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Why we need to think again about how we deal with humanitarian crises

March 19th, 2014


2013 saw some of the worst humanitarian crises in living memory. As the Syrian conflict enters its fourth year the refugee crisis it has generated in the region has become the greatest humanitarian challenge in a generation. In Central African Republic and South Sudan, existing deep-rooted humanitarian problems have been magnified by ongoing ethnic and political violence.

We need to face the reality that an urgent shift is needed in the way we respond to humanitarian crises. Read the full entry

Three years of fighting, a river of tears

March 14th, 2014


I have been in Iraq where the number of refugees from the war in Syria continues to climb, just as it does in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. We are entering the fourth year of fighting and there is no end in sight to this madness.

Syria is the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of our times, with more than nine million people on the move not out of choice but for the simple motive of survival. That’s more than 6.5 million people forced to flee inside Syria and another 2.5 million who’ve decided that if they want to live they need to cross their country’s borders and seek refuge among neighbours. Try to imagine what it would be like for

40 per cent of the population of your country Read the full entry

Hello, EU Aid Volunteers!

February 25th, 2014

Today brought good news: the European Parliament gave overwhelming support to the creation of EU Aid Volunteers. In the presence of volunteers from the pilot projects who had come to speak about their experiences and to promote the programme, Members of the EP approved it with 88% majority – exactly mirroring the support voiced for it by European citizens, 88% of whom told us through Eurobarometer that they look forward to having EU Aid Volunteers in action.

This means that from April, when we expect the final “yes” of the Member States, the set-up of the initiative can start and the first volunteers can be selected and deployed from next year. We envisage that, in the next five years, around 20,000 people will take volunteering opportunities – ranging from deployment in vulnerable countries, through office work, to online support. Read the full entry

What After Homs?

February 20th, 2014

Source: Freedom House

A temporary ceasefire in Homs has allowed for the evacuation of civilians and the delivery of humanitarian aid inside the Old City. For a first time in the madness of Syria’s civil war there has been a glimpse of what passes for “normality” in conflict zones: UN vehicles driving in and out, bringing help and hope to desperate people. This war has been so terrible for so long that I fear we are losing our perspective on what normality is.

It is not normal to take 14 months for the UN to negotiate a humanitarian pause in Homs. It is not normal for aid convoys to be shot at on their way to Homs. It is not normal that at least 240,000 people are trapped in besieged areas and another three million in places where fighting prevents the regular delivery of aid. It is not normal for humanitarian workers to be fair game for fighters from both sides. Read the full entry

CAR: some hope amid the bad news

January 29th, 2014

I first travelled to the Central African Republic (CAR) last July; since then, I’ve been trying hard – together with France and Valerie Amos, the UN humanitarian coordinator in particular – to drum up attention for this chronically ignored, chronically impoverished country.

The destructive potential of religious tensions was on my list of concerns back then and sadly, my fear became a reality: violence between Muslims and Christians has escalated to horrible proportions since December, plunging CAR into a humanitarian catastrophe with massive population displacement, a dramatic health crisis, egregious violations on human rights and a looming food crisis. Read the full entry

Kuwait Two

January 19th, 2014

I am back in Kuwait after a year of the conflict in Syria going terribly wrong. Since the first humanitarian fundraising conference took place here in early 2013, the number of Syrians in need of assistance has quadrupled, the refugees in the neighbouring countries have increased five times, and, with the health system in shambles, polio has returned. In response, we in the European Commission delivered seven-fold on our first Kuwait pledge – $1 billion against our $136 million commitment. Sadly, even with contributions at record levels we are not nearly close to meeting the needs, because of the enormity of the crisis, but also because access inside Syria over this last year has worsened. Read the full entry

Working together to make a safer world

December 10th, 2013

I write this blog to pass my thanks to the European Parliament for voting today in favour of our new civil protection legislation.  This vote means a lot to me and my team – we have been working for years on this legislation – but it matters much more to our citizens.  The new legislation is about protecting their lives, homes and livelihoods in the face of more frequent and devastating disasters.  It is also about providing better assistance to disaster victims worldwide.

I remember vividly how during the floods in Poland in 2010 I spent 6 long hours worrying whether the high volume pumps Poland asked for would be delivered by other members of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism (which co-ordinates the assistance provided by the 32 states that participate in it). This was the first major alert of the new mandate, just when I’d taken up the role of Crisis Response Commissioner.

Luckily, the help Poland asked for came through. As of today, with the new legislation, this help is on stand-by and predictable. We are improving the quality and availability of response capacities through the creation of a stand-by pool of Member States’ assets that is ready to respond immediately to any crisis.

