MEP Louis Michel on emergency aid for Haiti

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As the scale of the disaster in Haiti unfolds, it is clear that the country will need massive help from the international community. The EU has already promised emergency aid of €3 million with more certain to follow. Many EU countries have sent emergency rescue teams. We spoke with Belgian MEP Louis Michel, who oversaw the EU's response to the Asian Tsunami five years ago and now co-chairs the Assembly of African, Caribbean and Pacific states.

You were the European Commissioner for development and humanitarian aid when the Tsunami struck in 2004, is this disaster comparable in scale and consequences?

I think so yes...Public infrastructure has been destroyed. Reconstruction will be paramount, it will have to be fast and it will have to be done well. It is certainly one of the gravest disasters in history - looking of the number of probable victims, the destruction of infrastructure. It will take time and money to reconstruct.

In addition, this happened in a country where the state and its core functions are very fragile. There are risks of chaos. There is the need for a framework, support to government functions, which are a big problem in Haiti. It will be necessary to ensure public order and security and thus the fact that the Americans are sending troops is rather a good thing.

Can you explain how the Commission's department for Humanitarian Aid (known as "ECHO"), provides support when a disaster like this one happens?

The Commissioner himself can agree to provide an initial €3 million in cases where it is clear that the need is big. This was done for Haiti and I did the same thing after the Tsunami.

All relief operators that need funds can then turn to the Commission to draw from this money. The execution of these funds is almost in real time. The control is after, not before the funds are released. If for example an NGO says "we need 2,000 tents of this or that type at this price," the Commission can say yes immediately.

Then the Commission can bring together Member States representatives and make available further tranches of €10 million, up to the limit of the humanitarian aid budget, and beyond that from the EU's budget reserve.

Compared to what others have pledged for Haiti in the past days, €3 million doesn't seem much

But it is not going to be €3 million! For the Tsunami we spent €123 million and we were by far the biggest donor. Some of the pledges you can hear now don't necessarily mean much. We have seen in the past that the donors don't always respect their pledges. But the amounts that the Commission promises will be spent.

The €3 million is just an operational kick-off. At the same time the EU sends its experts to assess the need on the ground, and according to their results further funding decisions can follow within a week or two.

How do the EU and other actors make sure that the relief efforts are coordinated?

That is the responsibility of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Coordination of emergency aid is very difficult and we have to avoid everybody starting to "coordinate". OCHA is the UN agency in charge of emergency response and it is best placed to coordinate.

You have to bear in mind that the EU does not have an intervention corps that operates directly. We contribute by financing operators be they NGOs or UN agencies. There is a recurrent debate whether the EU should have its own operational, fast intervention corps. I am very sceptical. We don't want the actors stepping on each other's toes and all the world's well intentioned volunteers crowding the disaster scene.

The emergency response needs to be organised and the local authorities also have a role. So it is more complicated than it seems. To say: "quick, quick everybody should be there", is a recipe for disaster. Coordination is essential and one should not forget that all the aid workers need to not only look after the victims but also themselves - they need to eat and infrastructure is needed.

Haiti before the earthquake is now described as a precarious country, ill-prepared for this kind of event. Had the international community failed and abandoned Haiti?

I don't think so. Haiti has been very much on top of the international community's agenda. But the problem of the international community is that it doesn't have any effective interlocutors. Haiti's big problem is the weakness of its governance structures, the fragility of the state. It is a very poor, unstable and vulnerable country.

Should there already be a strategy for the transition towards reconstruction after the immediate relief work?

In the coming days one needs to start devise actions to rehabilitate basic services that allow people to survive. And then we need a real reconstruction strategy, quite soon, but it will not be implemented very soon because rebuilding hospitals and so on isn't done in three days. The amounts needed for reconstruction will be quite exceptional.


EU development ministers meet today (Monday 18 January) in Brussels to discuss emergency aid as well as the medium to long-term needs of Haiti.

REF. : 20100115STO67362