Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Uganda and Mozambique, Lebanon, Jordan and Ukraine: In these seven countries, Austria supports people in need with a total of 13,5 million euros. This was decided by the Council of Ministers on March 17th. It is the highest distribution of funds in the history of the Foreign Disaster Fund - the central instrument of bilateral humanitarian aid in Austria. “This is a big leap. While the Covid crisis is causing the emergencies to increase, we are ensuring more continuity and reliability. It's about dignity and security even for those who are in dire straits, ”said Vice Chancellor Werner Kogler. The money will be made available to Austrian non-governmental organizations for their on-site help.

This payment was preceded this year by three million euros each for Ethiopia and Yemen, and it will not be the last this year. Because the pot of the foreign disaster fund is full compared to before. Until 2015 it was endowed with five million euros annually, in 2019 it was increased to 25 million euros, last autumn the budget for 2020 was doubled to 50 million euros at short notice. This year it amounts to 52,5 million euros, and the funds are expected to increase further in the coming years. From 2024, 60 million euros are planned annually.

Humanitarian aid in the refugee camp in Ethiopia
Protection from the war in the refugee camp in Ethiopia

In the turquoise-green government program, there was already talk of a substantial increase in the foreign disaster fund. The debate about the refugee camps on Lesbos can be seen as a concrete reason for implementation. Observers see the increase promoted by the Greens as a compromise solution between the two governing parties. 

The Austrian aid organizations welcome the increase in funds. According to Annelies Vilim, managing director of the umbrella organization of the Austrian development NGO AG Global Responsibility, can thereby "alleviate the symptoms of many crises". For many people this is essential for survival in the truest sense of the word. Walter Hajek, Head of International Cooperation at Austrian Red Cross, is hopeful in view of the budget jump. Especially in times of crisis, the global dimension should not be lost sight of: "We will defeat Corona worldwide or not at all," he predicts with reference to the current scenario. To alleviate the consequences of Covid-19, the first funds from the increased foreign disaster fund were made available in October of the previous year. Twelve million euros were made available for aid in southern and eastern Africa, the western Balkans and the southern Caucasus.


Humanitarian hotspots

According to the United Nations, 235 million people worldwide will need humanitarian aid and protection this year - especially in crisis regions in Africa, Asia and South America.

According to the United Nations, 235 million people worldwide will need humanitarian aid and protection this year - especially in crisis regions in Africa, Asia and South America.

Special Representative for Humanitarian Aid 

In order to coordinate the significantly increased budget, the federal government appointed Christoph Schweifer for the first time as a special commissioner for humanitarian aid. Thanks to his experience in the humanitarian field - among other things, he headed Caritas' foreign aid for many years - he is considered to be ideally suited for this new position. Schweifer does not want to dwell too long on investigating the causes to explain the increase: "Either way, this is an important decision through which Austria is assuming its responsibility in the humanitarian area more," he emphasizes.

Schweifer is assigned to the Department of Humanitarian Aid and Food Aid in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is responsible for the Foreign Disaster Fund. Humanitarian aid is officially understood here as the task of “saving lives, alleviating human suffering and protecting and caring for all affected people in a humanitarian emergency (natural disasters, armed conflicts, pandemics) and laying the foundations for a return to acceptable and humane living conditions create".

In the event of a disaster in a foreign country that is not in a position to adequately provide for its population, money can be made available quickly from the Foreign Disaster Fund. These are then handled by international organizations such as the United Nations Children's Fund Unicef ​​or the World Food Program, local NGOs or, as in the current case, local actors such as the Austrian Red Cross or Caritas Austria. The Council of Ministers decides on the allocation of the funds.

New strategy for humanitarian aid

The new Special Representative will play an advisory role in the development of a new strategy for humanitarian aid, which has already been anchored in the government program. At the end of January there was a first broad-based meeting of various ministries and non-governmental organizations on this topic.

The main aim of the new strategy is to respond to changed framework conditions in humanitarian aid, as Christoph Schweifer explains: “The Foreign Disaster Fund was set up in 2005 as a result of the tsunami in Southeast Asia. Accordingly, the entire fund is designed to respond to natural disasters. Looking at developments in recent years, however, we have to acknowledge that today humanitarian disasters are primarily the result of conflict events. ”Long-lasting crises - such as in Syria, Afghanistan, West Africa or Yemen - require another, longer-term form of humanitarian aid . This could also increase the ability to plan humanitarian aid in the future. Schweifer is aware that, in addition to more transparent processes, this is a priority of the aid organizations.

