Commissioner alert to consequences of famine and disaster

Thu, Feb 16, 2012, 00:00

EUROPEAN DIARY:Kristalina Georgieva, who holds the EU brief for humanitarian aid, is keeping a close eye on the Horn of Africa

THE HUMANITARIAN aid portfolio in the European Commission is held by Kristalina Georgieva. If disaster erupts anywhere in the world, she’s the one who decides Europe’s response.

Georgieva is charged with ensuring the EU is ready to confront earthquakes, famine, floods and whatever other woe might suddenly strike. In Dublin next Monday, she meets Minister of State Joe Costello, development agencies and the Oireachtas committee on foreign affairs.

So who is this woman and what is she about?

Georgieva is Bulgaria’s commissioner and was a vice- president of the World Bank before she came to Brussels. An economist, she sees an urgent need to link development policy in the poorest countries with measures to prevent catastrophes and minimise their impact.

“The public in Europe – actually the public everywhere – is not prepared to see children dying from hunger. But sometimes the warning signs are there and we have to have the courage to raise attention, mobilise resources and deploy fast,” she says.

“Humanitarian work is to save lives, that’s our purpose. But then the question raised is: is this life saved worth living and can we as humanitarians close our eyes to this question? No we cannot.

“So what you see us doing now is we are gradually shifting humanitarian assistance from just bringing food to people, giving cash and vouchers, creating food- for-work programmes, cash-for- work programmes and looking at project activities that have a longer-term resilience-building especially in harsh ecological conditions.”

In an implicit nod to Donald Rumsfeld’s known-unknowns, Georgieva draws a distinction between the “crises we know are coming” and those which explode out of the blue.

For now, her office is keeping a close eye on the Horn of Africa region, where famine struck last year, in particular on Somalia, a country whose name has become a watchword for a failed state.

Sudan and South Sudan are on her radar too. Also on the watch list is Sahel region in Africa, embracing Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Chad.

In these countries about seven million people are at risk this year from “severe food insecurity” due to a poor harvest, drought and high food prices. In a “non-crisis” year in this region, about 300,000 die of malnutrition and related diseases.

Georgieva is concerned that the brutal government backlash against revolt in Syria may lead to a humanitarian crisis and says Yemen, another crucible of the Arab Spring, has potential to turn into another Somalia.

“For that not to happen there has to be a pre-emptive engagement,” she argues.

It’s not by accident, of course, that political instability and disaster-risk are closely linked.

“We have some 30 to 35 countries that are most vulnerable to natural disasters.

“Just about two-thirds of these countries are also countries which are vulnerable to conflict and instability, failing states or failed states, and that immediately tells us that there is a profound priority that has to be given to building resilience to both nature and man-made calamities.

“We have today almost 44 million refugees and internally displaced people in the world. With climate change this number is likely to grow; with the fact that at any one point 30 to 40 countries are either in a conflict, or slipping into a conflict or coming out of a conflict, this is pushing the number up.”

It’s not all gloom, however. Georgieva says the authorities are more alert to potential emergencies these days because early-warning systems and weather forecasting are more advanced and they often have “eyes and ears on the ground” in potential hotspots.

“There is now, by and large, a recognition that climate change is real, it is here to stay and therefore we need to invest more in disaster risk reduction and resilience,” she says.

Georgieva makes the point the wealthy world is not immune to catastrophe – the Fukushima disaster in Japan and the New Zealand earthquakes being vivid examples last year. “There is a change that is coming in the 21st century, the fact that it’s countries rich and poor which are being hammered. Last year, primarily the rich world got hit.

“In poor countries,” she adds, “you have more victims, more people die but there’s less damage – but there is simply less to be destroyed. When disasters hit rich countries, not so many people die . . . but the economic damages are very dramatic.”

At the level of international leaders, she says, there is an increasing recognition that disaster-preparedness is no longer a luxury but a necessity. This calls for collaboration between the global authorities.

In the US, indeed, the Federal Emergency Management Agency now wants to be able to receive international assistance in an extreme situation. “I never thought I would live long enough to hear this, because of that recognition that we do live in a more fragile world.”