Stylianides: We need strong bridges between humanitarian and development aid

Christos Stylianides

Christos Stylianides [European Parliament/Flickr]

As the world struggles to deal with crises, there is a need to change the way we think about managing them, while building stronger bridges between humanitarian aid and development assistance, Commissioner Christos Stylianides told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

Christos Stylianides started out as dental surgeon, before joining the government of the Republic of Cyprus and becoming a legislator. He was elected as MEP at the 2014 European elections (EPP). Stylianides was appointed Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management. EU leaders appointed him EU Ebola Coordinator on 24 October.

He spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.

The latest news in the fight against Ebola is alarming. The number of new infections and victims in Sierra Leone is increasing. Is the international response inadequate?

Indeed, the figures are alarming: there are close to 8000 cases in Sierra Leone. A steep increase in infections has recently been recorded in this country. The epidemic is becoming more complex. The situation is getting better in some parts, for instance in Liberia. In the areas where the first infections were detected, the rate of new cases is declining, but the disease is flaring up in diverse spots. Instead of one major outbreak, we are witnessing numerous dispersed pockets, and each needs to be tackled swiftly, which is not always easy because many spots are hard to reach.

This shows that we are still far from defeating the disease. We cannot declare victory yet. We cannot let our guard down and become complacent. Our response must be scaled up, but also to become more flexible and mobile. This is a message I passed to the heads of state and government in my report to them at the European Council a few days ago.

It is true that initially the international community underestimated the threat.  The good news, however, is that the international response has been ramped up significantly in the last couple of months, and this is bringing results. The EU reacted to this emergency from its very start by stepping up our humanitarian funding, deploying experts on the ground, adjusting our development assistance. But the international attention to the epidemic has only intensified in the last few months.  This is why the first responders were overwhelmed and struggled to cope with the scale of the outbreak.

Now it’s clear that a lot of the hard work that has been put in the response is starting to show tangible results. But for the response to be adequate, we must continue our three-pronged approach: step up, adapt and sustain. As EU Ebola coordinator, I am working hard to make sure this is maintained.

What more should be done?

We are stepping up our response all the time. I welcome the fact that member states are sending more medical workers on the ground. Under the European Union’s Civil Protection Mechanism and with the coordination of the Emergency Response Coordination Center, we have ensured air links and are constantly delivering to West Africa supplies that are vital to the response. I would mention, for example, the two trips by a Dutch naval vessel carrying aid to the region, from nine Member States. We are also funding the essential work of the organisations tackling this epidemic on the ground and, of course, the research for a vaccine.

We are also adapting. When it became clear that medical evacuations of international health staff were a major precondition for the deployment of international health workers, the European Commission put in place a European Medevac system that allows for the swift evacuation of all international health workers to hospitals in Europe when needed. This encourages more medical staff to join and reinforce the response. Nevertheless, more personnel is urgently needed.  To that end, I am working together with my colleague, the Commissioner for Health, Vitenys Andriukaitis.

Another big challenge is to keep a sustained response.  Let me be clear: the EU commitment is strong and is long-term. We cannot defeat Ebola unless we invest in rebuilding the healthcare systems of the affected countries and unless we tackle the social effects of this epidemic, such as the disruptions in education. We are working on that with our development colleagues. When I visited the affected countries a month ago, it became clear to me that we would be in this fight for a long time. Not only to fight and defeat the disease, but also to help the recovery and help prevent similar outbreaks in the future.

At the end of the day, however, the defeat of Ebola can only happen on the ground in the three affected countries.  That is why must actively encourage closer cooperation among the countries of the region on Ebola.  There is a strong need for regional cooperation!  The crisis offers an opportunity for a new beginning of cooperation and dialogue for the region as a whole.  This is a strategic choice which, if actively pursued, can produce positive dynamics for the wider region.  It is a choice that only regional partners can make.  In fact, this issue will be on the agenda of the High Level Meeting on Ebola which is foreseen for the beginning of 2015.

Since you took office, you also visited refugee camps in Turkey. It’s already the fourth year of the Syrian crisis and the situation is getting worse, perhaps the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world. Jordan and Lebanon have received enormous numbers of refugees, but this puts enormous pressure on those fragile countries. Can you describe the challenge and tell us what the response is?

Syria is indeed the largest humanitarian crisis in the world today. The largest we have seen for many years now. More than 12 million people need humanitarian aid inside Syria, and this does not even count the 3.3 million refugees. The numbers are overwhelming, and even more tragically, there is no end in sight for this conflict.

