The world needs EU Aid volunteers!

Kristalina Georgieva — European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response

Workshop on “Best Practices on the assistance of volunteers in Civil Protection and Humanitarian Interventions”

Cyprus, 20-11-2012 — / — Dear Minister,

Dear Colleagues,

1. Cyprus at the heart of HA and CP

It is always great to be back in Cyprus. It is even better for those who deal with humanitarian aid and civil protection, because Cyprus, the Cypriots, the Cypriot Presidency have always demonstrated a keen interest and commitment to these matters. Not only because Cypriots remember what it is to be torn by war, or to suffer from an explosion or another disaster, but also because of its geographic location.

Let me take a simple example: there is just 110 km between Cyprus and Syria’s shores – a Syrian swum it in 2007! Through Cyprus, the EU is just 110 km from a fragile regional balance that is being torn by a terrible conflict. There, humanitarian aid is at the moment the most significant contribution from Europeans. And should conditions worsen with fights intensifying and winter knocking at the door, Cyprus may face again, as it did in 2006 for 60,000 people escaping Lebanon, the challenge to host desperate people in their most dire moment. I know that Cyprus will keep its heart and its door open to the people.

Cyprus is also a strong partner in our current efforts to modernise the Civil Protection European mechanism – under the guidance of Minister Mavrou, we are looking at compromise positions in our legislative proposal that could bring clear advantages to all our citizens. We are hopeful that thanks to Cyprus’ efforts, we will soon have a new legislation on civil protection.

I therefore could not find a better place to take advantage of a Member State’s great tradition of Civil Protection, here called Civil Defense, to guide our reflection on volunteering in this field.

2. Trend in disasters and need for volunteers

Since 1975, the number of recorded disasters has been multiplied by five. Intensity and cost have gone up even faster. Last year, 2011, holds the record in terms of assessed damage costs – around EUR 300 billion, 50% higher than the previous record set only 6 years ago in 2005. When I read that hurricane Sandy’s cost is already estimated at over 60 billion USD for the East Coast, I am convinced that the current record will be broken in the years to come.

At the same time, we all know from experience that no country is rich enough to keep on the payroll as many first responders as the most dramatic disaster may call for. This is why there is already a lot of experience in volunteering, and in the key areas of recruitment, training and deployment of these volunteers. I learned during the year of volunteering, 2011, that if Europeans volunteers would form a country, they would be the largest Member State with 100 Mio people. At the same time, the proportion of volunteers among each Member State varies greatly as former Communists countries perceive volunteering differently than those with a strong civil society tradition.

This need for volunteers has been translated into strong structures and a true cooperative culture by organisations such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent. Civil Protection is often built around an impressive core of carefully selected professionals, able to rely on an army of highly motivated and well trained volunteers.

3. Volunteers in action in Europe

Actually, one of the first projects financed by the European Commission’s Civil Protection Financial Instrument was to create a network between the voluntary civil protection organisations in Europe

Civil Protection has a wealth of experience in volunteering to draw on. Think of the thousands of volunteer fire fighters who do their dangerous work not for the money but to help the people whose homes are threatened by flames. Most volunteer fire fighters do have a regular job, which they leave whenever they are needed.

In Germany for example, there are more than 1.2 million volunteer fire-fighters, but also 500,000 volunteers with NGOs and 80,000 volunteers of the Federal Agency for Technical Relief THW. In Italy, about 1 million people belong to over 4,000 specialist organizations in civil protection. In May 2012, two earthquakes hit the Italian region Emilia Romagna – in the ensuing days, weeks and months, 24.000 volunteers were deployed mainly to assist the population in the temporary shelter camps.

ECHO has also tapped into this huge reservoir volunteers in European operation: during Poland’s floods in 2010, there were more than 20 expert teams and 300 rescuers mainly from volunteer organisations (e.g. THW alone sent 12 teams of expert volunteers).

4. Vulnerable countries’ needs

We, Europeans, rely on volunteers when we are struck by catastrophes, but for the developing or vulnerable countries, the needs are often much greater than the national capacity to deal with such events. On top of the force of nature, they often face crises caused by the cruelty of men. At any one time, some 30 to 40 countries are either heading towards a conflict, or are in the midst of a conflict, or just emerging from it.

This is why it is so important to continue building a humanitarian system in which the EU and the Member States play a predominant role: they represent 20% of world economy and provide 50% of the global humanitarian aid. ECHO has a network of 200 partner organisations and its own staff in all the hot spots to make sure Europeans help in every humanitarian crisis. There are more ECHO staff members outside the EU than inside. This allows us to coordinate the deployment of both Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid when required. Doing so, we make a better use of the synergies and complementarities between Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid, which is now essential as we are faced with severe budget constraints and increased natural disasters.

Our ECHO staff are the eyes and the ears of our taxpayers, assessing needs and determining security conditions required for deployments. What they tell us is that there are still gaps, which the EU can fill by strengthening the existing organizations and build up the local capacity. There is space for the EU to do more, and to be seen to do more.

5. Filling gaps

After almost three years managing response to all kind of crises, I see three areas where EU Aid Volunteers can make a difference.

First is preparedness and prevention. I have made resilience one of the top three priorities of my mandate because investment in preparedness and prevention offers a return from 400 to 700%. EU Aid volunteers is an investment, and it should offer a good return!

Second, whenever we are faced with a deep humanitarian crisis, one of the gap that needs to be filled is a surge capacity: using all experts, from both humanitarian and civil protection, to help coordinating not only EU action, but also the UN one. This is why I firmly intend the EU Aid Volunteers to be filled with people that can help the UN when a mega-disaster strikes.

Third, volunteering is something that can really benefit from reaching out to the private sector. I heard you discussed this extensively during these two days and I am sure that your contribution will bring creativity in involving companies.

The way we are developing EU Aid Volunteers is not a top-down approach but a bottom-up one, in close cooperation with partners to understand how we can work together on this initiative. We do not ‘command volunteering’ but we are providing context and opportunities for people from both the civil protection community and the humanitarian community to get involved in joint initiatives.

6. Conclusion

We have now completed our draft legislation, and we will work closely with the Irish Presidency, the Parliament and the Council, to move it forward.

We will certainly face questions about the value-added of EU Aid Volunteers. But with more and more frequent and extreme disasters, it is clear to us that the world needs more solidarity – and this is what EU Aid Volunteers is about.

The Nobel prize is reminding us that we have a responsibility to work for peace anywhere in the world. It is not that the EU Aid Volunteers will be the EU’s main tool for this, but let’s make sure that it is a small yet valuable contribution to make the world a better place.

Thank you.


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