Good Humanitarians? Holyrood Cross Party Group explores Scottish Government Humanitarian Emergency Fund

Good Humanitarians? Holyrood Cross Party Group explores Scottish Government Humanitarian Emergency Fund

The Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on International Development met on 29 May 2019 at Holyrood to discuss, for the first time, the Scottish Government’s Humanitarian Emergency Fund (HEF).


MSPs and members of the public heard from a range of speakers, including representatives of some of the 8 agencies that make up the HEF panel.

The £1 million annual fund, now into its third year of operation, has been used to respond quickly and effectively to humanitarian crises across the world with life-saving relief.

The HEF panel consists of eight humanitarian agencies who are either based or represented in Scotland. They are: The British Red Cross, Christian Aid Scotland, Mercy Corps, Mission Aviation Fellowship Scotland, Oxfam Scotland, Save The Children, SCIAF and Tearfund Scotland.

Jane Salmonson, HEF panel Chair, opened discussions by giving background information into how the HEF operates. She explained that the fund has two funding streams, the first of which aligns to Disaster Emergency Committee (DEC) appeals, and the second which funds other non-DEC humanitarian emergencies.

For the second stream, the panel meets quarterly and funding is allocated based on a rigorous peer review system, where panel members bid for funding in relation to current humanitarian crises and their own response capabilities.

All panel members compare bids against a set of criteria, and select the most effective option for the relatively small amount of funding available. Jane emphasised that for every HEF activation after this peer review process, there are always other bids that could easily win the peer review process on another day.

With the state of humanitarian crises in the world today as they are, this is no surprise. However, with a limited amount of money, difficult decisions will always have to be made.

Michael McKean, Director of Programmes at Mercy Corps, then gave a powerful account of his 18-year career of front line work in the humanitarian sector, including the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa. He explained that the needs of people in humanitarian crises are different everywhere and have changed over time. The organisations responding to crises have therefore had to adapt too.

Emphasising this point, he spoke about Mercy Corps Europe’s humble beginnings as Scottish European Aid, an Edinburgh-based volunteer-led organisation which gathered donations of clothes and food, put them into the back of a truck and drove them off to war-torn Bosnia in the early 90s. This form of assistance was both welcomed and necessary at the time.

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Fast forward to today’s on-going refugee crisis, what is highest on the agenda for those arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos after perilous journeys across the Mediterranean? Not food or clothing, but mobile charging and Wi-Fi hotspots, so they can contact their loved ones and tell them they arrived safely.

Michael went on to give some stark and worrying statistics about how the nature of humanitarian crises had shifted in recent decades. He explained that the sheer numbers of people needing humanitarian assistance has grown and continues to grow, while the causes of humanitarian crises have overwhelmingly shifted to conflict. “By 2030, half of the world’s poor will live in fragile states,” he said.

Humanitarian assistance is clearly more necessary than ever. But building resilience through programming that focuses on localised solutions is also essential. From local staff to local procurement, humanitarian responses must help build and sustain local economies as much as possible.

The HEF has made a modest but important contribution to humanitarian responses across the world. Huw Owen, from the Disasters Emergency Committee and new coordinator for the Fund, gave an overview of the different activations over the past 2 years.

From recent crises in Mali and Venezuela, to others in Bangladesh and the DRC, Scottish support has been felt in communities across the world.

In the run up to this meeting, frontline SCIAF staff and partners in Colombia recorded a short film showing HEF funded aid being delivered. More than 10,000 people fleeing the political and economic crisis in nearby Venezuela have been beneficiaries of this most recent HEF activation, that saw £220,000 channelled through Tearfund Scotland and SCIAF.

In the discussion that followed, representatives from a range of panel members spoke of their organisation’s responses in different parts of the world and on how important it is for agencies to remain guided by the four humanitarian principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence.

It is clear that there are challenges for humanitarian work beyond the simple fact that it often takes place in very dangerous places. Managing tensions between the localisation agenda and need for accountability for donors remains ever-present. The need to challenge the complexities of global politics that can so often be linked to humanitarian crises adds another layer to the problem.

Closing the meeting, Jane Salmonson emphasised that funding streams like the HEF cannot be taken for granted, especially in this era of populist politics. Those of us who support humanitarian work must speak up.