World Humanitarian Day: 50 years at the Federal Foreign Office

05.09.2018 - Article

The Foreign Office has been responsible for humanitarian aid abroad for 50 years. Germany was the world’s second largest donor in 2017.

In Neubrandenburg, eight lorries are loaded with relief goods for around 12,000 refugees from Zaire. This transport was organised by Welthungerhilfe in 1996.
In Neubrandenburg, eight lorries are loaded with relief goods for around 12,000 refugees from Zaire. This transport was organised by Welthungerhilfe in 1996.© dpa

It all started with an administrative step. A circular from the Chancellery in 1968 transferred responsibility for humanitarian aid within the German Government to the  Foreign Office. A budget item for humanitarian aid was established in the Foreign Office budget for the first time that same year. Even back then, the files were filled with the humanitarian impact of the conflicts in the Middle East, the drought in the Horn of Africa and the epidemics in the Congo, as well as with earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters.
In 2018, Germany is funding humanitarian aid projects to the tune of 1.5 billion Euro.

Helping where the need is greatest

While many things have changed in the area of humanitarian aid, the objectives remain the same. Humanitarian assistance supports people who are at risk or in dire need as a result of conflicts, epidemics or natural disasters. The  Foreign Office does not implement aid projects itself, but relies on tried and tested cooperation with professional aid agencies of the United Nations, as well as with the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and non governmental organisations.

Aid is provided in accordance with the humanitarian principles of humanity, independence, neutrality and impartiality. Moreover, assistance is made available in a needs based manner, i.e. where the need is the greatest.

Increasing needs – increasing resources

With a single official entrusted with coordinating Germany’s humanitarian aid in 1968, its beginnings were humble indeed. Today, two of the biggest divisions at the Federal Foreign Office, numbering more than 60 staff members, are tasked with planning, managing and implementing humanitarian aid.
This expansion of staff levels is a consequence of an unprecedented increase in the financial resources set aside for German humanitarian aid. In 1968, the Foreign Office had, in today’s money, a comparatively modest budget of 11.8 million Euro at its disposal for this. In 2017, Germany was the world’s second largest bilateral donor and is supporting humanitarian aid projects around the world to the tune of around 1.5 billion Euro in 2018.

These numbers reflect the drastic increase in humanitarian needs around the world in recent years. In 2006, the United Nations estimated the worldwide need to be 4.8 billion US dollars; in July 2018, this figure was as much as 25.4 billion US Dollars.

Protracted and “forgotten” crises

Behind these numbers lies almost unimaginable suffering. Millions of people have fled wars and conflicts or are being violently displaced. Hundreds of thousands are suffering from hunger and diseases in droughts or other disasters.

In Bangladesh, forecast based financing models are helping people with cash assistance before acute humanitarian emergencies occur.
In Bangladesh, forecast based financing models are helping people with cash assistance before acute humanitarian emergencies occur.© The German Red Cross/ DRK

At the same time, the international community is forced to acknowledge that the funds set aside each year for humanitarian emergencies do not even come close to meeting needs.

New humanitarian crises have arisen in places where this was long unexpected, for example in eastern Ukraine.

Other crises have dragged on for years or even decades, and many are considered to be “forgotten crises” and are not in the public eye. This makes anticipatory humanitarian aid, which ensures that needs do not arise in the first place, all the more important. Humanitarian aid cannot eliminate the underlying causes of conflicts, however. This is neither its task nor what it aspires to do. However, humanitarian aid can play a major role in relieving the misery and suffering of people on the ground or, wherever possible, preventing it from occurring in the first place.

Challenges for the future

Humanitarian aid must constantly adjust to new challenges. This requires three things. Firstly, an unwavering commitment to sufficient humanitarian resources – not only in Germany, but also on the part of other as well as new donors; secondly, successes with respect to the initiatives being spearheaded by Germany and others to make humanitarian aid still more efficient and effective; and thirdly, effective instruments that reduce humanitarian needs and end crises more swiftly.

We must also remember that humanitarian aid workers put themselves at risk on the ground every day in order to alleviate suffering. More and more often, they themselves are becoming the targets of attacks. World Humanitarian Day also reminds us that humanitarian aid workers must not be the target of attacks.

Background information: World Humanitarian Day

Since 2009, World Humanitarian Day has been celebrated each year on 19 August to commemorate the humanitarian aid workers who have lost their lives around the world in the service of those in need. At the same time, it also highlights the need for compliance with humanitarian principles as attacks on humanitarian aid workers and violations of international humanitarian law have increased in recent years, particularly in the context of Syria, and also in the crisis in Yemen. Within the German Government, responsibility for humanitarian aid abroad lies with the Foreign Office. According to the principle of subsidiarity, the German Government provides humanitarian aid where the government of a country hit by disaster is unable or unwilling to do so itself on a sufficient scale. In 2018, the  Foreign Office has provided over 1.5 billion Euro to respond to humanitarian crises around the world.

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