Policy Priorities for International Co-operation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response: Discussion with EU Commissioner

It is a great pleasure to welcome to the meeting Ms Kristalina Georgieva, European Commissioner for International Co-operation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response. She is accompanied by Mr. Martin Quinn, member of her Cabinet, and Ms Barbara Nolan, head of representation. I also welcome His Excellency, Dr. Emil Savov Yalnazov, the Bulgarian ambassador to Ireland.

On 26 October, the European Commission published a communication entitled, Towards a Stronger European Disaster Response: The Role of Civil Protection and Humanitarian Assistance. Civil protection and humanitarian assistance are the two main instruments at the EU's disposal to deliver relief assistance to people faced with the immediate consequences of disasters. The Lisbon treaty introduced a new legal basis for both.

The committee is keen to hear about the changes introduced by the Lisbon treaty to the EU's mechanisms to deal with disasters, whether within an EU member state or in another part of the world. The Commissioner may also wish to comment on the role envisaged for the European External Action Service in overseeing crisis response, as well as on the solidarity clause envisaged by the Lisbon treaty whereby EU member states will assist each other in the event of a natural or human-made disaster. The committee has several sub-committees on development aid and international co-operation and is interested in this matter. Members have also visited Ireland's programme countries in international development aid programmes.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2) (i) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give to the committee. If they are directed by it to cease giving evidence in regard to a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they do not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva

I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for giving me the opportunity to explain the Commission's newest portfolio. I am the first Commissioner for International Co-operation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response. I consider it both the best and the worst job in the Commission. It is the best because it is about helping people most in need around the world and the worst because creating a commissionership for this area suggests conflicts and man-made disasters are on the increase resulting in many more people requiring assistance.

I am privileged to speak to this committee because Ireland has been one of the prominent member states exercising this value of solidarity in helping those most in need, even when the Irish people themselves face hardship. In 2009 Ireland assisted victims of humanitarian disasters around the world with over €83 million in aid. Such generosity in this difficult time put a high burden of accountability on us to ensure the moneys reach those who need it.

I am responsible for €1 billion of humanitarian assistance which the EU provides to people in need around the world, as well as a network of civil protection experts that we mobilise with to assist our citizens in Europe and around the world.

This year the top five priority programmes for assistance were Haiti, Pakistan, Sudan, the Sahel and the occupied Palestinian territories. We have also provided assistance to Somalia, Sri Lanka and Kyrgyzstan. Two programmes were driven by natural disasters – the earthquake in Haiti and the floods in Pakistan. Sudan will continue to be a high priority for years to come, as well as the occupied Palestinian territories. The Sahel was a high priority this year because of an exceptionally bad drought that affected several countries in the region. However, this time, the international community and the countries themselves have learned a lesson from 2005. Members of the committee will recall that in 2005 we saw on our television screen the horrible famine that hit the Sahel. We learned a lesson from this and this time we had anticipated the onset of chronic hunger levels and were able to mobilise assistance. In August we could tell our citizens, therefore, that we had been successful in preventing a tragedy from happening.

I have two more points. To deliver this assistance we had a team of about 600. We decided to place about 300 in the hot spot areas, in Darfur, south Sudan and in Pakistan where there was chronic need. These humanitarian workers perform a great service for humanity, and they are also the eyes and ears of our taxpayers because it is they who ensure that our help is well-targeted and reaches the people who need it. Second, we work within the UN system as well as with non-governmental organisations. We have a number of Irish partners, whom I shall meet today to discuss our common challenges.

I shall move on to the Commission's proposals for strengthening the EU's response to human disaster. This is our biggest policy initiative and it is driven by the very simple reality that disasters are on the increase, and their impact on societies is growing. Since 1975 the frequency of natural disasters has increased five times and in an average year - certainly, 2010 was not an average year - they affect some 230 million people and cost somewhere between €70 billion and €100 billion to our societies. We are facing into an environment where disasters are on the increase, but public budgets are constrained. There is probably no need for me to say more in that regard in this Chamber. At the same time an overwhelming majority of our European citizens expect the EU to organise and help when such a disaster overwhelms a country, either at home or overseas. More than 90% of Europeans are in favour of strong EU collective action when a disaster overwhelms a country.

