The European Union’s high commissioner for humanitarian affairs believes that the responsibility of the humanitarian aid workers is an extremely sensitive, difficult and dangerous mission and in some conflicts, their work is as dangerous as that of a soldier fighting in the battle.
“In some conflicts, to be a humanitarian worker is as dangerous as being a soldier and this danger is increasing. In Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan, there is a surge in the kidnapping, wounding and killing of humanitarians. Nearly a hundred humanitarian workers have already been killed this year. Kidnapping incidents are also growing in number: Kidnapping is becoming a source of income in some conflicts,” said Kristalina Georgieva, the European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, in an exclusive interview with the Tehran Times.
Affiliated with the European People’s Party, Dr. Georgieva has been a member of the board of trustees and associate professor in the Economics Department of the University of National and World Economy in Bulgaria. She is currently serving in the Second Barroso Commission.
Kristalina Georgieva has been applauded and praised by many members of the European Parliament for her peaceful manner and her contributions to the growth and development of international peace and security, and also her environmental activities. On her confirmation hearing on February 4, 2010, the Slovenian MEP Ivo Vajgl told her, “let me compliment you on your peaceful manner and the confidence you are exuding today.”
Yesterday, the first part of Tehran Times’ exclusive interview with Ms. Georgieva was published. What follows is the text of the second and final part of this interview in which different issues pertaining to the EU Commission’s humanitarian missions around the world are discussed.
Q: You surely admit that Africa is an underrepresented continent. Millions of people in this region, as you’ve noted in your writings and speeches, suffer from poverty, mal-nutrition, lack of access to proper education, shelter and other humanitarian facilities, especially in countries like Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and Mali. How is it possible to turn the global attention to the plight of the African people and attract humanitarian assistance for them? What’s the responsibility of the mass media here?
A: The complex problems of Africa do need more attention from everyone: from politicians, from experts, from donors and from our citizens, from Africans and non-Africans. There are encouraging examples of countries - for example South Africa and Kenya - where millions of people have been lifted out of poverty and where the difficult past has been replaced by a more promising present and by optimism about the future.
At the same time some of the world’s worst examples of poverty and injustice are also happening in Africa: child malnutrition, displacement, violence against women, conflicts, disease. It is unacceptable that in this day of unprecedented global wealth and technological advancement, we have still not solved these problems which affect billions of people.
There is no simple solution. The choice we in the European Union have made is to help Africans help themselves by investing in education, in sustainable agriculture, in boosting disaster resilience. We have a long way to go, but I am optimistic that we can make progress. I hope the media will also stay focused, because we need your help: without information and debate we cannot hope to engage our citizens in finding solutions. Especially in today’s inter-connected world, no one can say "”his is happening far from me, it doesn’t concern me”. Globalization has made our world smaller and every problem, even if it happens across the world, can have implications for us. So, we need to know about it, and be prepared for it.
Q: Climate change, global warming and extreme weather events are among the most perilous challenges ahead of our world today. Thunderstorms, tsunamis, earthquakes, unusual rainfalls, volcanic eruptions and droughts are among the extreme climatic events that cost the world countries billions of dollars. You estimated that 2011 was the most expensive year in history in terms of damages resulting from climate change. It was also noted in your writings that from 1999 to 2009, around 100,000 European citizens were killed by natural disasters. Is there any practical way to prevent such calamities from happening and preclude the damages of climate change?
A: Disasters are on the rise in recent years and 2013 is not an exception. We in Europe experienced the worst floods in many years this summer while just a few weeks ago a strong cyclone took 18 lives on the Italian island of Sardinia. The U.S. has also seen several severe tornadoes, such as the one in Oklahoma in May. New records were set in Asia as well, most recently with Typhoon Haiyan which devastated parts of the Philippines and before that – with the earthquake in Pakistan in September and other disasters. Meanwhile in Africa, drought has sentenced millions of people to hunger and extreme poverty.
Climate change is happening and since 80% of disasters are climate-related, we will continue to see more frequent and more destructive disasters. We cannot stop disasters from happening, but we can – and must – change the way we prepare, respond and recover when they do happen.
Preparedness is crucial. By knowing the risks we face and adapting to these risks, we can significantly reduce the damage of disasters. Consider, for instance, disaster-proof construction - if we build our homes, public buildings and roads so that they can withstand earthquakes, we will save lives, prevent damage and reduce our costs. Prevention makes sense from the economic perspective: one dollar invested in preparedness saves between 4 and 7 dollars in damage!
We need also to improve our response to the more frequent and intensive disasters we face. Europe is working intensively in this direction: we encourage the cooperation and coordination between our countries because if we act together, we can be faster, more efficient and help each other in a spirit of solidarity. We also cooperate with other countries, from our neighbours like Russia to more distant friends such as China, Japan and the United States. This cooperation has enormous practical value: for example, after the Big Japan Earthquake of 2011, European countries pooled their assistance and provided a single, generous and swift package of support. This was very much appreciated by the Japanese authorities. So we are ready to assist countries in need, but also we know that others will help us if we are in need.
