EU pushes 'people-centred' response to extreme poverty

Europe's fund for aid to the most deprived can play a vital role in improving the lives of people existing in society's margins, writes Emer Costello.

By Emer Costello

10 Feb 2014

The vote by the European parliament's employment and social affairs committee on 17 December in favour of the new 'Fund for European aid for the most deprived' (FEAD) was a very welcome step towards the reduction of extreme poverty in the member states. The new FEAD programme is a small but strategically-important 'people-centred' response to the deepening problem of extreme poverty across Europe.

"One quarter of the total population - over 120 million people, including 25 million children - were at risk of poverty or social exclusion in 2012, a rise of nine million since 2008"

One quarter of the total population - over 120 million people, including 25 million children - were at risk of poverty or social exclusion in 2012, a rise of nine million since 2008. Over 40 million suffer from 'severe material deprivation'. An estimated 43 million people are unable to afford a meal with meat, chicken, fish, or vegetarian equivalent every second day. This is a basic nutritional need as defined by the World Health Organisation. An estimated four million people are homeless.

Thankfully, and quite rightly, in October 2012, the European commission proposed a replacement programme for the most deprived persons programme (MDP) which was due to expire at the end of 2013. The MDP was a food distribution scheme which allowed the use of intervention stocks of surplus agricultural products for the most deprived persons in participating member states. The commission's proposal envisaged the continuation of EU support for the provision of food aid, but also the provision of basic material assistance as well as social inclusion measures. That was just the first step.

I was appointed as parliament's rapporteur for this proposed new WU FEAD in December 2012. The timetable was very tight; the programme had to be agreed by the end of 2013 so as to ensure no interruption in European support for NGOs. Furthermore, there was a blocking minority of member states that were opposed in principle to the programme. We pressed on, meeting with NGOs and charities across Europe to gather their views and drafted a report based on our research work and negotiations commenced on the programme. Despite opposing views from within parliament and the European council - some sought to make the programme optional for member states; others sought to narrow the scope to make it a food-only programme; while others sought to scrap it entirely - agreement was reached in late November.

In addition to providing food aid, the FEAD programme will provide other basic living supports to the most deprived citizens, for example; to people making the transition from homelessness to temporary or more permanent accommodation, or clothing and footwear for deprived children.

It was particularly important that we succeeded in achieving our key aim of securing a budget at €3.5bn, instead of the commission and council proposal of €2.5bn. Other significant achievements include the strengthening of the partnership principle at all stages of the programme - charities and social NGOs must now be fully consulted and involved in the design, operation and monitoring of national plans to implement FEAD.

Moreover, we worked to ensure that the administrative procedures for accessing FEAD are as simple as possible, and that there are synergies with FEAD and other EU priorities, such as helping to reduce food waste. A shameful 250,000 tonnes of good food is discarded each day across the EU. The fund aims to facilitate donations of surplus food by supermarkets and other food outlets as a means of combating both food waste and food deprivation. There are also measures in the programme that will help in promoting public health and sourcing local products, as well as provisions aimed at exchanging best practice between member states in tackling extreme deprivation.

Following the positive vote in committee in favour of FEAD, it will now go to the European parliament February plenary session for final approval. While the FEAD programme is not - and should not be seen as - a substitute for the policies and actions needed all across Europe to reduce and eventually eliminate poverty, it is an important emergency response that will also support the crucial follow-on social inclusion measures, such as helping the homeless find a permanent home or move towards employment. Whereas the outgoing European programme was a food-centred programme, FEAD is very much a progressive, people-centred initiative.

Member states must now decide how to implement the programme - whether to concentrate on food aid and accompanying social inclusion measures, food aid plus basic material assistance and accompanying social inclusion measures, or social inclusion measures only. FEAD clearly has the potential to play an important role in improving the lives of people at the extreme margins of society.