On that basis we came up with a proposal as to how to make our assistance more coherent and effective as well as more visible for our people, with five very concrete steps. The first is to do more on scenario planning so that we might anticipate what disasters could happen. Then we have to identify our member states' assets, to determine what we have got to respond to a disaster. Next we ask member states to voluntarily put capacity on stand-by, that is, teams and equipment that may be deployed if a disaster affects a neighbour or a third country, so that we can accurately predict what we can count on. The fourth step is to improve the transportation and logistics arrangements and finally to create an EU emergency response centre in my team, on the basis of what we currently have in place, that is, a monitoring information centre. In summary, we want to move away more fromthe ad hoc response model we have at present, which creates a degree of improvisation that costs lives and even damage to societies, to one that is pre-planned, predictable and ready for immediate deployment. The EU’s role, in the event, would be in planning, training and co-ordination of such deployment. I can tell the committee that two days ago, GAERC, comprising the European Ministers responsible for these types of horizontal policy issues, very much welcomed the direction we are taking. The Ministers described it as pragmatic and saw it as an appropriate response to what our citizens are calling for.

Our proposal is based on four very important principles. This is what made the difference for member states coming on board. The first principle recognises that this is a bottom-up system based on the capacity of member states, not a "central command", but rather building on the assets we have. The second is the fact that is cost effective. Third, we are fully committed outside Europe to work under the auspices of and within the co-ordination of the United Nations, while supporting and strengthening the UN. Last, but not least, we seek to build a response as part of a cycle of preparedness, prevention, response and feedback. In other words, we do not wait for a disaster to hit before we respond, and so we want to see more investment in preparedness and prevention, where the payoffs are highest.

I shall now respond to the question as to how this fits into the responsibilities of High Representative, Catherine Ashton. Outside Europe High Representative Ashton is in charge of crisis management, and what we are developing here is a building block within this system where I am responsible for the humanitarian aid and civil protection instrument. In this system there might be foreign affairs considerations, requiring diplomatic instruments, while in exceptional cases we might need a military input from defence elements, for which the High Representative is responsible. What I bring to the table is a co-ordinated civil protection mechanism, in a sense very similar to what is being done in Ireland, where the local authorities have responsibility for emergency responses, with a co-ordination input at national level is vested in the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

With regard to the solidarity clause, work is ongoing under the leadership of Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecelia Malmström. Again, our contribution is to ensure that the civil protection system of Europe is coherent and well co-ordinated, so that we may contribute to any solidarity initiative that may be required, in the event. I shall conclude on this point. In today's environment, I cannot emphasise more how important it is to our citizens for us to demonstrate that everything we do takes into account the difficulties they face. Actually, the Eurobarometer surveys show that EU citizens remain very committed to humanitarian causes, with eight out of ten being in favour of humanitarian aid. By the same token Europeans want to ensure that their money is being usefully spent, and are committed to this.

I shall end my presentation by saying that I very much recognise this responsibility. I come from the poorest member state of the European Union. Our ambassador is here, and we have aspired for a long time not to be the poorest. My mother's pension is the equivalent of €120 per month. My mother is lucky because her daughter is a European Commissioner, but not all her friends are in the same position. Of course, it is a great responsibility for me and my team to recognise that the sacrifice people are making is towards reaching this common objective of showing that European solidarity is a value we all stand over, and seek to deliver to needy people around the world.

Is the pension equivalent to €120 per month or per week?

Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva

Is the Chairman asking about my mother's pension? It is €120 per month. I wish it were per week.

I wish to invite contributions from members.

