Georgieva: ‘We must not fall in the trap of forgotten crises’

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EXCLUSIVE / In the aftermath of the devastating typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, the European Commission was fast in coming up with financial aid and brought urgent relief to the worst affected areas, but it must prevent the country from becoming another "forgotten crisis", European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid Kristalina Georgieva told EURACTIV in an interview.

The Commissioner spoke to EURACTIV Spain’s Fernando Heller.

The European Commission on 18 November increased its emergency aid to the Philippines, bringing the total amount to 20 million. Member states also contributed around 25 million in extra financial aid. The priorities in the Philippines are to restore access to devastated parts of the country and the urgent delivery of life-saving assistance, the Bulgaria-born Commissioner stressed.

The Philippines has just suffered the second most deadly typhoon in its history – which has left 4000 dead – and the country faces what it says is its bigger ever logistical challenge, providing aid to stricken areas. Is 20 million in aid enough? 

I am very proud of what Europe has done so far in the Philippines. Of course more needs to be done, and we will. We have mobilised very quickly to have an accurate assessment of the situation and to know where exactly the priorities should be and we are continuing to work on a needs assessment to improve our understanding of the situation.

We are present where nobody else’s support is available. We have been very good in making sure that our assistance is well coordinated, that it fits in a well-coordinated response plan.  Let’s not forget that once we move from relief to reconstruction, reconstruction generates economic activities, and there are other organisations like the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank that are also going to provide very substantial fund for the reconstruction effort there.

What is the main challenge the EU is facing right now in this complex relief effort? 

The main problem is the huge size of the disaster and how large its footprint is. The typhoon went over a large number of islands. Just understanding where the needs are is a very big undertaking, but we have been very well coordinated from the start. It was the first time were we have used our Emergency Response Coordination Center (ERCC) that helped us in having a broader picture of what the needs are … but the situation is changing by the hour. 

This is not the first time the EU is present in the Philippines. Over the last years we have responded with humanitarian aid many times and, since December last year, we have delivered €13.5 million to the country for other disrupting events. We have been working with the Philippines in disaster preparedness, and we also have our development cooperation strategy with them.

Looking into the future, the recovery will take some time but Europe is ready to play its part and stay there as long as its presence is required. It is early to say what the post-disaster reconstruction needs would be…Even now we can say that there are areas in which relief operation and early reconstruction can connect very well using food for work and overtime cash for work to continue to clear-up the debris, rebuild and provide income opportunities to people who have lost not just their houses, but also their livelihoods. That is an experience that I hope would help us improve the concept of linking EU help with rehabilitation and development, together with Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs.

What, and where, are the main problems? 

The critical question that needs to be addressed is the change in modus operandi, from the days were EU member states would respond on their own, to a collective European response. We are in a moment of transition in civil protection issues, we are moving from the old civil protection legislation to a real European coordinated response.

This typhoon happened exactly at the border of transition from the old legislation to the new one, and it is very encouraging to see that this coordination is taking place.  Where are the practical problems? When we get a request from a government, we transmit this request to member states and they tell us what they are prepared to give, then we need to know, once it is accepted, were exactly it should go and have this interactive process automatically going on. We are still at a moment when we need to ask for this information to member states … we should improve … but we just need to go through this a couple of times until the process is well established among member states.

Do you believe this storm was linked to, or exacerbated by, climate change? 

There is no way to know if a particular typhoon, a particular storm, a particular flood is related to climate change, but the trends of more frequent and intensive weather-related disasters is unarguably related to climate change. Science is very clear on this point: climate change leads to more frequent and devastating weather events, more floods, more hurricanes, more winter storms …this is unquestionable. What we can say with certainty is that there will be more typhoons like this.

What will be the next steps?

The number one issue for us in the next weeks would be to continue to work with other partners to increase relief coverage. Not all people who need help are getting it, this means for us to work very closely with national and local authorities and with the United Nations to make sure we understand were the coverage is improving and where there are still gaps and to direct our assistance there … obviously food distribution and also health support are top priorities.

Aren’t you a bit afraid this could become a new forgotten crisis, like Haiti or Syria? 

We have taken precaution not to fall in the trap of forgotten crises, we must not fall in that trap, we are consciously looking at crisis in a way that gives priority to crisis where nobody else is active. The only way to deal with forgotten crisis is to have a very good assessment of needs and respond to the needs not to the presence in the media: help were you help is needed. It is important to constantly scan the horizon for calamities that are happening and make sure that no crisis is left out. 

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