Building bridges between relief, rehabilitation and development

Kristalina Georgieva, European commissioner for international cooperation, humanitarian aid and crisis response. Photo by: European Union

The European Community Humanitarian Office was founded 20 years ago as an expression of European solidarity with people in need worldwide. Since then, ECHO has provided 14 billion euros in humanitarian assistance to victims of conflict and disasters in 140 countries. The EU as a whole is the world’s biggest donor of humanitarian aid. Together, member states and European institutions contribute more than half of official global humanitarian aid.

Over the last five years, ECHO’s annual budget has averaged 1 billion euros. In 2004, ECHO became the Directorate-General for Humanitarian Aid before integrating Civil Protection in 2010 for a better coordination and disaster response inside and outside Europe. In 2010, Kristalina Georgieva was appointed as the first dedicated commissioner for international cooperation, humanitarian aid and crisis response.

Increasingly, responding to the world’s natural and manmade disasters involves close cooperation between humanitarian and development actors. In the lead-up to the European Development Days Oct. 16-17 in Brussels, the commissioner spoke out about ECHO’s work, the importance of building resilience into humanitarian assistance and development cooperation, and her close collaboration with European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of the European Community Humanitarian Office. When you look back over the past 20 years, what do you view as ECHO’s most important achievements?

From the perspective of the people we serve, the most important achievements are getting food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, and keeping those who need protection safe from danger. In short: saving lives and easing the suffering of millions of people. And from the perspective of European taxpayers, we do so in a very good and responsible manner.

In 2011, we supported over 120 million people in 80 countries affected by natural disasters, conflicts or human error. For those people, this is the most important achievement in our work. But ECHO has also done huge service to humanity by upholding the principals that make it possible for humanitarian workers to do their job: humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence.

ECHO has demonstrated the value of partnership with United Nations organizations and NGOs that deliver life-saving activities. Our partnership with the development community is also important so that we help save lives, but also help make them worth living.

Partnership is even more important today because needs are growing. There are more frequent and devastating disasters every year. Each year, 30 to 40 countries are either in conflict, emerging from conflict or slipping into it. This means more and more people depend on our help for their survival. Partnership – especially with new and emerging donors – is the best way to cope.

Prevention and preparedness is a cornerstone of the EU’s international cooperation. What is the EU doing to support its development partners and candidate countries in this area?

The world is changing. It is more fragile – disasters are more frequent and severe, being driven by climate change. There are more risks related to urbanization and population growth, too. The only way to cut humanitarian costs in the future is to invest more in preparedness and prevention. It is economically a very smart investment. Every euro in prevention brings back 4-7 euros in savings of damages that do not occur. Today, preparedness and prevention activities represent 8-10 percent of our budget to help vulnerable communities be better prepared. We are also collaborating with European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs, on a Communication on resilience, with a view to integrating and understanding risk across all of our humanitarian and development operations.

We take the risks seriously in Europe as well: We are working with EU member states on legislation concerning risk mapping and prevention. By 2016, we are proposing that all member states have risk management plans in place.

The EU is supporting disaster prevention and preparedness in Haiti, which is consistently under threat from extreme weather events. What lessons have been learned from the Commission’s work in Haiti?

The earthquake in Haiti showed us just how devastating a large-scale disaster can be when a country is unprepared. Haiti’s biggest problem was that for decades it suffered from lack of good governance and institutions. The most important lesson is that we need to support Haiti to build institutions and boost the government’s capacity to manage its resources and risks.

This is because countries that are better prepared and have stronger institutions are far more resilient to disasters. Compare what happened in Haiti and what happened in Chile soon after. The Chilean earthquake was much stronger than the Haitian one – but 500 people died compared to more than 230 000 in Haiti. That is 500 people too many, but the difference is huge. The difference is development – development is the best resilience builder.

Read the complete interview with Kristalina Georgieva, including her take on humanitarian challenges in Haiti, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Myanmar and elsewhere. Excerpts re-published with permission; Devex is an official media partner of the 2012 European Development Days.

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