I warmly welcome the Commissioner and I fully support the work she is doing. I am very heartened by the target that Ms Georgieva has set and the idea of involving a civil corps in the work. This is something I have been pursuing as a spokesperson. I believe there are tremendous possibilities in using the battle groups that are currently training. Recently the commander of the north-west group, of which we are a part, suggested they be used as a rapid response resource. I thought it was unfortunate that they were not used in places such as Pakistan, if they were invited to participate. I understand we have no entitlement to march in on anybody's territory. They are available, trained and skilled, especially the Irish group who have long experience in peacekeeping and know how to deal with a situation requiring a rapid response. There is tremendous potential for civilian corps and it is also very good for society.

At present more than 450,000 people are unemployed. Professionals such as architects and engineers and qualified tradespeople are idle and drawing the dole. I am quite certain that many of them would be willing to sign up to a civilian corps and use their expertise. We have put far too much emphasis on how much money we contribute to developing aid. We should use the skills of people who are willing to participate and who will train other people. We have teachers, nurses, doctors and others who are available. The millennium goals stated the position. It is not just about dealing with hunger, which is extremely important, but to achieve the other goals such as raising the standard of education and improving health. We have the skills and we have the personnel. All it needs is the organisation. I am very heartened to hear the Commissioner say it is part of her target to achieve these milestones and I would only be too delighted to see Ireland respond very generously to the target set by the Commissioner. I think it is the way forward. The work of the Office for International Co-operation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response should be linked to climate change. We are battling against the waves. The more we ignore the evils of climate change, the greater the crisis to be dealt with. It is no coincidence that we have significant changes in climate, but people fail to recognise this exists and we must do something about it. The European Union is giving a great lead in setting targets and its willingness to raise the targets if others will follow. Waiting for the people of the US to make up their minds means we would be waiting a long time. We must take the lead. If it is a question of embarrassing people into awareness of climate change, we should not be afraid to lead on the issue. It will help in the work that Ms Georgieva is trying to do. If we ignore the effects of climate change, there will be more disasters to which we will have to respond.People have to receive this message loud and clear. I ask Ms Georgieva to make certain at Commission level that her work is directly linked to climate change. There is no point in Ms Georgieva trying to solve a problem when two more problems arise the next day. It is like walking against the waves. People must be told that we cannot stand aside and do nothing. I am really heartened because the job Ms Georgieva is doing is the human face of the European Commission in showing that it is not just about money and the fears that people might think we will have battle groups to go to war and that we are preparing for emergencies. The most important emergency of all is to deal with the tragedies of these ongoing disasters around the world.

I wish Ms Georgieva well. I am heartened that she is proceeding along the lines of encouraging these civilian corps and the battle groups. I urge her to keep us in touch with progress in this regard, as I personally would like to follow up on this.

I apologise that I must leave shortly.

We will take a number of Deputies together. While Deputy Barrett is present, I support his call for a peace corps style body, which I note is to be dealt with at a later stage. It could be very important to bring it forward as much as possible.

I thank the Commissioner for her presentation. Like my colleague, I am very supportive of the work Ms Georgieva is doing. I support the comments of Deputy Barrett. I am interested in the four proposals, particularly in the areas of prevention and rapid response. I agree with Deputy Barrett that we can anticipate drought as a result of climate change. This will have an impact on society and will create disaster for a number of people.

I would like to hear Ms Georgieva expound on her ideas for a peace corps and how she sees that developing in the short term. My main interest is in the cost effectiveness of the work, particularly the level of co-operation, co-ordination and integration between the different agencies. I appreciate very much the good work the European Union is doing and the individual member states, but sometimes I am concerned at the level of co-operation and co-ordination in addressing the issues of deprivation, particularly in the context of emergencies. Sometimes there is a very rapid response and people respond very generously to NGOs. One might accumulate food and it is easy enough to get it to the airport and the disaster area, but when one gets to the airport, there is the question of the organisation of delivery of aid. I would like to know how MsGeorgieva thinks we can achieve greater co-operation, co-ordination and perhaps greater integration into the work of the different agencies which are providing a very good service to people.

