Humanitarian crisis management benefits from new technologies

Migrants wait for their phone to be recharged on multi-sockets adaptor connected to a generator in the Jungle near Calais, France, 04 August 2015. [EPA/ETIENNE LAURENT]

Weather alert systems, real-time communication and debit cards for refugees: the use of new technologies make humanitarian aid more effective, Commissioner Christos Stylianides said in an interview.  EURACTIV’s partner Euroefe reports.

Humanitarian aid provided by the European Union helps around 120 million people every year, according to the Commission’s data. The EU and its member states are among the leading humanitarian aid donors in the world ( 60% of humanitarian aid), even though its budget for humanitarian aid represents only 1% of its total budget, the equivalent of less than two euros per inhabitant.

Christos Stylianides was a dental surgeon before joining the Cyprus government. He was elected MEP during the 2014 European elections and joined the EPP group. He then became Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management.

How has the EU’s humanitarian aid policy changed and evolved, and what new challenges does it have to overcome?

The nature and length of humanitarian crises have evolved, and as a consequence, we need to adapt our responses to them. There are armed conflicts in our neighbouring countries which leads to suffering for the populations concerned and gives rise to an unprecedented migrant crisis, added to the scarcity of natural resources, climate change and the lack of economic perspectives. We continue to be the leading donors for humanitarian and development aid, contributing to around 60% of aid worldwide.

But it is clear that with growing needs and resources drying out we have to be mindful of making our aid as useful as possible. Consequently, we are trying to round out our more “traditional” action of financial aid with more innovative ideas from international organisations and NGOs.

For example, in Turkey, we are giving refugees debit cards to allow them to choose themselves the basic products they need, this preserves their dignity and supports the local economy. We are among the leading donors in Iraq and Syria and are trying to gather support from the rest of the international community through donor conferences.

I also have a personal interest in subjects often overlooked by the media: for example education for children in emergency situations, which would guarantee them a better future. When I started my term of office, we were allocating less than 1% of humanitarian aid to such issues, this year we will reach 8%.

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To what extent does prevention work? How can new digital technologies help?

Prevention is a key element of humanitarian aid and crisis management, and new technologies can play a major role in this regard. Digitisation allows us to obtain and analyse data in a more efficient and quicker way. For example, we can improve warning systems for natural disasters. Satellites would allow for a more precise map of areas struck by a natural disaster or a humanitarian crisis. Our satellite system Copernicus is now used across the world for all types of natural disasters, whether they be forest fires in Portugal, to hurricanes in the Caribbean’s, and earthquakes in Italy or Mexico. These new technologies directly benefit the affected population, allowing them to access information and services in times of crisis. It is clear that new technologies will become more important not only in prevention but also for aid.

Climate change and the significant increase in natural disasters in the world appear to be clearly linked. The concept of “resilience” in humanitarian aid is evolving. What is the EU’s role in this strategy, especially with regard to developing countries?

Indeed, the link to climate change, natural disasters and humanitarian crisis is becoming more and more apparent. To deal with such crises, we need to go beyond immediate and emergency response. In that respect, it is important to associate humanitarian aid and development cooperation which would make it possible to improve “resilience”, this means a community’s ability to quickly recover from a crisis situation. In order to do this, we need to tackle different vulnerability factors, as well as acting in the prevention and resolution of conflicts.

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How can the latest initiative RescEU help countries such as Spain and Portugal which are often hit by major forest fires every year?

In the EU we currently dispose of an effective but limited system to deal with natural disasters such as forest fires, based on the voluntary contribution of member states. Sometimes, we are overwhelmed by the scale of a disaster, as was the case in Portugal a few years ago. Despite our best efforts to rapidly organise aid, neighbouring countries were unable to share their equipment as logically enough they needed them to tackle their own forest fires. To deal with such circumstances I launched an innovative proposal called “RescEU”. This plan strengthens the European capacity to deal with natural disasters and will create European capacities that would act as a security net when countries are overwhelmed.

It is, therefore, creating a responsible solidarity mechanism. The aim being that once RescEU becomes fully operational we can considerably reduce economic and environmental damage caused by forest fires and other types of natural disasters.

Do you believe the situation in Syria could become a new “forgotten crisis”, far from the spotlight? What could and should the EU do to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian population?

The crisis in Syria continues to be an immediate priority for the EU. From a humanitarian point of view, we are helping the Syrian population since the start of the crisis and we are still the main donors. Our aim is to tend to the needs of the most vulnerable part of the Syrian population, both in Syria and outside of it. Despite the difficulties, we are providing food, drinking water, non-food products, shelter, and medical care to millions of Syrians with the help of international organisations and agencies.

But as I have stated several times, it is crucial to provide this help without any obstacles or risks. Along with the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, we have asked all parties involved in the conflict to take the necessary measures to respect their obligations under international humanitarian law and the resolutions of the UN’s Security Council to guarantee a reduction in violence and the protection of the Syrian people.

WFP official: Humanitarian aid, development and peace have to come together

Conflict resolution should be followed by recovery-type investments, development-type investments and investments in the future, Arif Husain, chief economist of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), told EURACTIV on Tuesday (10 October).

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