I met some of the victims of this crisis in Turkey, when I visited refugee camps together with HRVP Federica Mogherini. We felt overwhelmed seeing these people whose lives were destroyed by war and who face a very uncertain future. But I was also touched by their resilience and will to rebuild their lives. I am proud that we, Europeans, are helping them do that. Collectively, the European Union is the biggest donor of aid to the people of Syria, with more than €3 billion contributed thus far.

The humanitarian response is a daily struggle: to deliver assistance to people in hard-to-reach areas inside Syria; to mobilise resources for the enormous and growing humanitarian needs; to support the neighbouring countries which are sheltering millions of refugees. I want to particularly praise Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Their generosity is teaching the whole world a lesson.

The European Commission will continue with its humanitarian response and its political efforts to help alleviate this crisis. But we cannot solve the problem with humanitarian aid alone. The only solution can be political and the only people who can deliver it are the people of Syria. I hope reason will prevail sooner rather than later.

Many children and young people live for years in camps. What is being done for their education, does the EU support UNESCO on the ground? Can we avoid a lost generation?

The tragedy of Syria’s children is enormous. Inside the country, half of the 7.6 million displaced people are children. Millions of other children are refugees. An entire generation is growing up amidst war and violence and lacks of basic services, education and protection.

We are especially concern about these children.  The most vulnerable victims of the Syrian crisis. Their future is at stake.  The European Union has an obligation to prevent a lost generation of Syrian children. That is why we fully support “The No Lost Generation” campaign of UNICEF.

We also help Syrian children with assistance for survival and education. A project of which we are particularly proud of is the EU Children of Peace initiative. This initiative was undertaken on the foundation of the Nobel Peace Prize it received in 2012. In 2014, the initiative is helping bring schools, textbooks and notebooks, safe spaces and psychological support to more than 80,000 children affected by war, including Syrian children.

So, we are doing all we can. But, again, the only way to prevent a lost generation is to bring about peace and stability to Syria.

Is the EU equipped to deal with so many crises? Will its budget be sufficient? By the way, the 2015 budget has been agreed, but is it adequate and how about unpaid bills from previous periods?

The question is whether our world in general is equipped to deal with so many crises. We must all change the way we think about crisis management and how we practice it. Because we are experiencing more frequent and intensive disasters, more conflicts and impact on more people. No one can solve this challenge alone. The responsibility is collective.  And so must be our actions.

The European Commission understands this trend and is adapting the way we provide aid to the new conditions under which we operate. The budget is important, but is not everything. We are making our assistance more effective and efficient, for example by building stronger bridges between humanitarian aid and development assistance in order to amplify the impact of our projects. We are also investing in resilience, so that the beneficiaries of our aid can face a new disaster without falling into crisis again.

But of course, the big question is how to respond to bigger and more numerous crises with limited resources. I welcome the fact that the budget authorities reached a political agreement on the 2015 budget. This is excellent news.

For humanitarian aid, the amending budget means €256 million in new payment appropriations. These will help reduce the backlog of due payments. We plan to pay the bulk of the outstanding bills by the end of the year.

The amending budget gives me hope that the European Commission will maintain the capacity to help the victims of humanitarian crises. Every year we are helping save the lives of 120 million people around the world, at the expense of less than 1% of the European budget. We are certainly making a big difference, and my priority is to continue that positive track record.

The discussion about constantly improving the efficiency of the humanitarian assistance is ongoing.  This issue remains a challenge.  The optimal use of limited resources is also a challenge for all of us humanitarian aid actors.

The access of humanitarian workers to conflict zones is more and more difficult and dangerous. I’m thinking not only about Syria, but about countries such as Afghanistan, South Sudan. Is there any political thinking about how to respond to this challenge?

It is true that the humanitarian space is shrinking, and this comes at a huge risk to humanitarian workers. Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to all the brave humanitarian workers who risk their lives on a daily basis to save the lives of others. The biggest price, of course, is paid by the victims who are vulnerable and cannot get the essential help they need.

Access restrictions take many forms. Sometimes humanitarians are banned by the forces controlling a certain area from delivering their assistance. Sometimes they are directly targeted. We’ve seen many tragic examples of doctors and nurses killed in the line of duty, of ambulances that are shot at, of hospitals that are raided. These incidents are more and more frequent every year.

