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EU Prepares for Massive Aid Operation

The EU has pledged millions in aid for the victims of the Indian Ocean disaster. The EU's aid chief has also suggested an urgent conference for international donors to coordinate their funds to the affected nations.

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Reaching for help

Immediately after news of the unexpected killer tidal waves in the Indian Ocean broke on Sunday, the European Commission was quick to allocate €3 million ($4.7 million) to the International Red Cross to deliver aid for the victims.

Seebeben Thailand - deutsch-taiwanesisches Rettungsteam

German and Taiwanese rescue team members load provisions and rescue supplies in Phuket, Thailand

Now, the EU has signaled it is ready to top that amount with the release up to €30 million to the affected countries. EU Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Louis Michel said the EU would be "right at the top of the table of donors."

Of the extra funds, €10 million was available now for
India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, and a further €10 million for Indonesia once the government had come forward to define its needs. The remainder would be allocated to other countries.

Michel has urged that the money should be used wisely. "We have to move very quickly with rehabilitation efforts. We mustn't let a vacuum develop," he said.

Questions over fund distribution

But, despite the swift announcement of funds to the affected regions, problems still plague their distribution and coordination.

The crisis task force created by ECHO, the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Organization, still has to work out answers to questions facing all aid donors: Who is the best contact group for us in the region? And what projects does it make sense to fund at the present moment?

Bildergalerie2 EU-Kommissare Louis Michel Development and Humanitarian Aid Belgian

Louis Michel

The EU's aid chief has underlined that that the full extent of the damage isn't yet known, and that aid groups don't yet have the complete picture of where aid is needed most. A spokeswoman for ECHO said the task force would be able to name 10 concrete aid projects by Friday, that would use up the first €10 million of the EU's €30 million aid budget. More projects are expected to take shape in the coming year once the exact needs of the people in the crisis areas are assessed.

Focus on medium-term

Indonesien nach der Flut

A destroyed market building in Banda Aceh.

At the same time, Michel warned that given the enormous scale of the disaster, there is a risk of failing to prepare for the massive task of reconstruction that will come afterwards.

Efforts must focus as much on the medium-term rehabilitation phase as immediate emergency efforts, Michel said, noting that it would be a huge mistake to leave a gap between the two stages.

"I am very anxious about the linkage between the emergency phase and the second phase of rehabilitation and reconstruction.If there is a gap between the two phases, I think it will have catastrophic consequences," he said.

ECHO a heavyweight in international aid

Financially speaking, ECHO is a heavyweight in the world of international emergency aid. It had budgeted some €500 million on humanitarian aid projects in 2004, with a reserve of some €220 million, which will be tapped to finance the current emergency measures in South Asia. It has already sent experts to the affected countries to gather its own impression of what needs to be done.

Projects that are financed by ECHO funding will be realized by aid groups and non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, including the Red Cross and German Agro Action, among others.

Their funding applications will be processed and checked by Brussels, which will either approve or deny the request. As far as government agencies go, ECHO is considered in NGO circles to be fairly efficient.

Conference call

Überschwemmungen in Sri Lanka nach Seebeben in Asien

Tidal waves wash through houses at Maddampegama, about 60 kilometers south of Colombo, Sri Lanka

Michel has also said that international donors should consider holding an urgent conference to coordinate their aid to countries hit by the tsunami that has killed more than 60,000 people. The conference, Michel said, could be organized with the United Nations and partners such as the United States and Japan. But he stopped short of making a formal call for such a meeting.

"It would be at least useful for the EU and its member states to meet, and discuss this problem quite quickly, and this conference could be expanded or done in collaboration with other donors," he said. "The conference would be an attempt to be prepared at the right moment."

Such a conference should take place within weeks, not months, he said. He said a part of the reconstruction effort could be setting up an early warning system, built with European assistance.

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