Kristalina Georgieva, EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid: "Solidarity, the EU's export"

Previously published in Metro

Kristalina Georgieva is hereby nominated for the title Most Enthusiastic EU Commissioner. The Bulgarian, Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, tirelessly travels around the world to visit its most depressing corners, places where wars, natural disasters and appalling governance have created humanitarian disasters. And she's a welcome guest: while the US is cutting its humanitarian aid budget, the EU is going in the opposite direction. The EU and its member states are the world's largest foreign aid donor. Among its major recipients is Latin America, where even Brazil receives development aid. And the EU has just announced $6.4 billion in aid to Egypt. Indeed, with its largesse towards the rest of the world, the EU may be positioning itself as a candidate for another Nobel Peace Prize.

During a visit to Haiti for the third anniversary of the earthquake, Commissioner Georgieva announced increased EU assistance to the country. With almost childlike enthusiasm for her job, Georgieva always wears a vest with the EU logo during field visits, and insists that her entourage, including "seasoned ambassadors", do the same. On the day of the anniversary, she met with Metro for an interview in Port-au-Prince, where she had earlier helped close a camp.

The EU gives vast sums in humanitarian aid, while countries like the US give much less of its GDP. Are other countries taking advantage of the EU? The EU has consciously decided to develop itself as a soft power. It's not long since we were killing each other, and now we've just won the Nobel Peace Prize. Solidarity is the foundation of the European Union; it's what makes us what we are. And solidarity is our export, as are democracy and human rights. We should speak more clearly about what we do. We only use 0.6% of the EU budget for foreign aid, but EU aid is not an excuse for the US and other donors not to do their part. I often hear, "the US is different because a lot of money is given through NGOs, not the government". But it's not the same thing. NGOs often only come for a short period following a disaster.

Nobody would have questioned the need to give humanitarian aid to Haiti right after the earthquake. But three years later, should the EU be the biggest donor? We look at humanitarian crises based on needs. Last year we provided $1.8 billion in humanitarian aid. In that context, 40 million dollars is an appropriate allocation for Haiti. It's very dangerous to play yo-yo with humanitarian aid: when the media attention is high, humanitarian aid goes up, when media attention low, allocation drops. We must allocate aid based on needs. In Europe we have adopted a two-fold approach: anticipate crises, and then act swiftly. For example, when there was a crisis in the Sahel in early 2012, we mobilised $337 million to avoid a catastrophe, and it was avoided. And we always preserve funding for the so-called forgotten crises. Some 15% of our budget goes to crises that nobody else is doing much about, and I worry that Haiti is now falling into this category.

When the US sends aid, everything comes clearly labelled, "USAID. From the American people", but nobody would guess that the EU is a huge donor. Does the EU have a marketing problem as far as humanitarian assistance is concerned? It's a cultural thing. Europeans, especially the Nordics, have a tradition of doing things without talking about it. We don't demand from our aid recipients that they give us credit, but in today's competitive world we have to show ourselves, which is something I'm working on. For example, now, when our teams go out on field visits, they always wear vests with the EU logo, as do I. We have to show ourselves not least because European taxpayers need to know what's being done with their money. And Europeans are in favor of humanitarian aid. In a recent survey, 88% of EU residents said they're in favor of it. That's an increase since 2010, despite the economic crisis. People see that the world is becoming more vulnerable.

You're planning to create an EU Volunteering Corps. How will it work, and when will is start? It's a pilot project right now, but the plan is to have 10,000 volunteers over five years. The world needs experienced disaster managers, so we'll have a list of people who can be brought in when a disaster happens. And we'll work with logistics companies, since they have huge expertise that can also be utilised during disasters. Initially NGOs got nervous about our plans and said, "Are you going to replace us with inexperienced 25-year-olds?" but that's not the case at all. The volunteers will work in addition to the NGOs.