I too very much welcome the Commissioner and His Excellency, the ambassador. The Commissioner is at a net advantage representing the country that she has. She is probably much closer to the human needs that are involved in responding to disaster. I will make a number of points that are very important. As for the evolution of institutional thinking in the European Union, some recent proposals have been communicated between the Commission and the Parliament for the establishment of a European peace institute. I am greatly in favour of such an institute and two former Ministers have indicated their support for it. It would be very important for a number of reasons. In analysing what is referred to in the presentation as natural and man-made disasters, one huge component is what one might call resource-based conflicts, that is, conflicts that are driven by resources. This arises dramatically in respect of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in Colombia, which I recently visited, and elsewhere. Resource-based conflicts are those which have the greatest impact on indigenous populations and frequently, macroeconomic strategies adopted by Governments are blind to the short and medium-term consequences of, for example, rejecting indigenous systems of production and food security. This takes place everywhere. In this context, resource-based recoveries very often are missing from the first response when responding to disasters. In other words, if the resources formed the basis of the conflict, their absence from the strategies for recovery strikes me as being highly significant.

The proposed European peace institute should be highly valuable and the Government should make the case for it to be located in Ireland. Small countries without huge resources are in a very good position to build on that and in particular, to include components that larger countries traditionally have neglected. I am a patron of International Services Ireland, which deals with disability in the developing world, which also is a neglected theme. A second issue that strikes me in respect of such an institute is the adequate preparation of the media for dealing with disasters. When visiting Somalia during the famine, I noted that the media of the entire world descended on Mogadishu but then left again within days. While I do not intend to dwell on this point, I will give examples because they are important. A serious issue arises in respect of the manner in which disasters meet the requirements of the news editors and frames after which the people are left behind but the cameras depart, which I consider to be cynical.

Another principle that arises in this paper and that I support is the acceptance of the principle of contingency, of pre-positioning and of anticipation. Even the most generous of donors among the general community note the long time lags that sometimes arise between the images as they appear of the worst of a disaster and the subsequent arrival of the response. Certain steps can be taken in this regard. The European Union to an extent needs to break away into new concepts of logistics, rather than simply combining what it has. Much of what it has at present is extremely slow. It should have been possible to anticipate, for example, many of the civil society complications that have arisen in Haiti. That country is little less than a disaster in disaster response. I refer to what has been taking place there this week, last week and the week before, such as the idea that pledges were delivered rhetorically but not delivered immediately, followed by the introduction of delivery systems that have not taken into account distribution mechanisms and so forth. This is highly disturbing. I note this raises a difficult question for a Commissioner for International Co-operation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response - I wish the Commissioner well in her position - namely, the construction of a timeline. Nearly every member present will assert the importance of arriving on time and equally, one must make a decision as to when one should leave.

There are features which should be addressed and were a European peace institute to be established, it also should address some new realities, including the dreadful increase in gender-based violence that occurs in conflict and which is taking place in practically every area. For example, the Commissioner mentioned southern Sudan, where it affects refugee populations in camps and women of all ages. A further point in this regard is the inculcation of fear, for example, in places such as Colombia, where there is narco-terrorism and a massive deterioration in human sensibility as exemplified by the forms of mutilation of those who are killed and so forth. While I wish the Commissioner well, what is needed is not simply a reorganisation of the existing furniture and instruments but a significant leap forward into new thinking that integrates matters.

Deputy Pat Breen is the recently-appointed Chairman of the joint committee's Sub-Committee on Overseas Development.

In common with my colleagues, I welcome the Commissioner. She has a highly impressive curriculum vitae and I am sure she is well qualified for the job and that the MEPs had no problem with her qualification. I also acknowledge the presence of the ambassador, who is one of the most active European Union ambassadors at this joint committee and who always is present at meetings of the Joint Committee on European Affairs.

