ‘people first’ reform within the wider humanitarian system.

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2 - Harness humanitarian action for long-term development impact

Humanitarian crises across the globe are not just increasingly concentrated in a small number of states, they are also becoming more protracted. Evidence from the IRC’s work across 50 countries shows that in such contexts, humanitarian action can serve as a crucial stepping stone to development, enabling communities and households to build up their resilience, meet basic needs and thrive without reliance on future external assistance.

Collaboration between EU development and humanitarian action remains lacking. It is vital that EU funding is able to both respond to people’s immediate needs, and set them up for success in the longer-term. 

The EU’s funding structures should catch up to mirror this logic:

  • Establish a new jointly owned INTPA-ECHO-NEAR Resilience Fund to meet basic needs and drive resilience in fragile and conflict-affected states.
  • Improve and scale up ECHO’s Programmatic Partnership model with a flexible, multi-year approach that lays the foundations for longer-term development outcomes.
  • Meet the agreed 30% increase in multi-year funding to unlock more and better funding in the humanitarian system and hold UN partners accountable for delivering on their commitments.
  • Maintain DG INTPA, ECHO and NEAR as separate entities.

The EU must seize this opportunity to not only respond to people’s immediate needs, but to set them up to thrive in the longer-term. By transcending the traditional division between humanitarian and development finance, the EU can lead the way on harnessing the potential humanitarian action offers for long-term development impact, charting a course for communities and households to build their resilience and to eventually thrive without external assistance. 

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3 - Save lives impacted by the climate and food security crises by investing in solutions that work

For the EU to effectively tackle humanitarian crises, climate action and malnutrition must be at the top of its agenda and it must opt for proven solutions. This includes scaling up innovative climate adaptation and resilience solutions in fragile and conflict settings to reduce food insecurity. At the same time, it must invest in life-saving solutions that tackle acute malnutrition to address the immediate needs of the almost 350 million people across 79 countries facing severe food insecurity.

The EU should take decisive action to save lives on the frontlines in the following ways:

  • Set a target for adaptation financing to reach conflict affected and climate vulnerable countries and allocate direct funding to the most conflict and climate affected countries to reach those most in need.
  • Ensure that a minimum 5% oECHO’s budget is spent on anticipatory action including cash programmes to reduce the losses and damages of communities at the forefront of the climate crisis.
  • Champion the use of Simplified Protocols as the default treatment for acute malnutrition and commit to reaching all those who need it.

There is no excuse for inaction. In the medium term, the preventative actions set out above can help protect people in fragile and conflict settings from the most devastating impacts of the climate crisis. More immediately, a better EU response to food crises that scales up proven treatment solutions could avoid millions of preventable deaths.

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4 - Deploy innovative approaches to unlock new sources of finance

Humanitarian priorities are underfunded by nearly €37.5 billion each year, while a global increase in public debt is preventing low and middle income countries from investing to build longer-term resilience to crises

For the EU to effectively respond to the soaring scale of humanitarian aid, it must unlock new, innovative and much-needed sources of finance:

  • Strengthen its role in development finance and the roles of EU Member States as key shareholders in Multilateral Development Banks to reflect the urgent need for reform.
  • Concentrate concessional resources in low and middle income countries to free up funding to meet the needs of more fragile and conflict affected states.
  • Advance innovations in sovereign debt restructuring which have the potential to unlock funding currently allocated to financing debt payments of countries burdened by debt and climate change.
  • Increase commitments to the World Bank’s International Development Association (IDA) to secure additional funding in the form of grants and favourable loans to low income and least developed countries.

A number of innovative approaches to financing are readily available. The EU should leverage these with the aim of catalysing tangible change in crisis contexts and advancing the 2030 Agenda - before time runs out. 

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5 - Prioritise gender equality in crisis response and shift power and resources to women-led organisations

The escalating humanitarian crises we see today differently and disproportionately impact women and girls. Yet, the world has witnessed a global rollback on women’s and girls’ rights over the past few years, due to illiberal and conservative government agendas.

