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Kristalina Georgieva

European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response

ECHO & Partners: Helping People Together

Annual conference of the European Commission's humanitarian aid partners

Brussels, 18 October 2011

Good morning, Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear colleagues and friends,

It is again a great honour for me to welcome you today to ECHO's annual partners' conference.

I am absolutely determined that we in ECHO reach out to our partners and learn from each other not only in the two days spent in this room; but also out in the field and by discussions and debates. I am more than sure that this partnership will continue to grow.

What I would like to do today, is to start as I did last year, by recognising each and every one of you and your colleagues around the world for the work you do. The job you do is one of the most dangerous jobs. It is also selfless and rewarding for each of us. From the bottom of my heart thank you for the work you do in service to humanity.

My thoughts today are with the 2 MSF-spain staff which were kidnapped in the refugee camp of Dadaab in Kenya last Friday and with all the other humanitarian staff that are either held hostage or are victims of violence while on duty. As another example, I would like to mention three Bulgarian pilots who were kidnapped in Darfur last year. Luckily, after 145 days in captivity, they made it back to their families, and the most dramatic losses are, of course, those when families are not to meet their loved ones.

The three things I want to talk about are the main developments that have happened, since we last met last year in this room; second, what are the key challenges we face today, and third, the way we can address these challenges together.

I would like to start by mentioning five main developments mainly because I think they determine challenges we face and not because they are exhaustive.

The first and most important of those is that the evidence we gathered in the last year shows us that, unfortunately, humanitarian needs have increased - we see more and more disasters, with more devastating results. The year 2010 will remain in history as one of the most disaster-prone years: 385 disasters, which is 5 times more than in the mid-70s; and of course the most vulnerable people are hit the hardest. Water and food shortages as a result of drought affect over 884 million people. It is because of floods and droughts and also because of oil prices going up and putting pressure on food prices that hunger as a phenomenon is likely to stay with us.

Additionally, the floods in Australia, the earthquake which double stroke New Zealand, the triple disaster in Japan and the floods in the United States showed us that no country is immune and rich countries are also at high risk. Reminder of this is also the fact that Japan was, I believe, the first rich country to receive humanitarian aid from ECHO in our entire history.

Climate change, population growth and urbanisation are all going to drive this trend up. Of the natural disasters which stroke this year, the one that we, as a community, face with the starkest demand is the famine in the horn of Africa. It is unforgiveable in the 21st century to have 750,000 people facing starvation because of famine! Droughts, unfortunately, we cannot stop but famine we can. This is an issue which I hope we can discuss during the course of this conference – namely what is it that we can do to reduce the dramatic impact of nature on people. Disasters, however, are not the only driver of increasing humanitarian needs. Conflicts and fragility add to that. About 30-40 countries are either in a conflict or slipping into a conflict or coming out of conflict and what we saw over the year, but also in previous, is that this fragility creates for us three very big problems – dangerous places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia are becoming even more dangerous; increase of the number of unexpected crises in the South, including Kurdistan and the 250,000 people who left the country just in three days; and the increased number of protracted crises.

This year, I visited some of the places to host a protracted crisis - I went to the occupied Palestinian territories, to Yemen, to Thailand, the border with Myanmar, to Myanmar itself and, of course, to Darfur where the situation is not improving. It is not for the humanitarian community to resolve the problem of what fragility bring us, but it is certainly for us to place it in front of the political elite of this planet. We, as humankind, can not afford to have a failed state. If Somalia was not a failed state, there would have been hunger, but most likely there would have not been famine.

The second big development of the year I would like to talk about today is the very dramatic changes in the political landscape. ''The Arab Spring'', for all the good it can bring in terms of democracy, the voice of people which changes how decisions are made, it also has brought very serious humanitarian concerns, with the most dramatic ones being in Libya. Most of you present here today, as well as a very big part of my staff, were deeply engaged with this particular conflict and its resolution and we all know how complicated this issue was and still is because of the humanitarian consequences inside the country as well those outside of it - for the neighbouring countries like Tunisia and Egypt.

Other examples of humanitarian concern are:

  • the crisis in Syria which is still mostly a human rights crisis but could rapidly slip into a humanitarian crisis, and we need to stand ready should the situation worsens.

  • the occupied Palestinian territories where there is even more uncertainty ahead. I visited area C in the West Bank and the Gaza strip and I do feel we need to do more to bring the humanitarian dimension of this lingering conflict to the forefront.

  • think also of Yemen, a country which is sliding into fragmentation, and where humanitarian needs have gone bigger.

To conclude my reflections on the political developments as second big development of the year, I would like to mention Myanmar – where the release of prisoners is a very important signal that reforms are happening for real. From a humanitarian point of view, Myanmar is about to go through a very important couple of years because of the ethnic conflicts at the borders. So, there are political developments that at their core may be positive, but they do have unintended humanitarian consequences we have to address.

