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European Commission

Kristalina Georgieva

European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response

Richer and more fragile: how can we learn to live in a more volatile world?

Salzburg Global Seminar/Salzburg

28 June 2013

Let me first of all thank the Salzburg Global Seminar very warmly for the kind invitation. I am delighted to be with you because I myself owe a lot to Salzburg. And it is great to be able to brainstorm with an audience that brings such a wealth and variety of experience to the discussion.

Rather than reading off an abstract speech, I wanted to share with you some observations from my everyday job as EU Commissioner for humanitarian aid and civil protection (which means, in short, the EU's immediate response to crises beyond its borders). And to see how some of the things I see in my job relate to broader trends – all of which we can subsume under this heading of "a more fragile world". And finally, say a few words on the institutions we have for dealing with those broad global trends.

1. A more fragile world


Let me start by simply sharing with you what I did on Monday and Tuesday of this week. I went to Jordan with Emma Bonino, the Italian Foreign Minister (and quite coincidentally also a previous EU humanitarian aid Commissioner). This was my 3rd visit to the region in 7 months. Why? Because Syria is a crisis like no other. In its scale. In its ferocity. In its sheer savagery. Syria is the crisis I lose sleep over.

As on my previous visits, I met people in the main refugee camp in Jordan. They have seen unspeakable things. But what was new and terrifying this time round is the very tangible fear they have of the sectarian conflict spreading beyond Syria's borders. To Lebanon. To Egypt.

We are of course providing humanitarian aid. Massively – to a point where we as EU, and other donors too, are hitting the outermost limits of our budgetary capability. Only this week, as EU, we allocated an additional € 400 m for Syria, taking our total assistance to date to € 1.3 bn. And still the needs go up – 1.6 m refugees, and counting. 4.2 m internally displaced, and counting. More than 100,000 dead, and counting.

We will continue to provide humanitarian aid – and so we should. Helping people get through the third winter of war. Giving refugees a sense of dignity. But that cannot distract from the utter powerlessness of the international community in dealing with the underlying issues. Let's face it: in Syria we have seen the total, absolute, unmitigated failure of diplomacy. Syria itself is now beyond fragility - but the wider region is becoming extremely fragile. Let's hope we do not collectively fail on that front.


Now to another kind of fragility. Last week, I went to Chad. A country about as far removed from the headlines these days as Syria is constantly in the headlines. But which is buffeted by more than one crisis at once:

  1. Repeated food and nutrition crises (2005, 2010, 2012, and signs that this year will also be bad)

  2. The fall-out from events in Mali (remember: Chad stepped forward massively in the hot phase after France intervened. It suffered big casualties. And it is under real threat of revenge attacks because of that decisive stance.)

  3. The impact of the situation in Darfur: I went to a small village in the far East of Chad which has seen an influx of 50,000 people since fighting intensified across the border in Darfur earlier this year. Putting massive stress on resources like water. Creating a big security issue for the government.

  4. The crisis in the Central African Republic: Chad effectively has a no-man's land on its southern border. With no one in real control and with a real risk that the anarchy in CAR will spill over into Chad and Sudan, if left unchecked.

What you have now in Chad is a situation of chronic crisis. Chronic fragility. Not occasional one-off disasters – but a creeping, on-going state of crisis, in which people are only getting by thanks to international assistance.

So – just two very different examples of extreme fragility, taken almost at random from a look at my calendar this week and last. I could add others: the Central African Republic, where I will go in ten days time. The floods that have hit this part of Europe in recent weeks – less lethal fortunately, but causing massive damage. Or looking further afield - Japan's Fukushima disaster in 2011, which was a strong reminder of how vulnerable, how fragile even the most advanced and best prepared societies can be.

2. The wider trend: disasters, climate change, population growth…

That takes me to my second point. These are not random events. They are part of a wider trend:

  1. The frequency of disasters is going up: there has been a five-fold increase in the number of natural disasters since 1975.

  2. The economic losses caused by disasters are going up: 2011 (Fukushima) was the costliest year on record, with € 285 bn in economic damage, as well as 30,000 people killed. And Europe itself has seen big losses from disasters in recent years.

