INTERVIEW / Kristalina Georgieva, the European Union's humanitarian aid commissioner, told EurActiv she was reasonably confident that the EU’s aid funding would not fall victim to the push by some EU member states to slash the EU budget for 2014-2020. But she also vowed to fight to preserve humanitarian aid, with “no apologies” made to detractors. 

Georgieva, who is in charge of International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response at the European Commission, said she had good reasons to consider that the “humanitarian line” of the EU’s long-term budget will remain “just about what is in the Commission’s proposal”.

Her expectation may appear over-optimistic. The latest draft budget proposal tabled by Council President Herman Van Rompuy slashes development aid and humanitarian assistance by almost €10 billion (see background), to €60.6 billion.

Among her arguments, she mentioned the relatively small size of the humanitarian aid budget, as well as the fact that this was one of the few areas where EU funds allocated had been fully utilised.

“If there would be cuts in the Commission’s proposal, the question would be: Will they be deeper in the area of humanitarian aid? I hope not, because we trust the facts, and the facts are that the humanitarian budget is tiny, it’s 0.62% [of the total EU budget], but with this money we help 150 million people. And for them, this is the most important thing the Commission does, Europe does,” Georgieva said in an interview.

Emergency Aid Reserve

The Commissioner insisted that her services had been using the funds allocated “to the fullest 100%”, and that the EU’s Emergency Aid Reserve (EAR), which allows it to respond to unforeseen disasters, has been used to the fullest in the past three years.

And unfortunately, needs were expected to continue growing very rapidly, “because of mother nature, because of conflicts,” she said.

But she didn’t hide the fact that EAR had been one of the spending areas targeted by the spending reduction drive. The EAR currently represents €250 million on average per year, and this number was increased to €350 million under the Commission proposal. However, the number was brought down to €280 million in the first proposal tabled by Van Rompuy.

“Now we are trying to mobilise support to bring it to the original level proposed,” Georgieva said.

She also insisted that EU humanitarian aid was “very fiscally responsible” and that the “error rate”, or material error in accounting for EAR was of 1.1% - among the lowest in the Commission, she said. The overall error rate for EU spending for 2012 was below 4%, according to the EU Court of Auditors.

In many areas there are unspent funds at the end of the year, the commissioner said.

Humanitarian aid 'speedboat' vs. Queen Mary

To illustrate the need for emergency spending, Georgieva took the example of Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, which suffered a devastating earthquake on 12 January 2010. Georgieva’s term in office as Commissioner began when the Haiti disaster struck.

Thirty or so countries are “incredibly vulnerable” to natural disasters and their vulnerability grows, Georgieva said, because many of them are located in conflict areas.

Asked how her agency interacted with those of Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, Georgieva compared her service to “a speedboat”, and development aid to the Queen Mary ocean liner.

“We have an enormous privilege, those of us who work on humanitarian aid. Because we make decisions quickly and we execute them with partners whom we trust. The rest of the activity, development, is much slower,” she said.

This does not mean that EU development aid services are working with people they don’t trust, she said when asked to elaborate on the comparison. But a major change in development policy was introduced when the Commission was required to work “with governments that mean well for their own people,” she said. The change took place in 2011, during the Arab Spring.

“They have to pass the test actually that they are caring about their own people. This is how the concept of 'more for more' was born. But I would say as someone who has worked a long time in development, that it is much easier to do 'more for more' and it is much more difficult to do 'less for less'," Georgieva said.

The Commissioner said EU humanitarian aid Piebalgs's EuropeAid had identified “two big chunks of joint work”. One is the 30 or so disaster-prone countries, with the objective of helping communities cope with shocks.

“When we translate this into programming, we programme humanitarian aid and development cooperation money with this objective and it works. More in some countries, less in others, but it works,” she said.

The second area of common action is what she called the link between rehabilitation and development in protracted crisis areas, such as in Darfur, or in occupied Palestinian territories. In a camp for example, this means that the EU can support a school and still have cash to help building a road, the Commissioner explained.

The emotional appeal

Georgieva, a Bulgarian economist and politician who has served as vice president of the World Bank and has experience in fund-raising, made no secret that she was planning to use her “emotional appeal” to convey the message that humanitarian and development aid were not activities where budgetary savings should be made.

“This is a point I make to everybody. When I go to Parliament, to President Van Rompuy, to the ministers, I always say: agriculture has a lobby, cohesion has a lobby, the most vulnerable people who have no voice in the high corridors of power, they don’t have a lobby. What they have is me. So I’m going to fight for this as hard as I can, no apologies,” she said.

Georgieva also made reference of the EU's special leverage in conflict zones, citing civil war-torn Mali as an example. “Because the EU does what we do the way we do it, we actually have much much more leeway to talk to everybody. You feel it. There is an acceptance of the EU as a soft power that allows messages to be passed,” she said.

'Good stories are very hard to come through'

Georgieva used the EurActiv interview to accuse international news media of neglecting the “success stories” of the EU’s humanitarian and development action.

“You guys work with bad news. How could I get you to write you a story about the dog that didn’t bark?”, Georgieva said.

She said that probably the biggest story for 2012 had been the averted food catastrophe in Sahel, the geographic zone of transition between the Sahara desert and the Sudanian savannas.

“There could have been a disaster, but we avoided it. We mobilised early, we deployed €337 million just from the Commission to avert catastrophe, and we succeeded. But then, how we sell the story? You could say, 'Kristalina, you have to figure out how to make the quiet dog bark'. I’m actually trying, but it’s not an obvious thing. Bad stories are easy to convey, and good stories are very hard to come through,” the Commissioner said.

The second biggest success of the year, which according to Georgieva went largely unnoticed in the media, was the UN’s Food Assistance Convention, which became effective as of 1 January 2013. She said this international treaty was hugely significant because after many years of wrangling, Europeans managed to lead the world in changing their approach to food assistance.

The old approach, she explained, was to “bring our agricultural surpluses and dump them to people who need food”, while the new practice will be to provide support in cash and vouchers, and bring food only when the local and regional markets don’t work.

“Huge difference, because bringing cash and vouchers, aside from the fact that it is much more dignifying, we don’t end up killing the local farmers and creating aid dependency. And that story of one convention that goes against the risk of aid dependence is a very good story to me. But again, this was the story of the dog that didn’t bark,” she said.

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