I do not wish to go over old ground in respect of the role of the Commissioner. She spoke of the five major areas to which she responded in 2009, including Haiti, Pakistan, Sudan and the Palestinian territories. These are major ongoing disaster areas, particularly Haiti since last January. Perhaps the Commissioner can define her role in respect of the threshold for disaster response. For example, in November of last year, Ireland experienced a major flooding disaster. I recall that I was a member of the delegation from the Joint Committee on European Affairs that travelled to meet the Commissioner's predecessor. What is the Commissioner's role with regard to flood relief on foot of the floods experienced throughout central Europe or in respect of the fires experienced in Greece and Portugal? Is there a threshold or limit in this regard? At what point does the Commissioner's funding begin or when does she intervene? The Commissioner might discuss this point.

Another area in which the European Union came in for some criticism earlier this year was with regard to Haiti. Deputy Higgins touched on this point with regard to the slow response, perhaps by the European Union itself in particular. Critics state that the Union was very slow to move into Haiti and that High Representative Catherine Ashton did not even visit that country. She was not to be seen on television in the same way as were Bill or Hillary Clinton or whoever. The criticism is that Europe was slow to react in that area. Some of the NGOS that have been working in Haiti since the disaster state that only 5% of the recovery and reconstruction work has been carried out, such was the enormous effect of the earthquake. This brings one back to the response and the pledges that many countries made at that time and the same could be said in respect of Gaza and the pledges that were made in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead. As countries do not live up to their pledges on funding, what mechanisms are in place to deal with this?

Finally, I refer to an issue I have raised at previous meetings and to which Deputy Higgins also referred, namely, the manner in which the media moves on from crisis to crisis. Obviously they cannot remain within an area constantly, but as Deputy Higgins noted, people are forgotten about after the cameras depart. Although the NGOs remain, funding can dry up, which leads back to integrating the pledges. I wish the Commissioner well in her role. As the Commissioner stated, being responsible for humanitarian aid is a great role to have. We must never forget about providing that aid, even in a recession.

Like my colleagues, I welcome the Commissioner. I was impressed by her detailed curriculum vitae, which shows she has an understanding of her humanitarian aid brief. It is an area in which I am involved and I want to do everything I can to support it.

The European emergency response centre concept is about forward planning. We discussed how assets should be deployed. They must first be pooled, after which infrastructure must be set up to deal with everything. When the Commissioner referred to assets, I assumed she meant shelters, water purification equipment and field hospitals. My colleague, Deputy Barrett, referred to the resources that Ireland has in abundance, namely, teachers and nurses. If I was out of a job in the morning, I would get involved in this area for no money. We can do much to help, but the management involved is colossal. It is not up to scratch in terms of deployment in an effective and cost effective way and the management of local logistics through, for example, the depot system of distribution. The non-governmental organisations are great agencies that comprise superb people, but they are all over the place when disasters strike. They want to help, but there is confusion and an overlap, in that three or four agencies could be doing the same thing. Many people who are hanging around after a disaster hits do not know where to go or what to do. The system should be streamlined.

The Commissioner has a huge job to do. Having read her speech, I know she has the ability and backup to do it. I look forward to having another meeting in which she could tell us about improvements in the new concept of the response centre.

I call Deputy Hannigan.

It is Senator for another few weeks yet. We will see.

My apologies.

I welcome the Commissioner and her team to the Houses. Her presentation was informative and her enthusiasm for the job is clear. It is also clear that she believes she has the best job in the world.

My points have largely been made by others, so I will not stress them. The first relates to co-ordination after a disaster. Like Senator Ormonde and Deputy O'Hanlon, I believe the Commissioner faces a challenge in co-ordinating aid agencies, given the responses to recent disasters.

My second point concerns the number of disasters since 1975. The Commissioner stated the number had increased nearly fivefold from a statistical point of view due to a range of issues, such as population increases, urbanisation and environmental degradation. This increase is worrying. Have we changed the definition of what constitutes a disaster? The danger is that due to further urbanisation, particularly in the developing world, the prevalence of disasters will increase.

