Kristalina Georgieva: Let's 'amplify the voice of goodness'

Kristalina Georgieva, the EU commissioner for international cooperation, humanitarian aid and crisis response. In an exclusive interview with Devex, Georgieva urged the international community to not forget crises that don't make the headlines every day. Photo by: Philippe Merle / European Union

As world leaders and development luminaries gather this week in Brussels for the European Development Days, the international development and humanitarian community will debate how to better respond to crises, especially in fragile states.

The challenges are daunting — but Kristalina Georgieva, the EU commissioner for international cooperation, humanitarian aid and crisis response, is unfazed.

“What I’ve seen at the most dramatic times of crisis is the sense of solidarity, the goodness of people,” she said during an exclusive interview with Devex, an official media partner of EDD13. “But I have also seen that goodness is quiet. Evil is very loud, negative things are very loud. What we have to do is amplify the voice of goodness and the European Development Days is a great platform to do exactly that.”

Georgieva explained that in a more fragile world, the aid community needs to act as one and build on best practices like solidarity and cooperation so it can face the worst challenges together, never as separate donors or implementers.

She urged the international community not to forget crises that don’t make the headlines every day, and to “remain very open to the changing world and how we can accelerate change for the benefit of people who need help.”

Here are some highlights from our conversation with Georgieva:

Have the financial crisis and stagnating official development assistance commitments in Europe affected the provision of EU humanitarian aid?

To the credit of the European people, they remain committed to helping those in their most dire moments of need … We’ve done a public opinion survey and — to our surprise — we’ve seen an increase of support in times of crisis, up from 79 percent in 2010 to 88 percent in 2012.

But also in terms of actual contributions made by EU [member state] governments over the last few years, we’ve completed the framework discussions on the next financial perspective and … we see a modest increase in humanitarian aid in the funding for the European Commission. During fundraising for the most dramatic events, like the crisis in Syria, Europe by far exceeds the contributions of anybody else. Up to now, we’ve raised $2.7 billion — half from the European Commission and half from [EU] member states. Next in line is the United States with just over $1 billion. So these figures speak louder than anything else.

However, we’re worried about two things: First, the unfortunate trend of increased needs, with conflicts becoming more and more complex, and more fragility and climate change causing more distress for very poor, very vulnerable countries. Second, money is not catching up with this trend and while we see more donors, which is a very positive development, coordination with all the new donors needs to be significantly strengthened … We have to make sure that we don’t forget crises that are not frontpage news.

And I presume that this cooperation is not purely financial, but also about working together in a practical way with other players on disaster management, for example?

Absolutely, it’s about finding and expanding common ground. Even if we come from different traditions and perspectives, when it comes to humanitarian aid there is plenty that can unite us. We’re working hard to reach this unity, recognizing that there are some policy areas — disaster risk reduction, preparedness, resilience — where we can better serve the world together. And I find wherever I go — whether Russia, China, or to the Gulf — that there is a commonly held view that this is important and that we can work together.

The movement towards linking relief, rehabilitation and development has been widely praised by the development community, but how satisfied are you with the cooperation of the two “arms” of the Commission — ECHO and EuropeAid — at partner country level?

The more difficult the circumstances within the country, the better the cooperation. That is my impression time and again when I visit particularly difficult countries like the Central African Republic, Mali, Niger, Chad, Sudan, or South Sudan. People on the front line with that need of linking relief, rehabilitation and development see the logic and necessity much better than from far away in Brussels. What we have achieved over the last years is three-fold.

First, a movement towards joint programming in countries that are highly vulnerable to recurrent shocks, where humanitarian aid is systematically a higher-than-average percentage vis-a-vis development assistance. Globally, we spend 10 percent on humanitarian aid, 90 percent on development; but in countries vulnerable to recurrent shocks, this percentage would be 20-25 and in very critical circumstances — such as the famine in the Horn of Africa — it would be 50-50.

Second, we have identified very specific operational activities in countries where this link is particularly important. In Mali, for example, we’re using €23 million in development funding for the humanitarian organizations present in the North, where there are no development actors today, to renew the delivery of social services [such as] electricity, education, health.