And thanks to the European Parliament’s vote we can now go even further – we can act before the disaster strikes. The legislation places greater emphasis on disaster prevention, requiring our Member States to prepare and share risk assessments as well as assessments of their risk management capability. We also rely on a stronger coordination capacity of our Emergency Response Coordination Centre – a one-stop shop for requesting and coordinating European emergency assistance, as well as the provision of satellite images, and projections of floods and forest fires putting Europeans at risk.

And it’s not a day too soon for enacting this new legislation. Last month I was in Tacloban in the Philippines shortly after Typhoon Haiyan became the most destructive cyclone ever to make landfall. A changing climate, population growth and rapid urbanisation mean that natural disasters are striking more often and with greater severity. The combined costs around the world are unaffordable: for the first time the world has experienced three consecutive years when the economic losses from disasters surpassed a hundred billion dollars – more than 70 billion euros.

None of us is immune from this reality. Disasters do not stop at Europe’s doorstep. Inside the EU natural disasters caused some 100,000 deaths in the last decade. This summer’s flooding in central Europe is estimated to have cost €13.5 billion.

In response to an increasingly fragile world the EU has come a long way, and is now going even further.  We can build a resilient Europe that is able to protect its own citizens and is also able to help others whenever and wherever disaster strikes.  Thank you, European Parliament, for voting for it.

Sans crainte

November 29th, 2013

I often say that I have the worst and the best job in the world: the worst because I go to places around the world where normally terrible events have happened or are taking place; the best because I am constantly inspired by the spirit of the people I meet, who show courage and compassion for others in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, even when their own very survival is in the balance.

This week I have been lucky to travel to Abidjan, capital of Côte d’Ivoire, for a good news story – which unfortunately is not something I often get the chance of doing. I met with Prime Minister Daniel Kablan Duncan and, together with the French government, we signed off on an unprecedented deal which will see more than half a million children and their mothers benefit from free health care.

This is thanks to a debt reduction contract between France and Côte d’Ivoire, under which the Agence Française de Développement has transferred 18 million euros to ECHO, the humanitarian office of the European Commission. It is the first time that ECHO is receiving funds in this way and as such is a huge vote in the quality of the service we deliver. The funds are going to support four health clinics in the poorest and most vulnerable parts of the country and in particular the government’s goal of creating a targeted free health care programme for pregnant women and children under the age of five.

After the ceremony, which for me was a very sweet and happy occasion, I was able to visit Abobo Sud hospital, which serves a densely populated part of Abidjan. A sign above a main door read “Entrez sans crainte” – Enter without fear. And indeed that is exactly what is happening more and more as Côte d’Ivoire continues its remarkable and swift recovery from the post-election violence which divided the country until so recently.

The hospital sees at least 60 expectant mothers every day; four thousand births have taken place here this year with a resounding success in lowering the mothers’ and the infants’ mortality rates.

To round off a rare day of celebration I met the Prime Minister again at a meeting for AGIR, our resilience initiative for the region’s countries. What I saw and heard greatly encouraged me; the message is getting through that the old ways of delivering aid are no longer sufficient to tackle the complex root causes of crises, which include climate change and demography.

AGIR’s main objective is to strengthen the resilience of the most vulnerable people in the face of these ever more frequent and more intense crises. All the participants at the meeting committed themselves to developing national resilience plans by next Spring.

Our meeting took place in the city’s Hotel de Golf, where 2010’s much-delayed national elections ended with the winner, Alassane Outtara, sheltering there with his cabinet, surrounded by UN peacekeepers as violence raged on the streets outside. The venue.could have not been more symbolic of the eternal truth that where there is a will there is a way – that when you make the right choices for people good will always triumph in the end. It was a thought which recurred to me when I remembered too the face of a happy, healthy infant who smiled and laughed with me at Abobo Sud Hospital.

Music against hunger

October 16th, 2013

Do you know how many children die of under-nutrition in the world every year? Or every day? Take a few seconds to try to guess the number… Read the full entry

In Washington to prevent a lost generation of Syrians

October 13th, 2013

This year’s annual meetings of the World Bank and the IMF saw the news dominated by the state of the world economy. It’s a familiar occasion because I used to work for the World Bank and my current job brings me here often. But for me this time the meetings would be memorable with three things.

First, the deluging rains of near Biblical proportions. It poured so hard and ceaselessly for days that the rainwater turned the streets of Washington DC into rivers. At a public meeting on resilience one of my fellow panellists, the finance minister of Columbia Mauricio Cardenas, talked about extreme weather as the “new normal”. And the pounding rain outside just hammered his point home.

Second, the shut-down of the US government. It might have made the traffic lighter but it weighed heavily on world economy concerns. I was speaking about fragile states at an IMF seminar and with the US crisis in the world’s most important economy looming in the background it provided the strongest evidence that fragility in the world is on the increase.

Third, there was the overwhelming presence of the Syria crisis. It was the focus not just of my program but also a priority for many others in DC. And of particular concern right now is the desperate plight of millions of Syrian children. Read the full entry