Q&A: EU aid commissioner Christos Stylianides

EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides visits a camp for displaced Iraqis. Photo by: Peter Biro / EU / ECHO

QAYYARAH, Iraq — The parents at Jad’ah camp for displaced Iraqi civilians were full of mixed emotions this week as they met EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides. They were overjoyed to see their children toting blue UNICEF backpacks after after two to three years living under the harsh control of Islamic State.

At the same time, parents worried about the unconventional tent classroom where their children now studied. “I saw this agony to see their children to be under national curriculum,” Stylianides told Devex. Their children were still not in government schools — the ones that could certify their graduations and send them on to high school and maybe university.

What would happen, they asked, when they returned home?

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That tension is at the heart of what Stylianides and ECHO are now focusing on in Iraq: how to build the nexus between immediate relief and longer term reconstruction and development. Home to nearly 3 million internally displaced, Iraq has urgent humanitarian needs — among them getting children back into school..

During his visit to Iraq — the fifth during his tenure as commissioner — Stylianides announced 42.5 million euros in new humanitarian assistance for Iraq, on top of 159 million euros last year. Many of the projects ECHO funds speak directly to Iraq’s unique position, hovering between a dramatic crisis and a country in need of longer term development.

Stylianides and his team spoke with Devex about the complexities of building flexibility into relief, thinking about the transition to reconciliation and stabilization, and how the big debates in the humanitarian community are directly shaping programs on the ground. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

As we think about how to bridge the gap between the humanitarian and development spaces, how do you see this playing out on the ground in Iraq and across the sector more broadly?

Definitely the situation in the humanitarian field day by day unfortunately is deteriorating. It’s a real stress for the humanitarian community and for the humanitarian donors. At the same time, due to financial crises in many countries, the funding is limited. An important objective is to find new donors.

This region — the Syrian crisis and the Iraq crisis — remains a priority. [We are working to] find solutions and give hope through a comprehensive approach. Humanitarian aid alone cannot solve political problems. Here in Iraq now, we have already formulated not only humanitarian assistance but also assistance for development, early recovery, stabilization, and the whole [picture of] necessities.

Of course, for us as humanitarian actors, the major goal is to deal with the urgent needs. We saw on the ground that regardless of some of the very critical predictions [about the potential crisis around the campaign to liberate Mosul], the humanitarian community avoided a humanitarian catastrophe and now we can cope with a humanitarian crisis, more or less an ordinary crisis.

The majority of the children didn’t go to school for three years because of the Daesh [ISIS] control of Mosul. They didn’t have any opportunity. Maybe their parents decided to avoid any engagement with Daesh. Now [through our emergency education support], we can provide psychosocial support, protection of course, and at the same time, we can cover this gap between education in emergencies and national curriculum. In our discussions with these parents, we heard this unbelievable expression: ‘thank you commissioner because now I saw my children to smile again.’

How can you as a donor encourage organizations to think about filling that gap — making a continuum of aid from relief to development?

This is one of the big challenges in our community — the link to create this nexus between humanitarian phase and development phase. In our institutions, we have established an every day link in order to sit together [and consider] all the problems on the ground and find practical solutions.

[A project we have supported here] for health care is another example: There is a network, first, of three to four trauma points around Mosul, very close to the operations places. Then humanitarian actors and other personnel can transfer wounded, injured people to [a secondary line of] first aid centers. There, the nurses, or maybe a doctor, can evaluate the physical situation of the injured within the golden hour: it’s very critical to face this unique situation for any patent in his period, otherwise it’s impossible to save lives.

And of course [we work] in collaboration with the national system. It’s impossible for humanitarian actors to establish hospitals with real infrastructure. It is a part of this approach that we can face this problem in collaboration with the national health care system.

Do you think the grand bargain and some of the other discussion of humanitarian reform are taking hold at this point?

Definitely our discussions at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul about the grand bargain were very critical in order to create effectiveness and efficiency in our system. We have to admit that there is room to see on the ground this effectively and efficiency in all levels of our activities, starting with the overhead costs.  These discussions are sincere among humanitarian actors.

I had a lot of experience on the ground where I realized that the cash and voucher scheme is the most cost-effective procedure in order to provide humanitarian assistance, where we can.

My experience in Turkey, where we launched the largest humanitarian project ever funded by the European Union — the so-called emergency social safety net. I recognized on the ground that through this cash and voucher system, we can provide and we can return the dignity for the vulnerable people. It’s completely different to give in-kind assistance and different for any human being to be more or less self-reliant in terms of their needs and thoughts — what they need.

At the same time, I saw on the ground that this process is very important in order to see a real reconciliation between refugee communities and host communities, because definitely it is a financial injection for the local economy. It’s very tangible for the local entrepreneurs to understand that this is something that is beneficial for them in their everyday life. In Gazi-Antep, Turkey, they welcomed us as real donors for their local economy. It was very important in order to accept the refugee communities, because they realized their benefits through this cash and voucher scheme.