The third major challenge is the appearance of new donors on the scene which is, nevertheless, welcomed. We have to realize that with more wealth comes more responsibility. As countries become richer, they must share responsibility for the fate of those less privileged. In the course of this year, we have finally witnessed the fairly significant engagement of 300 million dollars, as well as discussion at the Horn of Africa in Addis Ababa, but also that everybody from the emerging donors raised their hands and made a pledge. Nevertheless, I would formulate this trend in the following way: new donors, old problems because new donors come not necessarily in a coordinated manner and not necessarily we get the full benefit of their arrival. For example, in some areas of Somalia today, we have coverage of needs that is 200-300% as a result of all the new donors delivering consistence, while this being only about 20% in other areas. We have to find a way to make sure that new donors bring their value through to the system in a way that makes the whole bigger than the sum of its parts.

The fourth development I would like to address is how institutions which work in the field of humanitarian aid change. One can see this change, first of all, inside ECHO and through the fact that we have advanced with the integration of civil protection and of humanitarian aid. We have successfully brought these two teams together and the test of this cooperation has been in operational environments, in dealing with the Libya crisis, in dealing with the Pakistan floods. If I have to paraphrase this change in a different way: last year I talked about an arranged marriage, now I can say it is a functional marriage and we may even have our first kid coming because one of the deliverables we want to pursue is a strengthened emergency response centre where the operational capabilities of the whole of ECHO is going to be applied.

The change can also be found in the advancement of how we deal with relations between ECHO and the External Action Service. There is a mutual agreement on the importance and criticality of protecting our neutrality, impartiality, independence by keeping humanitarian decision-making separate from political decision-making. I know this relations creates anxiety among you. And rest reassured that the shortest definition of my position on whether we should become part or be embraced by the EEAS is 'over my dead body! Having said that, we accept that ECHO and EEAS do not live on two separate planets and cooperation is crucial. And cooperation does not mean compromising on the neutrality, impartiality and independence of humanitarian workers.

Let me finish with the fifth and last new development since we last met one year ago and the one on which I hope you will devote your reflections and discussions during this conference, namely the state of the world economy, of the European economy and of European unity, our project. Unfortunately, we have not been able to get out of the shadow of the debt crisis and the situation in the world economy is not very good. We may very well be already in a second recession. As a trained economist and former World Bank staff, I think there is still a chance to not fall into a second recession, but even if it didn't, we will have a couple of years in which the world economy will be in tough shape, especially EU/US economy. Fundamentally, the biggest problem that drives this difficulty is political. It is political in the United States, it is political here in Europe.

The reflection on the five developments brings me to my next point – the biggest challenges we face today in our work. The first and most important is our standing for humanitarian principles in every crisis. This is an urgent task for all of us, but in particular for the UN system, for the UN OCHA, especially in terms of bringing the new donors into a coherent principle-based approach to humanitarian aid. It is important that this issue takes a very high priority in our collective work and that our mandate, the mandate of the military during conflict, the mandate of the UN, OCHA vis-à-vis the rest of the UN system is clear. More importantly, we have to make sure that we are clear on the point why the principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence matter, what they mean in terms of mandate, what they mean in each and every single case where our teams are deployed on the ground. Let me cite you the case of Libya as an example where there were more possibilities for us to make significant mistakes, but, in my opinion, we have been effective in not allowing such mistakes to happen. It is accepted that in a risky environment there must be a strong military presence to guarantee humanitarian corridors. This is why operation EUFOR was conceived as a source of military protection for humanitarian workers and exactly because we all try to be clear and stand on principles, was EUFOR adopted and the agreement stated that we will only activate EUFOR when OCHA says it is necessary to. However, OCHA never called on it.

The second big challenge we face in our work is not new but it has become much more serious and this is the issue of access. I express my belief that during the course of this conference, you will definitely touch upon this issue. My take is that you have to be, as a Community, much stronger in anticipating problems and thinking of ways to resolve them, being much more forceful in discussing where access is deteriorating. This means that access has to be made a priority topic the same way I think humanitarian mandate in principles should in each and every discussion the EU has on strategic level. In that respect, more political attention should be given to the issue of humanitarian access in Yemen. Other examples include Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia, countries which all face a problem of governance, of law and order and respect for humanitarian principles.

The last challenge for our work in ECHO is an issue which requires your assistance at the greatest extent and this is the challenge of funding. We, unfortunately, see the impact of tough economic conditions on development budgets and less so on humanitarian budgets. However, we are certainly not protected. Let me provide you with a couple of examples.

In 2010 the EU was supposed to reach collectively the target of 0.56 percent of GNI for aid funding (ODA) whether it is for development or for humanitarian action. We are, unfortunately, way behind with 0.43 percent at present with nine of our Member States that have decreased their funding. It is not surprising that the vast majority of them are countries that are affected by the debt crisis. Positively, there are some countries which still show their wide support to development and humanitarian funding and have protected aid budgets from deep cuts. The United Kingdom is one of those countries which continue to increase funding. My strong advice would be to show our strong support for those countries. Congratulate the countries that have not backed from their commitments.

