The state of EU humanitarian relief: A conversation with Kristalina Georgieva

European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response Kristalina Georgieva. Photo by: Anthony Njuguna / EU

Refugees from Burma to Thailand. Rising food prices. Libya, Japan, Ivory Coast. As commissioner of one of the world’s largest humanitarian relief agencies, Kristalina Georgieva has a lot on her plate.

There are bilateral meetings with the U.S. administration, World Bank and other governments and organizations around the globe, ongoing negotiations of the agency’s policies and finances up to 2020 in Brussels. And as the European Union’s international cooperation strategy changes, Georgieva is working hard to align emergency relief with reconstruction and development aid in partnership with the public, nonprofit and private sectors.

Devex spoke with the Bulgarian ECHO chief about the state of humanitarian relief around the world – and at one of its largest benefactors.

You have your hands full right now, considering the ongoing ECHO reform discussions and various crises around the world. What are your priorities right now?

What we strive to do is to keep a balance between operational response to crisis and conflict and policy work that can make us more effective. We live in a world where natural disasters are on the increase; their frequency and intensity is growing. And conflict caused by people are more complex. At any one point in time, we have somewhere between 30 and 40 countries either in a conflict or coming out of a conflict or slipping into a conflict. And that puts tremendous pressure on all of us to respond.

But we should not lose sight that as we respond to the crises that hit us, we must attempt to do better to be more effective because when needs are growing and resources are not, or not growing as much, the only way to serve people in need is to extract more value from ever dollar or every euro that is spent.

So what does it mean in operational terms? What it means is that we aim to respond immediately to emergencies and do that by targeting the needs there in the best possible way. That means that we have to have people on the ground – our partners, our own staff – that can quickly identify what exactly is most critical and how we can fit this need.

We have made a decision to have half of our staff in hot-spot areas around the world, either where problems already are – say South Sudan, Darfur or in Thailand, the Thai-Myanmar border or Myanmar itself – or in regional hubs where most likely there’ll be need for assistance because we know that these are disaster-prone areas, we know that these are areas where conflicts are more frequent. And these are the people who help us prioritize operational response. They’re also the eyes and ears of our taxpayers. They’re the people who help us make sure we achieve the objectives we set.

At the same time, on a parallel track, we strive to get policy change, and this policy change goes in two directions. First is in making sure that we have the efficiency of delivery. For example: This year, we made a decision that for needs we know are going to be there, we’re going to allocate resources in a programmatic manner in the beginning of the year. So, we shrank over 55 decisions into three decisions. That of course improves the effectiveness of our work, gives predictability to our partners, so they can be positioned to help people in need.

The second side of the policy response is to aim for us Europeans to be a force for good in the international community and come up with policy change that ultimately benefits those that are most in need.

An example: Last year in March, we adopted a new policy on food assistance that shifts European assistance from in-kind to cash vouchers and in-kind only when there’s no other way. Very significant! Why? In the past, what we’d do is we’d take our agricultural surpluses and kind of dump them on poor people. And we would say, “Look, these people need help, they need food, we have more, so we can give it to them.” Problem is, we may feed the people but kill the local farmers. So, going to cash and vouchers has the added benefit of creating more demand for local agricultural production, and of course it’s the right thing to do.

And I’ll say this: Many people in Europe, for some time – well, not only in Europe – people thought it’s impossible because there’d be such resistance because, of course, the agricultural lobby in Europe would never agree to that. But we have proven that if it’s the right thing to do, of course, it can be done. The European people are generous; we are very proud that we are 20 percent of the world economy but 50 percent of the humanitarian assistance, 60 percent of the development cooperation assistance. And now, people want to do the right thing for the rest of the world.

So, operationally, be fast, target well, work with the right partners, make sure that you address the right needs. On the policy side, promote policies that make us more efficient and that also promote long-term development objectives.

ECHO wasn’t included in the new EU foreign affairs architecture and on paper at least, it is operating independently from the newly established European External Action Service under its leader, Catherine Ashton, the EU’s top diplomat. There have been concerns within the NGO community about security and diplomacy trumping humanitarian relief priorities. Can you shed some light on your working relationship with Catherine Ashton and between ECHO and EEAS?