The work of humanitarians is protected by international laws, which mandate respect for the operation of independent and impartial humanitarian organisations. But the large majority of the attacks go unpunished.

The European Union is strongly advocating for the respect of humanitarian workers and international humanitarian law.

South Sudan was born as a country in 2011, but a civil war and a humanitarian crisis are raging there. Is it a forgotten country?

We cannot allow South Sudan to become a “forgotten country” or a “forgotten crisis”.  South Sudan is yet another example of how conflict can tear a country apart with severe consequences for its people, but also with serious risks for its neighbours.

Conflict leaves scars on all aspects of livelihood. In 2014, for example, a famine was prevented because of international aid. But still, 2.5 million people continue to suffer and to live under dreadful conditions.

I would not say the country is forgotten: the United Nations has put it in the spotlight by declaring it a “level 3 emergency”, the worst kind of humanitarian crisis. It is certainly not forgotten by Europe: this year, the Commission has provided more than €110 million to respond to the humanitarian crisis in the country and an additional 20 million to help South Sudanese refugees in the region.  We will also release a further 7.5 million of aid money before the end of 2014.

The EU is used to giving money whenever a crisis or a disaster strikes. But is this enough?

The EU does much more than throw money on a problem when it occurs. That would simply not be enough in this world of enormous, overlapping and protracted crises.

We are moving from crisis response to crisis management.  Which means that we don’t only react when a disaster strikes, but we also plan ahead, work on prevention and preparedness and ensure that our crisis response flows smoothly into development assistance.

And even that is not enough to respond to humanitarian needs in a world of seven billion people. This is why we are seeking ways to make the humanitarian system better and constantly discussing that with our international partners. Early in 2016, there will be the World Humanitarian Summit, where we hope to see real progress in improving global humanitarian aid. We are preparing seriously to present ideas and proposals and to share knowledge and experience.

How about the EU Aid Volunteers initiative which is not yet operational if my information is correct?

The deployment of this important initiative is well on track.  It began with a series of pilot projects and already 250 European volunteers have been trained and deployed to more than 40 countries around the world. Early next year, we will launch the full-fledged voluntary corps on the basis of the lessons learned during the pilot phase. The goal is to have more than 18,000 volunteers until 2020. The first group of them will be selected and deployed in 2015.

I am a big fan of this initiative, because it is a real example of a European project that has a direct and positive impact on the Europeans who decide to participate.

For our future volunteers, I believe it will be an incredible experience to work with like-minded people from all over Europe and the world, making a difference for vulnerable communities, seeing first-hand some of the greatest challenges of our time. Being an EU Aid Volunteer will also offer valuable career experience for young Europeans. Participation will allow volunteers to strengthen their skills, knowledge and establish new contacts which are so precious in the current difficult employment climate.  But more importantly, it will boost their awareness and sensitise them to the needs and realities of humanitarian aid.

Can you describe your experience from the Juncker commission so far? Are the “clusters” working, and how? And in what way do you expect to be “more political”, as this is the general banner under which this commission has gathered?

So far, the experience has been rich and productive.  In a very short time the College of Commissioners has made important decisions under the leadership of President Juncker.  His vision and determination to make a fresh start for Europe is the guiding principle for all of us.

From the outset the purpose was to have a more political and a more innovative Commission.  A strong Commission that, in these challenging times for Europe, can lead the way to change.  Always in close cooperation with the member states and the European Parliament. In the words of President Juncker, we have built a more political Commission which is “bigger and more ambitious on big things and smaller and more modest on small things”. 

The decision to organize the Commission in “clusters” was a wise and a prudent one.  It underlines the collective responsibility of the College and our obligation to work hand-in-hand to bring about results.  It is a team-work approach.  Speaking from my own experience in the “cluster” of foreign affairs, I can tell you with no hesitation that all participating Commissioners have a strong and substantive working relationship.  Vice President Federica Mogherini is doing a superb job in coordinating our work and promoting the goals of the Commission.  This is precisely what we need in order to successfully face the challenges and bring about a real positive change for all European citizens. 

I can think of no better illustration of the value and political nature of the project team model than our joint mission to Turkey, including to the refugee camps on the Syrian borders less than two weeks ago.  Together with VP Mogherini and Commissioner Hahn, we travelled as a team.  The issues each of us addressed differed according to our respective portfolios, namely, foreign relations, enlargement and humanitarian aid.  But in the eyes of our interlocutors, we appeared as one, and only one, European Commission. 

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