A humanitarian crisis is a large-scale crisis of human welfare. It can be naturally occurring, such as in the case of an earthquake or tsunami, or it can be man-made, for example, by war. Every humanitarian crisis poses a threat to health, but the severity depends on the nature of the event and the vulnerability of the affected population prior to the crisis.
In recent years, the European Union has seen an expansion of its role as a health and humanitarian crisis manager – both within Europe and in third countries. In a 2006 evaluation of the EU’s capacity to manage an internal health crisis, researcher Matzen found that, although the EU relies totally on member states for information, it plays an important role in the prevention phase of crisis management by providing surveillance and control, gathering and disseminating information, and setting up legal frameworks. Primarily concerned with events at the supranational level, the EU has a well-developed capacity for mapping and monitoring trends. However, when it comes to responding to a current crisis, the added-value of the EU is less evident as member states are the primary operational crisis managers and may decide how to respond individually.
In the case of response to an international humanitarian crisis, responsibility within the European Commission sits primarily with the European Community Humanitarian Aid Office (DG ECHO). DG ECHO’s mandate includes saving and preserving life during emergencies, carrying out short-term rehabilitation work, helping those affected gain a level of self-sufficiency, taking long-term development objectives into account, where possible, and ensuring preparedness for the risk of a natural disaster. In practice, DG ECHO entrusts the implementation of humanitarian operations aid to its civil society and international organization partners. For example, DG ECHO works in close collaboration with the Health Action in Crisis cluster of the World Health Organization.
DG ECHO also works to prevent future crises through preparedness programmes. The concept of disaster risk reduction has gained importance in recent years. The main component of DG ECHO’s contribution to global disaster risk reduction efforts remains its disaster preparedness programme, which was established in 1996 and now covers six disaster-prone regions. But the EU’s disaster risk reduction policies go beyond this with the aim of mainstreaming preparedness strategies. For example, risk reduction projects are often incorporated into the design of post-disaster emergency responses. Supporting the capacities of health systems is one integral component of reducing a population’s vulnerability and risk in a crisis situation.