Failing to redress gender inequality has a knock-on effect on the humanitarian response overall, and efforts will continue to falter without a feminist approach which places strong, funded partnerships with women-led organisations (WLOs) front and centre. These organisations are a critical driving force in providing effective response services to women and girls impacted by conflict and displacement, and strong partners in identifying needs, building trust, and accessing hard to reach and diverse populations. 

A strong global leader in prioritising and addressing gender equality in humanitarian crises, the EU is well-placed to translate commitments into impact at the operational level and turn a page on the detrimental underfunding of feminist civil society.

To further prioritise gender equality in crisis response, the EU must:

  • Include local women-led organisations (WLOs) in programme design and decision making.
  • Ring-fence dedicated funding for local feminist organisations.
  • Reform the funding architecture and partnership model to make these accessible to WLOs.
  • Leverage the Gender Action Plan (GAP) III to tackle the global rollback on women‘s rights.

While the EU has long provided commendable leadership on prioritising and advancing gender equality within humanitarian action and development settings, more can and must be done to translate commitments into impact at the operational level, and turn a page on the detrimental underfunding of feminist civil society once and for all.

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6 - Protect humanitarian and civilian space by consistently calling out violations of International Humanitarian Law and challenging impunity

With conflict remaining the primary driver of humanitarian need in far too many places, wars are increasingly fought with disregard for international law - with civilians bearing the brunt. 

Parties to conflicts are increasingly weaponising critical aid by blocking it from reaching certain populations. In order to tackle International Humanitarian Law (IHL) violations, the world does not need new rules or laws, but a re-invigorated commitment to implement existing ones. If it hopes to reduce the impacts of conflict on civilians, the EU should redouble its efforts through political dialogue and the promotion of IHL.

The EU must better protect the humanitarian and civilian space:

  • Put accountability for IHL violations at the heart of EU humanitarian diplomacy efforts.
  • Engage with states and non-state actors to protect and promote humanitarian access.
  • Invest in efforts to improve data collection on humanitarian access to support collective EU action.
  • Support the France-Mexico declaration to suspend the use of the UN Security Council veto in the case of mass atrocities.
  • Support national and international NGOs with financial support and training so they can negotiate humanitarian access on their own terms.

There are thus several concrete actions which the EU can take over the coming five years, to ensure conditions are in place for life-saving aid to be delivered to the people who need it most.

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7 - Ensure a safe, orderly and humane approach to asylum and migration

With humanitarian needs escalating across the world and conflicts becoming increasingly protracted, the number of people forced from their homes has dramatically increased. An effective EU response must include better solutions closer to home. The myth that restrictive border policies can deter people from seeking asylum needs to be busted, and the chaotic humanitarian crisis at Europe’s borders more effectively addressed.

The EU's response to forced displacement from Ukraine demonstrated the capacity to manage large-scale displacement situations in the spirit of solidarity. It proved that Europe can offer safe routes, freedom of movement, and a mechanism for refugees to access protection, legal advice, and other essential services like education, healthcare, and access to labour markets. This must be the norm, not the exception. 

The EU must demonstrate leadership by forging a safe, orderly and humane approach to asylum and migration:

  • Establish a truly Europe-wide pathway to safety through the Union Resettlement Framework and making bold commitments to increase and future-proof refugee resettlement, while upholding the right to seek asylum.
  • Do more to ensure the principles of the EU Action Plan on Integration and Inclusion are translated into practice across all Member States coupled with increased funding and capacity building.
  • Ensure close oversight of the implementation of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum in order to avoid further rights abuses and uncertainty for people on the move, pressing for substantial, efficient relocation through the Pact’s solidarity mechanism, and monitoring any new facilities created for the purpose of screening or border procedures.
  • Develop durable options for transition out of the Temporary Protection (TP) regime for people displaced from Ukraine.

If the EU hopes to address the global crises with humanity, it needs to start by welcoming people with dignity and respect on its own territory. Safe, orderly and humane migration can and must be the new reality, and the time has come for strong and humane leadership in this regard. 

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