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A boy wading through mud
Typhoon Ketsana wrought havoc in Vietnam, but the EU says it helped to prevent even worseImage: AP

EU aid

Robert Mudge
October 8, 2009

The EU recently provided 7.1 million euros of disaster relief in one week, and claimed that its disaster preparedness lessened the damage done by Typhoon Ketsana. Is this a sign of the EU's new international stature?


"In Vietnam, Ketsana was really a success story of how disaster preparedness is working," said David Verboom, regional director of the European Commission for Humanitarian Aid (ECHO) on Wednesday at a press conference after returning from Hanoi.

When Typhoon Ketsana struck Vietnam on Sept. 29, it killed more than 100 people, destroyed 22,000 homes, and damaged another 260,000, but, according to Verboom, it could have been much worse without the preventative help of ECHO. "Before the storm 370,000 people were evacuated and 46,000 boats returned to harbour and were safely anchored," he reported.

The emphasis on disaster preparedness has become an international issue this decade in response to massive catastrophes both man-made, like 9/11, and natural, like the 2004 tsunami that killed a quarter of a million people in South East Asia.

Cost effective aid

"Prevention is better than cure," ECHO spokesman John Clancy told Deutsche Welle. "With damage preparedness, we stand a very much better chance of a) saving lives, b) being effective with the aid investment we provide." This new emphasis on efficiency is apparently key in an area where some experts suggest that one euro of precaution is worth four in relief.

There is little doubt that ECHO and its non-governmental partner organizations have become better able to use aid investment efficiently. Francois Courtande, coordinator at the International Red Cross, one of ECHO's non-governmental partners told Deutsche Welle that, "through the years, ECHO and its partners have built better knowledge, so we are improving the quality of our activities. So in that sense, by maximizing use of the funds, we have more money."

Disaster preparedness was vividly described by Verboom: "Instead of having this iron sheeting flying around in a typhoon like a razor blade, the roof stays on the house." But Courtande describes more mundane infrastructural improvements: "All around the world we now have logistics bases that allow us to have pre-positioned stock in these areas, to respond to any disaster very quickly. We have built framework agreements with suppliers, where we have stocks of non-food items that don't belong to us, but which we can buy from the suppliers when we need them." This is not food, Courtande says, but equipment such as tarpaulins, health kits and toolkits.

A bigger, and more visible player

Since its establishment in 1992, ECHO has become the biggest single supplier of humanitarian aid in the world. Its budget, steadily rising year by year, has reached 767 million euros ($1.13 billion) in 2009. On the ground, this has put ECHO programs side-by-side with UN aid and aid from individual nations, potentially creating a coordinating nightmare.

Overturned trucks hit by a tsunami
The EU is trying to improve its aid preparedness to ensure that help is effectiveImage: AP

Mark Rhinard, Senior Research Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, recounts confusing situations in the areas affected by the 2004 tsunami. "There were yellow tents next to blue tents, belonging to different aid organisations, and it was difficult to decide whose tent you were supposed to go into," he says.

This international overlap is still present today, Rhinard continues: "And some protocols are yet to be sorted out. But they're getting there."

In the past few years, there have been signs that the EU has been taking disaster aid into its own hands. Thanks to various agreements between ministers, internal coordination has improved, and the EU is now able, for example, to charter planes from member states directly. Common resource initiatives have also been created to supply facilities and powers that no member state previously had.

A stronger EU

This has come hand in hand with the EU's general attempt to boost its international powers in the last couple of years. "The EU is keen to showcase its international profile, and disaster aid is one area in which it can do that," Rhinard says.

The seeds of this new development may have been in a forgotten report developed in 2005 for the EU by then French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier.

Former French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier
Former French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier was instrumental in urging the EU to rethink its aid strategyImage: AP

The Barnier report, commissioned to come up with better and faster disaster response, made plenty of concrete suggestions for how the EU could coordinate its operations, but they required a stronger EU. In the report, Barnier complained that the speed with which European assistance could be deployed depended on the national decision-making processes in the then 25 member states, since each state decided on an ad hoc and voluntary basis whether it could provide support, and how much it wanted to offer.

"The Barnier report said we need more of this and that, and it was scoffed at at the time," says Rhinard, "it seemed to be unrealistic, but many of its recommendations have been adopted piecemeal."

This of course does not mean that aid from individual states should one day be replaced by the EU. Courtande of the Red Cross points out, "if one country has certain historical ties with another, say France with Senegal, then it should have the right to allocate funds there. You cannot stop the natural and historical link between two countries."

But perhaps the biggest progress the ECHO has made is in the area of public relations, says Courtande: "The European Union has improved its communication, and has made itself more visible. The EU was already a major donor for a lot of partners in the late 90's, but was not getting the credit, and you would turn on any channel and you would see US aid or support."

Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Rob Mudge

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