Third, for countries and communities most vulnerable to natural disasters, we program according to whether [the projects] support the capacity of communities to withstand shocks. We have two priority regions: the Horn of Africa and the Sahel. And in countries such as Haiti and Yemen, which are highly vulnerable to natural disasters, we also program with the objective to strengthen resilience. The results so far are very encouraging.

The Resilience Action Plan was jointly adopted by ECHO and EuropeAid, but how do you respond to civil society criticisms that the term “resilience” wasn’t clearly defined, that timeframes remain vague, that barriers to resilience weren’t addressed, and that there was a lack of reference to the finances to be put behind this drive for resilience?

Well, first of all, I think we have a very clear definition of what resilience is: to help individuals, families, communities and countries to withstand recurrent shocks. And obviously, exactly how this is implemented would depend on specific circumstances — what are the shocks, what are the right mechanisms to help communities, etc. So while we have a universal definition, how exactly this translates into a resilience action in a particular context would vary from community to community and country to country.

Why don’t we mention numbers in the action plan? Because actually we have parallel platforms — we have the SHARE program for the Horn of Africa, we have AGIR for the Sahel. In SHARE we have committed €250 million for this year and next year and we anticipate about €1 billion committed for the next seven-year period. [In AGIR], we have already [pledged] €1.5 billion in support for resilience activities. So one should read the action plan with complementing documents that bring specifics to what it actually is.

Of course, I completely accept the criticism that we still have a way to go. Look, resilience has been with us for a long time — it’s not something we invented this year — but we now recognize that the humanitarian community has a responsibility to be the advocate for resilience and to demonstrate at community level how it works. But it cannot be carried forward without the development community, so we need transformative development planning — and this only works if countries are on board, [which] also takes some time.

After bringing them on board, how do you encourage the in-country ownership of these resilience priorities?

The way we’re approaching it is to say to countries “we don’t want you to write some paper on resilience, we want you to work with the team that we’re putting at your disposal — a very small support team — to look at your development plans based on your own experience and see what you can do better so that you have a more resilient development program.” And some countries — like Niger or Ethiopia — are already moving in this direction.

So this is where the action plan is being rolled out?

Yes, and what we are seeing is that it takes examples from countries to bring others to move forward — different countries have different institutional capabilities. In some, it is very much dominated by one ministry — agriculture — and resilience is very narrowly understood as using resilient seeds, water harvesting techniques and improving agricultural productivity. In other countries it is understood that you also need health systems to identify malnutrition early and address it, you need social safety nets, and you need to be more mindful of the most vulnerable people — because in any crisis 80 percent of the victims come from the 20 percent of men, women and children that are most vulnerable. Moving in a horizontal manner and understanding that resilience is something that is multifaceted of course takes time.

And it’s also about climate, isn’t it?

Oh, big time, yes — 80 percent of natural disasters are climate-related and some countries live virtually on the fault lines of climate change, including the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. And this is why we not only partner very closely with our development colleagues, but we partner very closely with the Commissioner for Climate Action [Connie Hedegaard] and her team. We actually went on a joint visit to Ethiopia with her and the Commissioner for Agriculture [Damian Ciolos] and I think this is where Europe is “walking its own talk.” We are saying climate mitigation continues to be a priority, but the climate change train has left the station and adaptation is a must for us in Europe, but also in our development cooperation programs. Synergies on development, humanitarian action, climate, agriculture and trade policies are absolutely essential.

Are there any specific upcoming initiatives related to “silent disasters” like floods?

We have partnered very closely with the Commissioner for Environment [Janez Potočnik] and the Commissioner for Development [Andris Piebalgs] on the topic of silent disasters, because 91 percent of disasters are unreported … We are also looking for joint action [on] connecting the post-MDG goals, sustainable development goals and disaster risk reduction, so we come up with a coherent, coordinated approach on this. And from there — trickling down — are the development initiatives we are undertaking with Commissioner Piebalgs under the banner of resilience.

