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.