We have made in Europe a conscious choice to protect the impartiality, neutrality and independence of humanitarian aid by keeping our humanitarian service outside of our foreign affairs entity, the External Action Service. I am convinced, and so is Catherine Ashton, that this is the right choice. Why? Service to humanity means help people in their dire moment of need, independent of what is their political orientation, what is their religion, whether or not they’re on the right or the wrong side of a conflict. So, we don’t judge that. We just say: “People need help. We’re there to help you.” And that is so important for the human race that we, retain this focus on service to humanity.

And secondly: We live in a world where there are emerging powers like China and India and Brazil and Russia, the Arab League. It is very important that we set the right example for them. So, we encourage on a global scale for them to carry their rightful share in helping the world to be a better place. But also, that we set up the right example for them that service to humanity is blind to politics or religion or regional or national or tribal representation. So we have decided on that, we have executed it.

At the same time, of course, we don’t live on two separate planets with Catherine Ashton, and there is a high degree of collaboration. It is strongest in the field, when you are in a zone of conflict, say, right now, Cote d’Ivoire. Of course it’s very important that the ECHO team and the External Action Service see eye to eye, we exchange information, we work together. And I have been to many of these hot spots. Practically in every place I’ve been – in Yemen, in Sudan, in Kyrgyzstan – I have seen this cooperation in the field working extremely well.

And then, when it comes up to Brussels, we have established relations in which we keep each other informed, we share information, and then we make sure that our… My job is to be like a first respondent in a time of crisis. But that first response is, of course, plugged into the overall EU action. And I know that people in civil society were very concerned. And I use the chance now that I talk with you, to say: Be confident that we will respect this division of labor, but we would also nurture that collaboration when it makes sense.

The EU’s development policymaking and implementation arms, the Directorate-General for Development and EuropeAid, recently merged as part of the ongoing EU reform process. ECHO and the newly formed EuropeAid Development and Cooperation Directorate-General tackle some of the same issues, food aid for instance, and some lawmakers argue that ECHO’s financial mechanism should be folded in as well. You’ve been quoted as saying, only “over my dead body.” Can you explain?

Since I’m here well and alive, clearly this decision has been executed the way it should be. First, why we should protect the independence of this instrument? Because of the pressure on us to act swiftly at the moment of crisis, and our ability to execute decisions virtually within hours. That makes it very important that this instrument has its own standing, its own separate processes that are, of course, tailored for us to be fast to act. But also because it is, the financial instrument is, the signal that we’re protecting the independence, the neutrality of our humanitarian assistance.

Second, how are we going about it? Well, we will have the humanitarian aid instrument, we’re making our case on the necessary funding levels, we’re making it on the basis of historical trends. We have seen [that] the world has changed and continues to change and unfortunately in the direction of more fragility. But that means that Europe has to be financially up to par with our traditional commitment to solidarity with people in need.

But, third, what does it mean for our collaboration with [the EuropeAid] Development [and Cooperation DG]? We have set two priorities for working together with our development colleagues, and they are to link better relief to rehabilitation, to development. And second, to work together on disaster risk reduction. In other worlds, we want to establish in very clear operational terms how we can together achieve better results in countries where that issue of transition is paramount. Take Haiti, or right now Cote d’Ivoire – and, hopefully, this will be an example we can draw positive lessons from: In Cote d’Ivoire, we’ve announced €30 million ($42.3 million) [in] humanitarian assistance. [European] Commissioner [for Development Andris] Piebalgs announced €184 million [for] development cooperation. And in his announcement, he made it very clear that this money would also pursue this link from relief to rehabilitation and development. And so, we will do from our side with our funding. We’re likely to actually double the humanitarian assistance to Cote d’Ivoire. So, [what] that means in practical terms is that our teams are mindful of the long-term development opportunities as we provide relief. Again, example, in Haiti: Cash-for-work programs, they help immediately, they also create jobs that can then be transformed into sustained employment in the future. Or transitional housing: It helps people, but it also provides a foundation for the relief and development process.

