Select Committee on European Scrutiny Thirty-Seventh Report

33 European Commission response to the east Asian tsunami



Special Report of the European Court of Auditors concerning the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Response to the Tsunami

Legal baseArt 248(4) EC; —
Deposited in Parliament6 July 2006
DepartmentInternational Development
Basis of considerationEM of 19 July 2006
Previous Committee ReportNone
To be discussed in CouncilTo be determined
Committee's assessmentPolitically important
Committee's decisionCleared, but further information requested


33.1 The Commission has a specific Directorate-General — Directorate-General for Humanitarian Aid (DG ECHO) — to respond to humanitarian crises. It does not implement relief activities directly, but works through partners which consist both of NGOs and international organisations, including the United Nations and Red Cross. According to its website, thanks to ECHO, humanitarian action occupies a key position in the EU's external action, with ECHO being "the world's main player in this field". The website notes that, through ECHO funding, some 18 million people are helped each year in more than 60 countries through 200 partners (NGOs, ICRC, and UN agencies like the UNHCR and the WFP). It notes that ECHO spends more than €500 million a year on financing humanitarian projects, the importance of which "is due to the growth in the number of serious crises in the world and reflects the EU's willingness to take on a leading role in international humanitarian efforts".[86]

33.2 The Court of Auditors Special Report is carried out on the basis of Article 248(4) EC, which empowers the Court of Auditors to submit observations, particularly in the form of special reports, on specific questions.

The Court of Auditors Report

33.3 The report begins by recalling that, on 26 December 2004, an earthquake off the west coast of Northern Sumatra triggered a massive tsunami causing widespread destruction in many countries of the Indian Ocean, killing over 200,000 people, to which the international community responded with over €5 billion of humanitarian aid. In his helpful 19 July 2006 Explanatory Memorandum, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for International Development (Mr Gareth Thomas) says that DG ECHO committed €123 million (£85m) for humanitarian activities in 2005 in Thailand, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, India, and Indonesia (the UK share was 17%, or €21 mn/£14.4 mn). The Commission funded activities through NGOs, UN agencies and international organisations — primarily the Red Cross. The initial €23 million funded emergency activities; the subsequent €100 million, approved in two later stages, was used to fund short-term rehabilitation programmes in sectors such as shelter, livelihood recovery, water and sanitation, and disaster preparedness.

33.4 On the basis of an examination of documentation, interviews, two on-the-spot visits to Indonesia and Sri Lanka respectively and a review of other audits and evaluations, the Court explains that its audit examined the Commission's emergency response and some short-term rehabilitation work consistent with DG ECHOs mandate, but not longer-term reconstruction. The Report includes the Commissions' response to the findings.

33.5 The main questions addressed were:

a)  Was the Commission's response to the tsunami sufficiently rapid and appropriate?

b)  Were DG ECHO's actions effectively coordinated with those of other Commission services, international organisations and other countries?

c)  Were DG ECHO's monitoring and control procedures designed to ensure that projects implemented by partners were relevant, timely and efficiently implemented?

d)  Did projects implemented by DG ECHO's partners achieve their expected results and were short-term rehabilitation actions adequately sustainable?

33.6 As well as assessing DG ECHO's performance against the rapidity and appropriateness of its response, level of coordination with other Commission activity, whether its monitoring and control procedures allowed partners to make relevant, timely and efficient interventions, and whether projects implemented achieve their expected results, the Minister says the Report also considers the "application of the principles of needs-based assessment and proportionality of response, one of the 23 principles of Good Humanitarian Donorship agreed in Stockholm by donors, including DFID and DG ECHO, in 2003".

33.7 Overall, the Minister correctly notes, the report gives a positive assessment against the four identified criteria:

"It takes account of the special circumstances of the tsunami, in which the generosity of private donors meant that many organisations were funded to — or even beyond — their capacity, whether or not they had experience of working in the affected region. It commends DG ECHO for the rapidity of its initial financial response and for the flexibility of its procedures, which allows initial project design to be adapted to changing needs or more accurate assessment of the situation on the ground."

