Delivering FEAD beyond 2020: achievements, challenges and lessons learned to support the most deprived
At least one in five people in the European Union were at risk of poverty or social exclusion before the COVID-19 pandemic. With over 12 million infections reported to date, and thousands of deaths, the health emergency is being devastating – and it has triggered a socio-economic crisis. Many people are struggling to cover their basic needs, asking for help for the first time. Additional support is needed to ensure timely assistance for the most vulnerable and guarantee that no-one is left behind.
Despite lockdowns and widespread risks, National Red Cross Societies continue to play a key role in reaching people in need, and more than 20 are currently implementing one of the main instruments to alleviate the worst forms of poverty and foster social cohesion in the EU: the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD), introduced by the European Commission in 2014. Staff and volunteers in those countries provide food aid and basic material assistance to disadvantaged families, single parents and elderly people, among others; ‘baby packs’, meals and school supplies to households in need; comprehensive assistance to homeless, including shelter; employability skills to those in need; and many other forms of support.
On 22 and 23 October, the European Commission hosted the first annual conference of the FEAD Community, in a virtual format, aimed at improving the delivery of the programme at different levels, particularly in view of the deteriorating situation. The event brought together local, regional and national stakeholders involved in the implementation of the programme: from managing authorities, intermediate bodies and partners to beneficiaries, independent experts, the European Commission and civil society organisations – including representatives from the National Red Cross Societies of Belgium, Croatia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Ireland and Spain, and the Red Cross EU Office.
Taking stock of the FEAD Network achievements so far, and drawing lessons from the health and social crises brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, the conference also focused on identifying the challenges that need to be tackled, and on outlining possible steps to overcome them. The agenda also included an update on legal developments, such as the REACT-EU and the ESF+ negotiations, and there was also a presentation of a European Commission’s study on the use of electronic vouchers.
Participants shared their views and field experiences in plenary discussions and working groups, highlighting the additional hindrances derived from the COVID-19 pandemic:
“We had to adapt our food distribution service,” explained Mayi Mukuna, food aid advisor at the Belgian Red Cross. “We could not do business as usual: we started distributing parcels to beneficiaries by fixing specific timings with each of them, so we could meet their needs while abiding to the physically distancing restrictions imposed by the national government,” she underlined. With many volunteers and aid recipients belonging to at-risk categories because of their age, some social groceries and food distribution centres struggled to keep activities going; different teams worked hard to find solutions, though, and have been able to sustain this essential service.
In 2019, more than 92.4 million people were at risk of poverty or social exclusion in the EU, according to the European Commission’s latest statistics. Over 5% faced severe material deprivation, with children disproportionately affected. On average, women, young adults, people with a low level of educational attainment, people with limitations to undertake certain activities due to health problems and unemployed individuals were more likely to experience hardship than others.
Following intensive negotiatons among different EU institutions, on 10 November representatives from the European Council and the Parliament reached a political agreement on the 2021-2027 budget, including the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) for the next seven years. The new leading instrument for EU policies in the employment and social sectors will be the European Social Fund plus (ESF+), which is expected to merge the current European Social Fund (ESF), FEAD, the Youth Employment Initiative (YEI) and the EU Programme for Employment and Social Innovation (EaSI).
It is of utmost importance for ESF+ to maintain minimum allocations for social inclusion and material/food deprivation, and that at least 5% of its total budget supports activities addressing the rising child poverty. Likewise, the allocation of resources to accompanying measures such as educational activities, counselling, psychosocial support, and other key social services should be made compulsory, to effectively contribute to tackling poverty and enhance social cohesion.
Considering the far-reaching socio-economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is also critical that additional funding available through the Next Generation EU package to help Member States in recovering from the ongoing emergency be extensively used for the health and social sectors.
On the ground, staff and volunteers from National Red Cross Societies across the EU keep working tirelessly to help others: from the most vulnerable before the current emergency, to those who are also facing difficulties now. In a recent interview, the President of the Spanish Red Cross warned that the socio-economic impacts of the crisis can be life-changing for anyone: “We have people who work the entire month but need food and support. We must reflect on it; no-one should be stigmatised.”
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