And then on disaster risk reduction: Commissioner Piebalgs and I see this eye to eye. There are a number of disaster-prone countries – we know which they are. And in this context, development cooperation must address disaster risk reduction as a priority. And we have to work together. So, what we know from the preparedness, prevention, response side can be then integrated into what they do on the development side.

You mentioned a couple of innovative initiatives such as cash-for-work. ECHO is also eager to partner more with logistics companies, especially on air transportation. What kinds of organizations and skills are you looking for in these new, maybe more modern, forward-looking partnerships that you’re trying to build?

What we are looking for is a way to speed up and professionalize disaster response. Let’s take an example: Say, an earthquake hits a country. We have to be able to immediately identify where we can mobilize relief from, how to deliver it to the affected country and the affected region in the country, which may or may not be the capital or close to airports, and then how to organize distribution with the local partner – that could be Red Cross, Red Crescent Society or the U.N. system. As we do this, we can deploy an assessment team and a logistics team, but this team should be able to immediately connect to the private sector delivery – transportation companies, communications companies, storage facilities.

And we need to have this up-front. It would be very different from one part of the world to another. And of course, as we strike to build up these relations, there are a number of organizations that are very critical partners, [like the] World Food Program – they have already gone in this direction of building relations with private sector partners in logistics, transportation, distribution and delivery – [or] with the UNHCR, because similarly, they have to mobilize very quickly for setting up refugee camps around the world in conflict and disaster environments. And with the highly professional response organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Médecins Sans Frontières. So, we don’t see ourselves working on our own: We see ourselves as a connector within the set of partners with which we work and the new partners we strive to build relations with.

Consultations are ongoing for the next multiannual financial framework, which will set funding parameters for the EU apparatus for 2014-2020. What are you bringing to the table – what’s your “ask” and what do you think will happen and how will it affect ECHO?

What is our ask? Our ask is for two things: One, to have a solid budget based on historical evidence, and it is about a billion [euros] a year for humanitarian aid, and about €200 million a year for strengthening our disaster response capabilities. So, that’s our ask.

But the second thing we’re asking is equally important: for the flexibility of the reserve. We have had the first call on emergency reserve. It has served the world very well. We want this first call to be protected in the future. So, when a year happens to be a particularly bad year, we can be sure we have the cushion of financial resources. Simple example: Last year, we started with €830 million; we ended the year with €1.4 billion – over €300 million from emergency reserve. This year doesn’t start very well unfortunately, but if we don’t need the money, we don’t use the money. But we want to be sure it is there for us, of course.

What are the challenges in drafting the council regulation revision? Are there any sticking points in the ongoing consultations?

You know, it’s a tough time for the world, tough time for Europe. To go back to your previous question, [what is] very important for us is to show that we’re showing value for money. Our citizens – 80 percent of Europeans are in favor of Europe being strong in the provision of humanitarian aid. But, similarly, the expectation is that we can show efficiency and results. Our accountability for results has to be much stronger.

When we go into the discussions on the next financial perspective, we all have to be mindful that this is a sacrifice of our citizens, and for this sacrifice, they deserve to get results from us, and they also deserve to know what we have done with their money. So, whenever we discuss the role of European humanitarian assistance, we enjoy the support of our policymakers, we enjoy the support of our citizens, but we also have to bring the proof that what they sacrificed for is worth that sacrifice.

I come from the poorest country from Europe – hopefully it would not be the poorest for a long time, but it is now with a low income per capita. My Bulgarian friends, their incomes are not very high. Obviously, for many of them, this is a real sacrifice to support development and humanitarian action. And I take it as a huge responsibility to make sure that their sacrifice is worth their while. This will be the critical factor, to demonstrate that there is value for money.

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About the author

  • Rolf Rosenkranz

    Rolf Rosenkranz oversees a talented team of in-house journalists, correspondents and guest contributors located around the globe. Since joining Devex in early 2008, Rolf has been instrumental in growing its fledgling news operation into the leading online source for global development news and analysis. Previously, Rolf was managing editor at Inside Health Policy, a subscription-based news service in Washington. He has reported from Africa for the Johannesburg-based Star and its publisher, Independent News & Media, as well as the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, a German daily.