EU aid chief's focus on forging resilience

Tue, Feb 12, 2013, 00:00

Kristalina Georgieva enters her office in the European Commission, having just come from a meeting with officials from Burma (also known as Myanmar). “I’m so sorry I’m late,” she says. “The meeting went on, and there was so much to discuss. The situation in Myanmar, it’s just very worrying,” she says solemnly.

Georgieva is passionately engaged by her work. As the EU commissioner for humanitarian aid, her role is to monitor humanitarian crises across the globe, and formulate the EU’s response. She is in Dublin this week for an informal meeting of development ministers at Dublin Castle.

Despite her global perspective, the focus is firmly on Mali, from where she has just returned. It is a country that has been on her radar for a while. “Mali has suddenly been discovered because of the fighting, but actually there has been a broader problem there for some time. What we have is a crisis within a crisis.

“It was hit by drought in 2012, leading to a food crisis, then last year there was the political crisis and the collapse of the government, and now the conflict in the north.”

The Malian situation encapsulates the need for what Georgieva describes as a resilience-building approach to humanitarian aid.

Long-term perspective

Europe’s development aid expenditure falls under the European Commission’s development portfolio.

But Georgieva believes crisis response could benefit from a more long-term perspective, rather than the typical firefighting approach. “We must prioritise helping communities and countries to be more capable, more able to withstand shocks and events. Because of climate change and population pressures, we have more frequent disasters and they are also more severe.

“The Sahel [a semi-arid region in north Africa], for example, has been hit by severe droughts three times in seven years. Normally it’s every 10 years.”

Helping people to prepare for such disasters is a key part of the EU’s humanitarian aid strategy and is a focus of this week’s meeting in Dublin.

Georgieva highlights two EU programmes dedicated to such a strategy. The EU’s “Share” initiative in the Horn of Africa – borne out of the 2011 food crisis – is a €270 million package that aims to boost the resilience of countries in the east of the region.

This ranges from water storage to drought-resilient seeds. “One example is in the area of microwater storage. A certain type of roofing can allow water to be collected in a small container, which can then be stored and used to resist the next drought.”

It is also about educating people to plan. “Most droughts can be forecast so, for example, if you know there will be less precipitation, there will be less grass on which livestock can graze. We work with communities to convince them to reduce their livestock early, instead of waiting for animals to die from hunger.”

Building resilience

Another programme, AGIR-Sahel, was formed last year in response to the Sahel food crisis. It aims to build seasonal safety nets for food and to improve education, particularly of women, to build resilience. Ireland, a major donor to the Horn of Africa region, is also involved in resilience-building projects in the area, including a productive safety nets programme in Ethiopia.

Georgieva’s approach to her portfolio is informed by her experience as a former vice-president of the World Bank. “The economics of resilience is very clear. For every €1 invested in resilience, up to €7 in emergency response spending can be saved. Similarly, with malnutrition. If we identify the threat of malnutrition early, it makes economic as well as humanitarian sense. Say it costs €10 to nourish a child, if we miss that window it can cost up to €200. You save suffering, you save lives, but you also save money.”

This approach is evident in her view on demographics. She sees population expansion as one of the main issues facing the developing world.

“Since independence, the population in the Horn of Africa and Sahel has increased five times. Take my country, Bulgaria, for example. In 1961, Kenya and Bulgaria were next to each other in the population table. Kenya had 8.1 million people, Bulgaria had 7.9 million. Today Kenya has 40 million and Bulgaria has 7.5 million. What would my country look like if we were to have 40 million people?”

While Georgieva’s brief does not include defence and military intervention, she is aware of the need for a multifaceted approach to crises. “Having visited northern Mali in December, I was relieved when the French took the action against the extremists, but winning the military offence in Mali is only one part of a very complicated equation. They still need to return to political legitimacy.”