EU, UNESCO identify synergies for Haiti

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UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova yesterday (17 February) broke new ground with the EU for enhanced cooperation with the United Nations' educational, scientific and cultural organisation. Her compatriot Kristalina Georgieva, the EU commissioner for humanitarian aid, outlined joint action to help alleviate the Haiti crisis.

Bulgarian diplomat Irina Bokova, who recently became the first woman and first East European to lead UNESCO (EURACTIV 23/09/09), held meetings with European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, Education, Culture and Youth Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou, Fisheries and Maritime Affairs Commissioner Maria Damanaki and Georgieva, with whom she said she had a long-standing friendship.

The dire humanitarian situation in earthquake-hit Haiti appeared to be the main topic of Bokova's first visit to Brussels in her new capacity.

Speaking to the press, Bokova said UNESCO was active on the ground in Haiti, in particular in helping the country's education ministry.

“In fact, the ministry of education of Haiti functions from the UNESCO office bureau in Port-au-Prince, because it was not damaged,” Bokova said.

Another goal was to quickly establish a committee for the preservation of cultural objects at a time when bulldozers had little concern for historical heritage, she explained.

Expressing her delight with the visit, Bokova's host Georgieva said that in the field of humanitarian aid and crisis response, the Commission was eager to work hand-in-hand with the UN system.

Georgieva explained that the Commission was committed to covering educational aspects in responding to the Haiti crisis, as in her words, after securing food and shelter – even if that meant just temporary shelters or tents – the next priority must be to help children continue their education.

Somewhat surprisingly, it emerged that UNESCO had developed a system for tsunami alerts, which the Commission was eager to take on board in developing early warning capacities.

The system was developed after the 2004 tsunami in South-East Asia, and was recently successfully tested in a real disaster situation, Bokova said.

Both Georgieva and Bokova said they would visit Haiti very soon, although their visits would not coincide with one another.

Georgieva, who recently scored high marks at a confirmation hearing in the European Parliament (EURACTIV 04/02/10), said that her commitment was to be there “as soon as we have something to offer,” adding that now that the Commission was ready to deliver, it was “time to go”.

She explained that her aim was to identify the way to best spend recently-awarded extra assistance amounting to 90 million euros, so that gaps from other aid efforts would be bridged.

Asked by EURACTIV what other fields of synergy with the EU she was planning to develop, Bokova singled out addressing the problems facing the African continent and gender equality.

“In both of these horizontal priorities, we can have very fruitful cooperation,” she said.

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Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, and has experienced a lot of political violence throughout its history. In February 2004, an armed rebellion forced the resignation and exile of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. A provisional government was put in place, with security provided by MINUSTAH, the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti. Réné Préval, the current president, was elected in 2006. 

Scientists said the earthquake which hit Haiti on 12 January was the strongest on Earth since 1770. The damage was high, as the catastrophic 7.0 magnitude epicentre was just 10 miles west of Port-au-Prince and its two million inhabitants. 

The number of deaths is yet to be determined, with estimations of 300,000 frequently cited. On 24 January the Haitian government announced that 150,000 bodies had already been buried in mass graves in Port-au-Prince alone. 

The devastation was widespread. Vital infrastructure was destroyed, including every hospital in the capital, telecommunications and air, sea and land communication services. 

US President Barack Obama appointed former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to help raise funds for Haiti's recovery. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Haiti on 16 January. French President Nicolas Sarkozy did the same one month later. 

EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid Karel de Gucht was in Port-au-Prince on 21 January, while EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton was criticised for not having travelled to Haiti (EURACTIV 25/01/10). 

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