Also in Turkey we evaluated that more than 85 percent of our contribution is going directly to the beneficiaries, so this is a real example of what we are saying about the grand bargain and cost-effectiveness. For me, the project is a real turning point in our estimation of cash and voucher schemes.

What’s your vision for how much of the aid budget could or should move into cash assistance? Do you see the revolution some talk about with more than 50 percent of aid moving into cash?

Inevitably it’s difficult to see that all humanitarian activities go only through cash and voucher scheme. In some areas in Africa, for example, we should utilize also in-kind systems. Part of the grand bargain is our thinking about flexibility: we have to be flexible and we have to follow the needs and the circumstances in any real conflict area or areas affected by natural disasters.

It’s important to realize that cash and voucher is not a magic approach. For example, we already imposed that education in emergencies is not optional; it’s a basic need. And for me, this is more or less a revolutionary approach within our community, because four or five years ago, education was considered a real development activity. Now, I strongly believe that the only way to cover this gap between the conflict and when a national curriculum can start is to provide education to the vulnerable children — this gap is very critical to avoid a lost generation. And cash and voucher scheme is the real vehicle in order to provide this education.

What are the innovations that the sector is making in what emergency education should be? What are the elements that make up a successful bridge program back into the national education system?

I remember in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, we met a single mother with six children. She told me, ‘thank you commissioner, now we have shelter above our heads, we have food for my children. But the future, hope, prospects?’ She insisted on education processes.

I saw that the first priority in this conflict areas for children is the protection. We realized at that time 85 percent of the refugee children in Bekaa Valley were out of school, and after our initiatives, with many humanitarian partners, we managed to reduce this to 45-50 percent.

Education in emergencies for me is not the most important process for educational skills. It’s difficult in these circumstances to provide physics, math and chemistry; it’s not our objective. [Rather, it’s] psychosocial support, protection, and of course social skills. It’s completely different for any children to create his or her confidence through school environment rather than family environment, especially under a tent. Especially under these conditions.

The reaction yesterday: we saw their faces, they enjoyed this connection, this contact with the other children in a very disciplined environment, under the auspices of a teacher. It’s completely different than to make education in your homes.

Is there a role for you as a donor to play as well in advocating with national authorities to understand this bridge and accept the credentials it provides?

In many areas, we faced some obstacles. It was difficult for some authorities to understand that education in emergencies sometimes would be out of their control in a typical regular places. But I think after the first experience, they understood and now everywhere we have a very good collaboration with local and national authorities in order to connect this period with the national curriculum.

Yesterday in our discussions with parents, I saw this agony to see their children to be under national curriculum. But after the discussions, they understood that this is the first step, and they realized that this first step is very important for their psychosocial support.

In my country, I lived in war conditions. I know well this very problematic circumstances. It is difficult for the children to concentrate on education and skills without psychosocial support. It’s needed as a necessity to pass this period in order to make themselves ready to accept more educational skills.

[This is all possible because civilian protection was prioritized in the operation to liberate Mosul.] I think this unique phenomenon here is a real outcome of good preparation. Our humanitarian partners and in particular Lise Grande, the U.N. coordinator, did very good work with military forces: They persuaded them that it’s quite important to protect civilians. This is a part of one of the first steps of the reconciliation process. Don’t underestimate this side of this very critical period for Iraq, because for us, for me, the reconciliation process already started through military operation.

Since so much humanitarian need is now in conflict areas, is this political awareness becoming more important in planning relief operations?

I’m coming from the political field. Before my mandate, I didn’t have many experiences in the humanitarian field. Now, I realize that humanitarian activities are maybe the best background in order to realize many political issues, in particular in conflict areas and especially when we deal with the reconciliation process.

For the reconciliation process — it’s very critical to start with tangible preparation on the ground, when military operations are taking place. Otherwise, it’s difficult to turn immediately and say that, ‘look, now we finished military operations and now we start reconciliation processes.’ It’s totally artificial, it’s totally fake. It’s quite important to understand this connectivity and continuation of this process.

In Iraq, it’s a unique example. Of course, a lot of things remain to take place on the ground. For me, it’s the most important challenge here because it’s quite important to defeat the Daesh narrative, not only militarily but also in the ideological battleground. Maybe its most difficult challenge in the military operation.

How could the changing funding picture affect your work, for example possible cuts in aid funding from the U.S. or Brexit, whose impact isn’t yet clear?

I hope that at the least the donor community will remain focused on the humanitarian needs on the ground, and we have to continue at least in the same level as now. I hope so.

It’s to stay optimistic and to try to keep this level of funding because definitely it’s absolutely necessary to keep this level — and value for money.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify the time period of the conflict in Cyprus.

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About the author

  • Dickenson beth full

    Elizabeth Dickinson

    Elizabeth Dickinson is associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.