Humanitarian help is one of Europe's success stories yet some crises are so intractable as to defy vast international endeavour
Rory Watson in HAVANA assesses the impact of the Union's emergency aid budget
7 luglio 1995
SOMMARIO. Il budget di ECHO è in continua crescita e così l'UE è divenuta il principale singolo erogatore di aiuti umanitari nel mondo. Emma Bonino cerca di rendersi conto, recandosi sul campo, delle diverse situazioni, come è avvenuto in Haiti o a Cuba. Ovviamente, questo fatto ha sollevato malumori, c'è chi sostiene che Bonino ha instaurato una "sua" politica estera. Si ricorda l'incontro con Castro, e le tesi sostenute da Bonino dinanzi a lui. La vera difficoltà del programma ECHO non è però di come avviare una pratica di aiuti, ma di come uscirne. Certo è che la situazione non potrà durare a lungo, perché le risorse non sono infinite.
While disputes between member countries over the level and direction of European Union development aid have led to deepening acrimony, humanitarian aid from Echo (the European community humanitarian office) has been quietly booming.
The figures may be meagre by comparison - the total humanitarian budget came to Ecu760 million ($1 billion) in 1994, while development aid is counted in billions of ecu - but the increase in recent years is marked. That 1994 figure signified a sevenfold increase in the two years since Echo was formed.
The Union is now the world's largest single humanitarian donor and, appropriately for an office which is gaining in influence, the new commissioner in charge of aid is the high-profile Italian Emma Bonino. Her recent tour of Haiti and Cuba was designed to give her an insight into Echo's impact on the ground.
Humanitarian aid is distinct from development aid in that it is specifically directed at emergencies. As a consequence, it is not tied in the same way to questions of human rights or economic restructuring. This is fire-fighting money, aimed at situations where giving help is seen more as a necessity than a choice.
Places like the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, one of the poorest places on earth, where Bonino visited a small school deep in the shanty town. From its flat, two-storey roof, the scale of the surrounding poverty was all too visible as people eked out a living among the flimsy shacks.
But inside the Ecole Mixte St Alphonse, an air of normality reigned as children chanted nursery rhymes and learned to read and write. In its sparse dining room neatly dressed pupils were seated for what for many would be their only meal of the day. At each place was a small carton of milk emblazoned with the EU flag and bearing the message: Don de l'Union Europénne.
The school provided more than a basic education and diet for several hundred children. It also contained a fledgling health centre attended by a stream of children from 40 schools in the Haitian capital's largest slum, the inappropriately named Cité Soleil. Helpers weigh and measure the pupils as they monitor the health of 4,000 children.
The scheme is funded by the Union as one of several humanitarian aid projects it has supported to the tune of Ecu24 million since 199 1.
Since January Bonino's briefings have taken her from former Yugoslavia, where the Union has given Ecu 950 million since the start of the conflict, to Rwanda, Cuba and Haiti. Another trip to the Caucasus is planned for late summer.
Although the distribution of Echo's emergency aid is less politically charged than the question of development aid as a whole, it does have its moments of controversy. Some EU governments have accused Echo of using its humanitarian aid budget to run its own foreign policy.
A few eyebrows have been raised over the decision to supply aid to Cuba in spite of the United States' 30-year economic embargo, which has shown few signs of letting up despite the end of the Cold War. EU humanitarian support for Cuba has become invaluable as economic help from Russia has dried up and hostility from the US has continued.
In response to those who question its policy, Echo argues that the money goes above all to non-governmental organisations. Also, while its Ecu14 million programme does not come with political and economic strings attached, giving the money does give the donor a certain amount of influence.
During a three-hour dinner with the Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Bonino did not hesitate to urge one of the bêtes noires of the American political psyche to speed up his economic reforms or else risk missing a historic opportunity.
Castro listened to the message, partly because the Union is preparing to extend its current aid programme and partly because he recognised Bonino's political message: "You can consider the humanitarian aid we give as a sign of our attention to your country, especially as the situation is not as catastrophic as it is in other areas we are trying to help"
The scale of poverty in Cuba is nowhere near as marked as it is in Haiti. But EU aid is essential to supply basic essentials like foodstuffs, medicines and even soap, sheets and bandages for hospitals, which along with other sections of the economy are being squeezed by the US embargo.
But Echo's real problem is not so much the politics of deciding where to go in as the difficulty of getting out. Once an aid programme is started, running it down is no easy matter.
Santiago Gomez-Reino, head of the Echo office, admitted: "Each year we add countries to Echo's list. The only one we have managed to leave is Mozambique."
That is a problem which will inevitably become more pressing, and Bonino is careful to emphasise to beneficiaries that continuous and openended funding is neither realistic nor satisfactory.
But at least while Echo's budget expands as fast as its scope of intervention, one of Bonino's desires seems sure to be fulfilled.
She said: "I would like that little-known Good Samaritan'which is the European Union to have the public profile it deserves."