Working as a catalyst for reconstruction and rehabilitation in the Balkan region since February 2000, the European Agency for Reconstruction (EAR) is the European Union’s independent and primary reconstruction arm, with headquarters in Thessaloniki, Greece. Since its inception, the agency has handled a portfolio of nearly USD4.34 billion in behalf of the European Commission, and its responsibilities have likewise expanded from post-conflict reconstruction in war-struck Kosovo to helping other Balkan countries achieve sustainable economic and political stability through programs that target policy- and public sector-reform, economic growth, and better public administration. With the EAR’s extended mandate coming to a close this year, the agency is working more tirelessly than ever to aid the Serbian, Montenegrin, and Macedonian republics gain ground and prime themselves for a more developed future.
As the EAR’s Head of the Information and Communication Unit, Giovanni Curtopassi wrestles with the responsibility of ensuring that the agency sufficiently addresses its information and visibility concerns, and that communication lines with the public, various governments, and other organizations are kept frank and open. “During these last seven years, the agency did its utmost to improve the visibility of the main E.U. assistance programs implemented in the region,” Curtopassi explained. “To this end, the Information Unit based in Thessaloniki headquarters had the responsibility for communicating with audiences outside the Western Balkans region, while also coordinating strategy, messages and outputs of each of the four operational centers based in Belgrade, Skopje, Pristina and Podgorica.”
The operation centers are, of course, a concrete manifestation of the EAR’s efforts at establishing a more local and accessible presence in its areas of operation. Besides that, however, the centers in Belgrade, Skopje, Pristina, and Podgorica permit the agency to optimize its projects, programs, and services in their respective locations, giving crucial updates and key information to target audiences that include the media, journalists, non-governmental organizations, and even the refugees themselves.
It is naturally a responsibility to reckon with, and Curtopassi is no stranger to the demands and the challenges that come with being the head Information and Communication Unit. “Most communication activities undertaken result in an increase in the awareness of the agency and the E.U. However, handling information matters on a daily basis is far from being a simple task. It means providing at short notice appropriate answers to all sorts of issues,” he said. And in many ways, the Agency’s success and progress hinges on how efficiently the Information and Communication Unit can disseminate its material. In fact, Curtopassi clarifies that although sharp communication skills are indispensable to the Unit, they aren’t the be-all and end-all of the Unit’s work. “On top of proven communication skills, constant dedication and availability are needed. Without the expertise and good will provided by the agency’s spokespersons and information officers, no major progress would have been possible so far.”
Nonetheless, the rewards for a job well done are more than worth it, a fact that Curtopassi is quick to acknowledge. Since the successes of his and his Unit’s work eventually translate to the success of the EAR, it satisfies him to find how much ground the agency has covered in the last seven years. “The agency’s greatest achievement has been helping to improve the lives of so many people in the Western Balkans over a very difficult, post-conflict period. Tangible results are visible throughout the region,” Curtopassi enthused. “Everywhere, there are signs indicating that these are E.U. projects that were or are being implemented by the agency on behalf of the European Commission. Everywhere, the national and local authorities, the wider civil society, and ordinary people express satisfaction and gratitude for our contribution.”
Before joining the E.U. agency’s headquarters in Thessaloniki in October 2007, Curtopassi dealt with information and cooperation concerns for the European Commission’s Latin America and Asia Directorate, Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO), and the Cooperation Office (AIDCO). He began his career as a journalist in Italy over 20 years ago before serving the European Commission, and holds a degree in Political Science with a focus on Communication. He has also undergone a training program at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration in Paris.
Although the EAR will fold up its operations by the end of 2008, Curtopassi believes that this is hardly any reason to be complacent. “This does not mean that we will stop delivering and promoting European assistance; it means that the E.U. funds made available for external assistance will be channelled by the delegations,” he explained. “Today, we are simply proud to say that the reconstruction phase is over. We are now helping the countries of the region to move safely towards Europe.” He also emphasizes that action cannot be foresworn until the Balkan states are fully able to stand on their own feet. “The pledge is to act until the aid is not needed anymore. Hopefully this will apply soon to the Western Balkans,” he mused. “But for those who are committed to this end, there will always be more work to be carried out elsewhere in the world.”