This collaboration between directorates-general at the Commission seems to be a trend, but has this involved any changes in the culture of working, the sharing of tasks or the division of labor?

Well, the most essential change is in joint programing in areas of common interest … 20 percent of development funding is committed to the fight against climate change and to support adaptation … Obviously climate is a big part of resilience, because for many communities it is the degradation of environment — combined with population growth — that leads to dramatically worsening conditions for people. And that it is where we come into play, because we recognize that the only way to cut humanitarian suffering — and the cost to help people in the future — is to act preventively today. This is not easy in a place where traditionally there has been more vertical organization of work, but it is happening.

Beyond the walls of the Commission, do you see any changes in the way the EU institutions are approaching the private sector or other non-traditional development actors?

That’s a very key part of what we’re discussing about living in a more fragile world. We need the innovation of the private sector and we also need the signalling that the private sector can provide.

Take the issue of disaster risk reduction and the work of [Internal Market and Services] Commissioner Barnier on insurance: the insurance industry can play a much bigger role in signalling risks and managing the behavior of households and businesses in a way that improves resilience. It’s also very crucial for us to be able to provide insurance to small-scale farmers by aggregating and using the capacity of the industry to do so.

And take telecoms: mobile phones change dramatically the way we do humanitarian aid — we can deliver financial assistance in the hands of women in remote areas where there are no banks by using the telephone operators, whereby the women receive a text that says “you’ve got that much money,” they go to the local telephone provider and they receive the cash against a very small fee. Also in terms of signalling that drought is coming … communication can be massively improved.

And when it comes to nutrition, let’s remember one of the big things that have changed the fate of a child affected by malnutrition is the so-called miracle food that came out of research — European research.

So how will the EU incentivize private sector involvement in making a real difference in the arena of humanitarian aid?

Well first, by reaching out to the private sector in areas where they are critical in terms of delivering specific competencies — for example, in terms of logistics and delivery. And we do have expanding partnerships with companies to do so. Secondly, in the area of supporting — and creating the market signals — for the local private sector to be more active.

For years, we used our agricultural surpluses to provide in-kind food assistance … We changed this policy and now use the World Food Program — the big providers of support — with cash and vouchers to generate demand and stimulate local markets to do something that — when done successfully — would reduce humanitarian needs in the future …

There are many directions in which the engagement of the private sector becomes more and more part of the way we think about work. We have created something that is called “telephones without borders,” which involves the private provision of a crucial humanitarian service whereby after an earthquake you’re able to call your family, find out whether they’re well, etc.

These initiatives are not very structured today, but I don’t even think that they should be. The question for us, as a humanitarian community, is to remain very open to the changing world and how we can accelerate change for the benefit of people who need help.

And looking ahead to European Development Days 2013, what is your key message to the international humanitarian and development communities?

In a more fragile world, we need to act together. Together, we can face it; segregated, separated, we cannot. The humanitarian community is like a canary: We are seeing what the future is likely to hold, we are staring risks in the face. But we also see how solidarity, coordination and cooperation make a huge difference. We witness the worst, we witness the best. And of course, what we want is to build on the best, to build solidarity and cooperation, so that we can face the worst together. What I’ve seen at the most dramatic times of crisis is the sense of solidarity, the goodness of people. But I have also seen that goodness is quiet. Evil is very loud, negative things are very loud. What we have to do is amplify the voice of goodness and the European Development Days is a great platform to do exactly that.

Stay tuned to the Devex website for our coverage of European Development Days 2013, follow us on Twitter, and check out the official EDD website for live web-streaming of 20 auditorium sessions from 11:00 CET (GMT+1) on Tuesday November 26.

About the author

  • Richard Jones

    In his role as Editorial Director Richard oversees content for digital series, reports and events, leading a talented team of writers and editors, conducting high-level video interviews and moderating panels at events. Previously partnerships editor and an associate editor at Devex, Richard brings to bear 15 years of experience as an editor in institutional communications, public affairs and international development. Based in Barcelona, his development experience includes stints in the Dominican Republic, Argentina and Ecuador, as well as extensive work travel in Africa and Asia.