  3. Everybody is getting hit – not only tropical countries; not only developing countries. I was in the US when Hurricane Sandy hit – and that brought home the extent to which no one is immune to extreme weather events linked to climate change.

So, speaking of climate change: 80% of disasters are climate-linked. And the reality of climate change is plain for anyone to see, looking at weather patterns over the past 130 years.

We all know the overall trend of climate change is bad. But one of the sad privileges of my current job is that I see "in real time" what these trends mean for some of the most vulnerable people on Earth. Such as in the Sahel or the Horn of Africa. And here we are not talking about science fiction. We are talking about people's livelihoods – and indeed their survival – being hit hard, right now. I saw that in Chad last week – a country where entire regions have become dependent on food aid year in, year out. And on a recent trip to the Horn of Africa, I picked up a frightening statistic about how climate change is affecting people's holdings of livestock – meaning, the very basis of their livelihoods. In the Somali region of Ethiopia, scientists have been able to track the ownership and composition of livestock herds in the 30-year period before 1974, and the 30-year period after 1974. And the findings are striking: the livestock holdings of the poor and very poor are almost wiped out. Ownership moves to the wealthier parts of the population. And holdings of cows as a species are almost entirely replaced by goats, sheep and camels.

But just as important as climate change, and much less talked about: the impact of population growth. The latest UN projections are stark. Another one billion people within the next twelve years. Almost 10 bn people in 2050.

But these are only the overall predictions. What the figures don't tell you is what will happen in some of the most vulnerable regions. Like the Sahel – where annual population growth averages 3%. Which does not sound like much – until you realize that it means the population will almost double in 20 years in a country like Chad.

I have to worry about these things as humanitarian aid Commissioner. But we should actually all worry about them from a much wider perspective. Why?

  1. Staying with the Sahel example: as President Deby himself told me in Chad last week – there is a huge and very young population in the Sahel that has little prospects of getting meaningful jobs. In a region that is assailed from several sides by political instability and religious extremism. It does not take much to figure out that you have a very dangerous potential here.

  2. Climate change coupled with population growth means a shortage of key natural resources and commodities – water, to begin with; but also food. That is bad in humanitarian terms – but it also carries the risk of exacerbating political conflicts. The crisis in Darfur has been at least in part about a shortage of grazing land and water. And all across the Sahel belt, you can see similar patterns.

  3. Paradoxically, all of this is happening in a world which is getting richer overall – and in which many African countries, too, have very healthy growth rates. But that growth risks being cancelled out by the 'double whammy' of climate change and population growth.

3. Is the global governance system fit for purpose?

That takes me to my last point: is the international system fit to deal with these acute issues of fragility? Just a few reflections here:

  1. The key issue that we need to work on is resilience to fragility. That applies just as much in the financial system – where we need to work on systemic risk – as it does when you are looking at subsistence farmers in the Sahel, or indeed flood management in Central Europe.

  2. Resilience has become the new buzz-word – which means there is a real risk that in a few years time it will be seen as 'yesterday's fad'. Nothing could be more dangerous. Fragility is here to stay – and all the trends tell us it will get worse.

  3. The system we have reflects a fairly neat division between "development" and "emergency response". Which makes it difficult to work on resilience. That has also been the case within the EU itself – and it takes a lot of effort to overcome these divisions. We are all still far too reactive – and that also, obviously, applies to governance of the financial system.

Let me conclude on this note: at the end of the day, it is all about leadership. In the context of fragility, that means leadership which is not purely reactive – but addresses issues before they blow up. On Syria, no one will ever know if the current tragedy could have been prevented with more proactive leadership. On climate change and population growth, I know that if we do not see more assertive leadership, we will all be in very big trouble.

This seems a fitting conclusion for a Salzburg seminar speech, because Salzburg is really about transformative leadership. And I am sure this board meeting will make its contribution to empowering the next generation of transformative leaders. But for now, I would be very happy to take your questions.

Thank you.

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