The Commissioner's budget is €1 billion per year, but the figures in her report suggest disasters in Europe cost approximately €10 billion per year. While €1 billion sounds like a great deal, it will not be so unless we can prevent some disasters through scenario modelling or whatever. I would be interested in hearing the Commissioner's opinions in this regard.

Being a member of this committee can be grim and depressing, given the types of presentation made to us. The topics of the next two meetings will confirm my assertion. I understand what is meant by the Commissioner's role being the worst of jobs. However, the best part of the job is heartening. A response is being made to various disasters and a budget is in place, even though it is not sufficient.

One of the Commissioner's documents refers to addressing all types of disaster other than armed conflict. I do not know whether one can measure disasters, but armed conflict creates and exacerbates so much suffering. The humanitarian responses in various armed conflicts have been slow. Is there any movement on this issue?

In terms of the effectiveness of response, Pakistan came to mind. The disaster there seems to have gone off the radar. What is occurring on the ground? Where Haiti is concerned, there sometimes seems to be a political agenda. For example, Cuba was working in Haiti before the disasters and had a major impact, but its response seems to have been downgraded. The Cubans were not looking for kudos, but we must be fair.

I am interested in preventative measures. Are the permanent staff to whom the Commissioner referred ready to move immediately or is she waiting for various staff to make their offers?

I note there is a vote in the Dáil.

We did not hear any bell.

I will also need to leave. I am afraid there will be a quick evacuation. I welcome the Commissioner. To hear a professional politician speaking in such a way was heartening. I used to teach in a university and I always knew the students who were going to do well. They were motivated and were not simply doing something their parents wanted them to do, such as medicine because someone's father wanted to be a doctor. I could hear the motivation in the Commissioner's voice. It is the best job and worst job. That she spoke without reading from notes indicates she is on top of the situation. We are lucky to have her.

I am glad to report that I had the opportunity to visit Sofia a couple of years ago at the invitation of the then ambassador, Mr. Geoffrey Keating. It was a cultural mission and I performed a show I do about James Joyce in a theatre.

Although much has been said, it bears repeating. We have all mentioned how international politicians, statesmen and stateswomen step up to a microphone when there is a disaster, but subsequently do not step up to the plate and deliver. I know the Commissioner must be diplomatic, but I suggest she name and shame if possible. In an audit every year, she could point out how X country had promised to spend so much money but had only delivered a fraction and then ask where the rest of it had gone. She could at least place the facts on the table and allow us to ask the questions. It is intolerable that people should get kudos for making apparently generous gestures and then not be held to account.

A widespread and generous response from countries, citizens, NGOs and aid agencies to the Haitian disaster became clear almost immediately. However, there was a complete lack of co-ordination. Perhaps this is where international groups of-----

I am afraid we must finish. The Senator should conclude quickly. He can have a discussion with the Commissioner afterwards.

We have been asked by Oxfam, Trócaire, Action from Ireland, AfrI, and so on to ensure we provide aid.

There is a man made disaster close to the EU, namely, Palestine. I have visited it many times and seen the devastation. EU money is being wasted because it is being put into projects that are frustrated.

We must conclude. There is a vote that Members must attend immediately. It looks as though people will not be able to return.

I thank the Commissioner for attending this meeting and I welcome the report's publication. Despite the considerable achievements of the EU in responding to disasters such as this year's Haitian earthquake and floods in Pakistan, it is clear that there is plenty of room for improvement. It is important that the officers of the new European External Action Service, EEAS, have a clear understanding of their role and responsibility in this regard. Tailored training in disaster response is very important to ensure swift and effective responses on the ground. I am grateful for Ms Georgieva's clear and informative presentation. We might try to visit her on her home ground at some stage.

Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva

The committee would be very welcome. Obviously, we need to continue this discussion, so come to Brussels.

Sitting suspended at noon and resumed at 3.15 p.m.