We definitely have to be working collectively on supporting the development and humanitarian aid. It has been calculated that it would take Europe to reach the 0.7 percent, if we were to follow the trends that we have established so far, meaning 25 years. We have to appeal to our citizens, that investing in development, investing in humanitarian aid is morally the right thing to do. It is also in the interest of everybody because it contributes to more stability and security for all of us.

Securing humanitarian funding should be a joint top-priority for us. We have to focus on making sure that there is a campaign to retain the generosity of citizens and the support of citizens for humanitarian action. In terms of my work, what it means here is support to the proposal of the Commission for the next seven year financial perspective.

What we are asking for is not just money, but more flexibility in reserves rather than just a massive increase of our budget. We are also asking for a separate budget for the humanitarian voluntary corps and for a modest increase for our civil protection activities. This is necessary because the needs are much bigger. More importantly, we are asking for the EU budget Emergency aid reserve to be increased to 350 million a year and we are asking for this reserve to be carried forward, if not used fully in any given year. I believe that this is very important to succeed because each year is different from the previous or the coming one. If we look at humanitarian funding globally, we can observe that it varies between 8 billion and 12 billion a year. Years defer because they put on the shoulders of people different disasters, conflicts and needs. If we succeed with the proposal we have prepared, that would mean a lot of capacity to fund your activities in a more flexible manner, respond to the different profile of different years. I think that it is very important and worth trying to build a big buffer in a world of unpredictable waves of disasters and conflicts.

Additionally, we need to be very focused on advocating relentlessly for the development and humanitarian budgets in our Member States. To succeed in this lobbying; to succeed in sustaining support, the one and only avenue that is open to us is excellence in what we do and, to be honest, the bar on performance has gone up - for us, for you, for all of us.

Next, I would like to say a couple of words on the issue of professionalism and demonstrated excellence. For us, this means that we still need to do more to be more effective and reduce the administrative burden on you. Last year, I said that we were to go down in time of processing of project applications in average from three months to three weeks. We haven't done that yet. In real emergency, the processing time now can be as low as two days. In a non-emergency, however, it can be as long as five months. We have a mandate to be very prudent in how we report on the use of taxpayers' money. In that respect, there are certain administrative requirements that are not going to go away, but we would very much like to tell you that they will go away. Nevertheless, we still have to reach the target that in average processing time is down to three months. Important to say is, that we have made progress especially in emergencies where we are down in time. Unfortunately, we have not yet met the three weeks average target we have set for ourselves. I do believe in mutual accountability and that the best way we can help you is by reducing the administrative burden on you, as well as by having a strong staff in the field with whom you can work. I am very proud of what we do in this area because I hear only praise for ECHO's field presence. We want to do more of it too - to be there on the front line, to facilitate need-assessment and coordination to inform funding decisions in fast-changing circumstances.

Excellence for you means more cooperation, less competition. It means to be mindful of one's capacity, and to strive for excellence in areas one operates. However, we should also admit that in some areas there may be others that are better suited. Excellence also means a more honest assessment of skills and capabilities and most importantly: it means to focus on results and ability to report on results. It is very difficult to convince the public that we are effective in our work, that we are touching peoples' lives when the information we receive from our partners on what they have done with the money is scattered and disorganised. This is an area where there is still quite a room for us to improve. We will all feel ''the heat'' because money is getting scarce and we will all start, each individually, competing for more resources. When we do it individually some win, while the collective loses. If we do it collectively, however, we all win. This should be our goal - to be running collectively faster and cope with all of the challenges which we face due to the current crisis.

It is necessary we work together to make our work translatable for the public, to achieve visibility. For me in the European Commission visibility has become a real obsession because the public wants to know where their sacrifice goes, where the taxpayers' money goes. Sometimes the special circumstances of an emergency do not allow us to provide for such visibility but when this is possible, then we should strive to achieve it. Additionally, it is important we all support the UN in the coordination role vis-à-vis the new donors.

The last point I would like to touch upon is our work with development partners or the way we build bridges between relief, rehabilitation, and development, especially in protracted crisis. What I observe from the two communities is a little bit of both looking down at each other - we, in the humanitarian community, claim the development sector to be slow, while the development colleagues claim we do not understand sustainability. We all criticise each other, instead of searching for the common areas where we could work together and for the right moment to build a bridge between relief and development and the way to do it properly. At the margins of the annual meetings of the World Bank and IMF, what we call resilience round table was launched. Its focus is on investing in resilience as the common goal of the two communities, of the humanitarian and the development communities. I would like to repeat that it is fundamental that we build a higher value for money proposition and show it to our citizens convincingly, because otherwise we would have difficulties in the years ahead.

To sum up, on the positive side you and your work are needed even more than before, while on the more pessimistic side: resourcing this work is more difficult than it was before. In order to get these two things to match, we, as a Community, have to be demanding of each other and to be prepared to make changes in the way we work. You would wonder why it is even necessary to defend your work to anyone, bearing in mind the importance it has on saving people's lives and improving well-being of people. Unfortunately, we are at a time when defence is necessary and, as always in life, offense is the best defence. This is why we should not forget that the offense we have is our striving for excellence.

I thank you for your attention.

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