Climate change and the surge in disasters also oblige us to learn from experience and become more resilient to future disasters. They will keep coming - so we need to become better at coping with them. We are also working to integrate resilience in our projects in support to the world’s most vulnerable countries.
For example, in parts of Africa where drought kills the crops and domestic animals every few years, we are working with local communities and national governments to break the cycle between erratic weather, poverty and hunger. It’s not an easy task, and the challenges are daunting, yet we have no choice but to adapt, if we want to pass on to our children a sustainable world.
Q? As the EU commissioner for humanitarian affairs, what’s your viewpoint regarding the importance of the responsibility of the humanitarian aid workers, the hazards and difficulties they face in their missions? War zones in such countries as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia can be the most dangerous places for these dedicated people. How is it possible to defend them and increase their safety and security?
A: In some conflicts, to be a humanitarian worker is as dangerous as being a soldier and this danger is increasing. In Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan, there is a surge in the kidnapping, wounding and killing of humanitarians. Nearly a hundred humanitarian workers have already been killed this year. Kidnapping incidents are also growing in number: Kidnapping is becoming a source of income in some conflicts.
In the past, the emblems of humanitarian organisations used to be a shield; now they attract attacks. This is illegal under international humanitarian law and has severe repercussions for the victims of conflicts – ultimately, they pay the price.
Insufficient political will to solve this problem allows it to continue. In Syria, for example, humanitarian workers have been targeted deliberately and massively: ambulances are shot at, hospitals are bombed, aid convoys are detained. More than 35 volunteers and UN staff members have been killed. The Security Council of the United Nations was silent on this problem for more than two years, before it issued a presidential statement calling for the protection of humanitarians and for access to the people in need of assistance.
All that humanitarians are asking is “Please stand by us in our very difficult journey.” We must answer their call: this is our human obligation! We can change the situation through advocacy, through raising awareness about the problems of humanitarians and by applying international laws in their defence and against those who target them.
Q: You’ve surely studied the issue of child labour and the exploitation of young children for military purposes. Children need attention, kindness, protection and a tranquil environment in which they can grow, continue their education and become useful members for the society; however, when we exploit them to earn a living for us, or to serve in the armies and fight for our unjustifiable wars, then it’s the time that we are oppressing them. As an EU commissioner, what’s your viewpoint regarding such problems and dangers jeopardizing the lives of children across the world?
A: Children need protection and love and deserve all our efforts to make the world a better place for them to grow up in. Unfortunately, in so many countries around the world, adults are failing them. I firmly believe in giving every child the right to develop her or his full potential in an environment of peace and love. We cannot do it for all children who are denied this chance, but we can help more children - and this is what the European Commission does.
We have a special focus on children-victims of conflict - and unfortunately, almost 1 billion children around the world fall in this category. We have invested the European Union’s Nobel Peace Prize money in helping children who are living in conflict and post-conflict environment. This initiative will continue and will make a difference for 80,000 children affected by conflict in 2014.
Q: How is the current humanitarian situation in Somalia? Somalia ranks first in the 2013 list of the Failed States Index as published by the Foreign Policy magazine. Is it practically possible to deliver humanitarian assistance to the people of Somalia suffering from famine and displacement, given the immense insecurity and instability encompassing the country?
The situation in Somalia remains very difficult. Two years after the terrible hunger crisis which killed 258 thousand people, food security has improved, but millions of people are at risk of slipping back into crisis during the next lean season. Drought, hunger, poverty and conflict have displaced a huge number of Somalis - 1.1 million people are internally displaced and more than a million are refugees in the region. The risks are particularly grave for children: one in ten Somali children die before reaching their first birthdays, and among those who survive, one in six children are severely malnourished.
The problem is worsened by the difficulties of humanitarian organizations to reach the people who need their help. Inside Somalia, humanitarians face security threats and restricted access. The delivery of assistance is possible in some places, but very, very difficult in others. This is of great concern for us as a donor and for our humanitarian partners working on the ground.
The European Commission has been a generous donor of humanitarian aid to Somalia and without our support, the 2011 drought and hunger crisis would have killed even more people and would probably continue to this day. This year, we are giving €46.6 million in humanitarian aid in Somalia. After the recent tropical storm Three, which unleashed floods and violent storms upon parts of Somalia, we are assessing the humanitarian needs and stand ready to increase our support.
Our commitment to Somalia is strong, but I am realistic: humanitarian aid is like a dressing to a wound, it brings temporary relief and can stop the bleeding, but it does not cure the illness. For that, Somalia needs development support and the European Union is working to help with that as well.
Q: And finally, what’s your viewpoint regarding the role the mass media and the non-governmental organizations can play in facilitating the provision of humanitarian assistance to the crisis-hit and disaster-affected citizens all around the globe? How can they raise public awareness on the importance of humanitarian aid and contribute to the improvement of the living standards of people across the world?
A: The voices of anger, madness and aggression are loud; the voice of goodness is quiet. We need to amplify the voice of goodness, and the media have a special responsibility to do that.
We need to tell the stories of the people who need our support, and the stories of people who we have managed to help. This is the only way to keep the support of our citizens for humanitarian aid.