Bulgarian national Kristalina Georgieva, the EU's commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis response, remembers the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 very well: it taught her that transforming a country takes time, she told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.
Bulgarian national Kristalina Georgieva was a World Bank vice-president until she 'saved' the Barroso II team by becoming EU commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis response after the first candidate, Rumiana Jeleva, flopped at her hearings in the European Parliament.
Less than a year later, she was awarded the coveted titles of 'European of the Year' and 'Commissioner of the Year' by Brussels-based newspaper the European Voice.
She was speaking to Georgi Gotev, EURACTIV's senior editor.
Commissioner Georgieva: here we are in your office at the European Commission a year on from the tragic earthquake in Haiti. What is the situation today?
It is still very difficult, for two main reasons. The first one is that for Haiti to get back on its feet, it is very important to have a functional government and institutions that can provide services to people. But that takes a long time to build and we know that when the earthquake hit the country, it was coming out of decades of poor governance and a bad institutional setup.
The second factor that hit Haiti very badly is cholera – we were worried about epidemics from day one. But when the rains came and went, we were hoping that maybe this is not going to happen. Unfortunately, in a very poor rural area, epidemics of cholera started and because people in the recent past had not been exposed to cholera, they had difficulty responding to it.
But this being said, we are also hopeful for the future of Haiti, because the Haitian people themselves are resilient. They faced a series of disasters with dignity and they keep their heads held high. And because international assistance to Haiti is very significant, we have a chance that this earthquake will go down in history as one of the worst natural disasters, but also one of the best demonstrations of solidarity.
For that, we need to stay shoulder-to-shoulder with the Haitian people for years to come.
We are not there yet – on television every night we see a dismal situation where poverty is everywhere. People are living in tents. A lot of money has been committed and maybe one third of that has already been spent. But the results are not visible on the ground.
What is definitely visible is that people have survived a very devastating disaster and they have managed to go through it without chaos and a collapse of the country.
Let me give you a couple of examples: from the European Union we have provided around €320 million in humanitarian assistance. This money has touched the lives of nearly four million Haitian people. It has provided shelter for 1.1 million people and food day after day for a whole year.
When we think of reversing poverty, we need to look at it for what it is: it's a very long-term project.
Countries that have been successful in addressing poverty, like China, they have taken a multi-decade time horizon to transform regions and I think in the case of Haiti, this is the timeline we have to have in mind – one of decades, not of one year.
At the end of this one year, we have a country that is functioning, where most of the kids are back in schools – even if the schools are very simple in the camps – people are moving out of camps into more permanent structures and the economy is starting to gear up again. We see shops, small businesses and services reappearing.
For one year, given that we first had the earthquake, then the hurricane in the rainy season – luckily Hurricane Thomas did not hit and destroy Haiti – then the cholera and now we have difficult elections. This is actually progress.
Looking at support from the Commission on the development side, there is now a better road that the Commission is funding, there are schools that allow kids to get ready for a brighter future, there are government institutions that are slowly getting back on their feet – and that to me is hope for Haiti.
I remember when the earthquake hit. At that time I was still in my old job in Washington [as vice-president and corporate secretary of the World Bank], I was in my office and the news came about a devastating earthquake. I thought: will they be able to come out of it? Because Haiti had decades of terrible governance, they got hammered by hurricanes in 2007 and 2008, and there was a sense that the country was maybe finally coming out of disasters – and then a new one hit.
I'm very impressed that the Haitian people managed to get through this and look to the future with more optimism than many of outside observers had.
I'm going to challenge you precisely because of your previous background and the fact that you say the Haitian institutions are slowly recovering: NGOs say that a big problem in Haiti is that you can't get projects done, because the government doesn't respond quickly enough. Would it not be a better solution for Haiti to be declared an international protectorate?
That is something that requires thinking and the will of the Haitian people. At this point, as much as they are upset with their leaders, most of them would still prefer to be a country with a future as an independent country.
The emphasis from what you said is on 'slowly': it will take a long time for institutions to function well, but it is possible.
Let's look at the past on this island: we have Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and when you fly over the border, it's a different world. There is forest, there is forest, there are jobs, motorways, and yet some 40 or 50 years ago Haiti was better off than the Dominican Republic, but then it got hammered by Papa Doc and Baby Doc [father and son François and Jean-Claude Duvalier, who ruled Haiti from 1957-1986] and decades of mismanagement of the country.
But does this mean that it can only go down? Certainly not. Now is the time when there is so much committed to Haiti. We basically got the international community over the course of the next couple of years to promise the equivalent of one year's GDP of this country. If we have the patience to work towards building from the bottom up the local system of governance, the central institutions and stay with Haiti for a long time, then there will be a result.
I have seen it in my past at the World Bank – anytime when we rush and say in five years it's going to be 'X', we make a mistake.
You and I both come from the same country, we are both Bulgarians, we know how in '89 we looked at the future and said that in two years it's going to be a transformed country.
Well, it takes time, especially building institutions and transforming governance. It takes time.
Indeed, transforming Bulgaria also takes time. One of its current problems is that is has been denied accession to the Schengen area for the time being. Is this a tragedy for Bulgaria?
I look at it with a great deal of positive expectation. I think that Bulgaria and Romania will both build up the required capacity to be the guardians of our common borders. Whether it will be in March 2011 or September 2011 or December 2011, that is less relevant.
One day, when we look back, we would probably say that what mattered was that the right thing was done, that we do have countries with the capacity to guard our borders in a world that is unfortunately getting more and more dangerous.
So no, I'm not worried about the acceptance, I think both Bulgaria and Romania will get into Schengen and they will earn it on the basis of hard work.
Your Romanian colleague Dacian Ciolo?, EU commissioner for agriculture, commended the Romanian position. We know Romania has been quite pushy: Bucharest protested about someone changing the rules by linking Schengen accession to the infamous Cooperation and Verification Mechanism. This was not the Bulgarian position. How would you explain these differences?
It is up to leaderships how they want to pursue their interests. In the case of Bulgaria, for our citizens what matters more is getting our courts to work well and to protect their interests. In other words, improving the conditions for families and businesses to function in Bulgaria.
I would think that it is more important for Bulgarian citizens to see their country in better shape than to engage in a fight with other leaders in Europe. So from that perspective, I understand the position of the Bulgarian government.
The Romanian authorities have taken a different stance. They also have their rational arguments, because indeed Schengen and the Verification Mechanism are two separate issues – bringing them together is not helpful.
In the end, we might see Bulgaria and Romania taking different positions and actually helping each other in this process. One would push, the other one would pull, and in the end they will both be where they have to be – in Schengen – and eventually with transformed legal systems and the fight against corruption, which grants the elimination of the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism as well.
Bulgarians are very proud to have you as commissioner – you were recently voted 'European of the Year' and 'Commissioner of the Year' by the European Voice. Do you have any plans for a great political career in Bulgaria? Some people said you should be the next president, some said you should be the next prime minister…
I'm very proud to be Bulgarian and very proud of my country. My work philosophy is: I do the job I have and I do it as well as I can. So now I have this job, I will do it as best as I can, so Bulgarians can continue to be proud of me.