33.8 The Minister notes that the Court recommended the following points, with the Commission's response in italics following each point:

"(a) the Commission should consider the role it could play in helping affected governments to manage donor coordination more effectively;

The Commission fully recognises the importance of national ownership in a disaster response and addresses this issue both in its humanitarian assistance and in its development programmes.

"(b) the roles of DG ECHO and DG Environment (Civil Protection Mechanism) should be clarified to ensure a coherent approach;

The Commission fully endorses this recommendation.

"(c) a longer timeframe for emergency operations should be considered in order to provide sufficient time for implementation;

The Commission considers that it is not appropriate to change the regulatory base in order to extend the timeframe for primary emergency and emergency humanitarian actions.

"(d) DG ECHO should strengthen its monitoring system in order to include written feedback to partners following monitoring visits, the development of comparative cost information, an explanation of the implementing arrangements and information on what has been done where;

The Commission will reinforce the monitoring system to accommodate the Court's recommendations in the most appropriate manner.

"(e) the difficulties of access to documentation of projects implemented by UN agencies should be taken into account in the context of the Financial and Administrative Framework Agreement (FAFA).

Following discussions with the concerned organisations, this matter was clarified and the Commission gained access to the relevant documents. The verification of Commission funded projects undertaken by UN Agencies is a subject that was addressed within the April 2006 meeting of the EC-UN FAFA working group."

The Government View

33.9 The Minister continues as follows:

"The UK is pleased to see the Court of Auditors beginning to use the principles of Good Humanitarian Donorship in their assessment of the Commission's humanitarian assistance. In this context, the Report notes that DG ECHO sometimes funded against a standard emergency response proposal rather than a proposal based on a detailed needs assessment. While we agree to some extent with the Commission's response that it would have been unacceptable to delay financing too long, the Secretary of State for International Development proposed in his speech of January 2006 on humanitarian reform that work needed to be done on improving emergency appeals to reflect real immediate need.

"The report recommends that the Commission should consider the role it could play in helping affected governments to manage donor co-ordination more effectively. The UK agrees with the Commission that a key part of its response must be through developmental support to governmental disaster management structures, as well as through short-term support to UN co-ordination structures. The Report recommends that DG ECHO's monitoring reports should have a greater focus on enumerating project activities than on results achieved. The UK agrees with the Commission's response that it does adequately cover project activities; we think it is very important that DG ECHO should, like other donors, focus on humanitarian impact. The report notes that in a large UN programme the auditors visited, DG ECHO experts were not able to say which specific activities were funded by DG ECHO and had difficulty obtaining the information from the agency. We note that another principle of Good Humanitarian Donorship is reduced or more flexible earmarking; while agreeing with the importance of transparency, we think that DG ECHO should be encouraged to be more flexible rather than less in its humanitarian financing.

"We agree that co-ordination between DG ECHO and DG Environment (Civil Protection Mechanism) on immediate response (humanitarian and civil protection) should be improved at Commission level. As DG ECHO and its regional experts often have considerable local knowledge of a disaster-affected country, whereas Member States' civil protection teams may have limited international experience, there is a strong case for Co-ordination and information exchange at all levels."

33.10 Looking ahead, the Minister says that he expects both the Development Cooperation and Civil Protection Working Group to consider the report in the autumn.


33.11 Given the desperate circumstances at the time, it is encouraging that the Court of Auditors' Report contains so many positive features. Given also the unfortunate likelihood of similar challenges in the future, we consider that the Report should be drawn to the attention of the House.

33.12 Perhaps its most important conclusion relates to the need for better clarification of the respective roles of, and for better coordination between, DG Echo and the Civil Contingency Mechanism. The implication of the Minister's remarks is that the former should coordinate the work of the latter. In any event, both the relevant Working Groups will be considering the Report in the coming months. We should accordingly be grateful if the Minister would inform us at an appropriate time of the outcome of these discussions and, in particular, what arrangements have been made in response to the Court's recommendations. Meanwhile, we clear the document.

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