The Special Representative also points out, however, that the money from the Foreign Disaster Fund has never flowed arbitrarily: “There is a high level of coverage with the countries which, according to the United Nations, need this aid most urgently. The political decisions are based on considerations that by no means come out of nowhere. "

According to Schweifer, the basic structure of the new strategy is already becoming apparent: At the beginning there is the question of which key future challenges Austria wants to focus on in terms of humanitarian aid: How should long-term crises, especially the climate crisis, be dealt with? And how will the corona crisis change humanitarian aid? The next question is what capacities and capabilities Austria should use to respond to these challenges, i.e. what role the individual ministries, multinational organizations and Austrian NGOs play. In this context, it should also be about the opportunities that the digitization of humanitarian aid opens up. As Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg revealed in a background discussion, the new strategy is to be presented in the summer.

Towards 0,7 percent

The way the strategy creation process gets up and running is recognized. Michael Obrovsky from the Austrian Research Foundation for International Development ÖFSE and critical observer of domestic development cooperation, notes: "It is good that you are applying this broadly, and so far the process has also been transparent." Endowment of humanitarian aid ”.

In numbers

Below average

In 2019, Austria provided significantly fewer funds for humanitarian aid than most European countries, at EUR 3,82 per capita.

In 2019, Austria provided significantly fewer funds for humanitarian aid than most European countries, at EUR 3,82 per capita.

The low level of Austrian involvement in recent years and decades does not only affect humanitarian aid, but also extends to all of development cooperation. This is also measured against international guidelines. Specifically, in October 1970, the industrialized countries set themselves the goal of spending 0,7 percent of their gross national income on public development cooperation and humanitarian aid. Officially, this target is still valid half a century later, but recently only five OECD countries - Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Great Britain - have achieved it. Austria is well below the OECD average, in 2019 the value was 0,27 percent.

In addition to the foreign disaster fund, the funds for bilateral development cooperation are now being increased in this country, from 114,4 million euros in 2020 to 125,1 million euros this year. As a result - and with debt relief - Austria could achieve at least 0,45 percent of GNI for development cooperation and humanitarian aid this year, according to the Foreign Ministry's draft budget. The department is happy about these developments. Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said, when asked by the National Council's budget committee, whether a systematic increase could be made out of this.

Laut Budget forecasts the value will fall back to 2024 percent in 0,27 without further increases. Obrovsky remains skeptical: Austria has repeatedly pledged 0,7 percent, but never created the budgetary conditions for it.

Big plan for humanitarian aid and development cooperation 

The development researcher sets the Finger in the wound: "There has long been a lack of a binding step-by-step plan: How does the government want to achieve the goals, what interim goals are there on the way?" A first step is a comprehensive strategy, according to Obrovsky Interlinked three-year development cooperation program. This must be coordinated and thought through in a coherent way. This is the only way we can achieve an overall strategy for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, which are now the central benchmark for global development efforts. ”In his opinion, the additional money for the Foreign Disaster Fund should not only be used for acute disaster relief, but also for the Development of resilient structures in crisis regions.

Christoph Schweifer agrees: “We have to move away from a linear approach to humanitarian aid, that is, to say: Here a catastrophe, there help, problem solved.” Instead, he advocates a systemic approach: Why does this emergency situation exist? What are the factors that play a role? And how can we provide acute humanitarian aid and at the same time work to ensure that the situation fundamentally changes? Offsetting humanitarian aid to development cooperation, as it may have done in the past, would be counterproductive in his view.

For his part, Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg is sticking to the new strategy for humanitarian aid, but does not see it as the ultimate wisdom. Rather, the strategy is a basis for the work in the coming years. “You run into open barn doors in the Foreign Ministry when you say that development cooperation and humanitarian aid should be strengthened and networked. And I am very happy that nails are now being made, ”says Schallenberg.

Humanitarian aid to Yemen
The greatest humanitarian crisis in the world is currently taking place in Yemen - in the picture: food deliveries in Sanaa.

International pioneer in humanitarian aid 

So if the goal is to take on a more proactive role in the area of ​​development cooperation and humanitarian aid beyond increasing individual posts, then it is worth taking a look at Scandinavia. So their top budget positions are not isolated events. Sweden has consistently been well above 1970 percent since the 0,7s. And in Denmark there is a consensus not to use the topic for partisan skirmishes. Obrovsky mentions other strengths: "These countries are primarily pursuing specific goals with their strategies, including when it comes to engagement with multilateral institutions." In Austria, on the other hand, one restricts oneself to a general political commitment and avoids any binding commitment.

He recommends: “Austria could learn that humanitarian aid, development cooperation and the implementation of the sustainable development goals are policy areas in which we have to get involved independently of party politics. This requires more specific target formulations and less PR around individual aid payments. "

Christoph Schweifer is optimistic that awareness of this is increasing in Austria precisely because of the corona crisis: "We see that it also has an impact on us if there is an outbreak of disease somewhere." He sees the pandemic as a driver for the recognition of mutual dependency and connectedness. Humanitarian aid and development cooperation are therefore not only important for Austria for reasons of humanity and international obligations, but also out of an “enlightened self-interest”. 

Photos: BMEIA / Gruber, OCHA / Charlotte Cans, UNICEF Ethiopia / 2021 / Mulugeta Ayene