Humanitarian action in France has been first and foremost embodied, for thirty years - and it is to their credit - by NGOs known for their solidarity and generosity towards victims, whatever they are, of conflict, oppression, and natural, technological, and epidemiological disasters.
State humanitarian action has become a fact of life that goes beyond mere crisis management. It is a component of France’s diplomatic efforts, which sees itself as the ardent defender of democratic ideals, active in international forums supporting economic and social development for poor countries, calling for greater fairness and solidarity in international relations between north and south.
The state intends, alongside other humanitarian actors, to contribute to restoring the dignity, where it is at stake, of men, women, and children because their basic needs are threatened or are no longer insured, whether it is a question of diet, health, or housing conditions, or because they are exposed to the violation of their basic rights. State humanitarian action is a major component of France’s message of attentiveness and friendship towards countries with which it is united by long-standing ties or that are simply left vulnerable in the face of adversity.
Over the years, the state’s political and administrative humanitarian structures have undergone many changes. The most recent step is currently the Interministerial Committee for Emergency Humanitarian Action, set up under the government plan presented by the Council of Ministers on June 11th, 2003.
In its various components, France’s humanitarian action provides beneficiary countries and peoples the expertise of French specialists and quality materials in key areas (civil security, water and electric power supplies, hospital equipment, etc.).
The Evolution of Political and Administrative Structures
Biafra’s attempted secession in 1967 and the attendant miseries created a high-profile psychological shock in international public opinion, especially in France. Parallel to the emergence of the phenomenon commonly known as “without borders-ism” illustrated by the appearance of “Doctors without Borders,” these events have started a slow process of French political and administrative authorities factoring in humanitarian aspects.
The creation in 1968 of the “Non-Governmental Organization Liaison Mission” (MILONG), attached at the time to the Political Affairs Directorate at the Quai d’Orsay was the first structure set up to serve as a link with international emergency solidarity associations.
Humanitarian concerns have worked their way, in stages, into the Quai d’Orsay’s structures. Ten years later, in 1978, the term “humanitarian” appeared in the terminology of one of the powers vested in the Legal Affairs Directorate, “humanitarian law.” It reappeared in 1980 as “humanitarian issues” in the United Nations and International Organizations “Service’s” organizational chart, which was later raised to the status of “Department.”
An essential step was taken in 1985 with the creation of the “Emergency and Standby Unit,” jointly under to the Foreign Affairs and Cooperation Ministries.
In 1986, the Secretariat of State for Human Rights was established, under the Prime Minister, succeeded in 1988 by a Secretary of State for Humanitarian Action, which was allocated an “Emergency Humanitarian Fund” a year later. In 1991, this Secretariat of State was attached to the Foreign Affairs Minister, making its appearance as an instrument of our foreign policy.
In 1992, a Health and Humanitarian Action Ministry was created with authority over a “Humanitarian Action Service.” The year 1992 also saw the creation of the “Humanitarian Affairs Department” within the UN Secretariat General, later renamed “Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs” and the “European Commission Humanitarian Office” (ECHO).
In 1993, a Minister for Humanitarian Action and Human Rights reporting to the Foreign Affairs Minister was appointed. From 1995 to 1997, a Secretariat of State for Humanitarian Action, with the qualification “emergency” this time, was again attached to the Prime Minister.
In 1998, the Foreign Affairs and Cooperation Ministries were merged and, with them, the Humanitarian Affairs Service and Emergency Unit, giving birth to the “Delegation for Humanitarian Action” established by the decree dated January 7th, 2002. That same year, within the Defense Ministry, the “Joint Civil-Military Action Group” (GIACM) was created.
The establishment of an inter-ministerial coordination structure on August 1st, 2003, with the creation of the Interdepartmental Committee for Emergency Humanitarian Action, marked a new stage in the process initiated in 1986.
Components of State Humanitarian Action
A humanitarian crisis is always a failure: failed attempts to resolve conflict by peaceful means, failure of preventive measures to contain an epidemic, to prevent a technological accident or limit the impact on the population of a natural disaster, failure of development policies to prevent food shortages.
This is why France’s foreign policy favors preventive aspects:
preventing conflict, by determinedly exercising our responsibilities within the United Nations Security Council; it is important, in all circumstances, to uphold dialogue over the use of force, without abandoning its use, when it is legitimized by the international community, as part of an interposition, peace-restoration, or peace-keeping operation;
preventing natural disasters and technological accidents, by supporting initiatives in this direction and specific programs to protect people against these risks;
preventing food shortages, with food aid programs directed towards restoring beneficiaries’ productive capacity, even their self-sufficiency.
When an emergency occurs, however, the state has a variety of resources, recently reinforced in the Government Plan presented to the Council of Ministers on June 11th, 2003 and under the Prime Minister’s inter-ministerial circular dated August 1st, 2003 establishing an Interdepartmental Committee for Emergency Humanitarian Action.
These resources range from providing specialist staff (civil defense units, military logistics, healthcare workers, engineers and technicians, etc.) to implementing the Humanitarian Action Delegation’s specific resources. It has inventory - some of which is prepositioned in the Antilles and Reunion - and the Emergency Humanitarian Fund which allows it, in particular, to respond to specific requests for loans and grants respectively from diplomatic posts, NGOs, or international organizations.
The Delegation works closely with the French diplomatic network, where all embassies are equipped with a humanitarian correspondent.