Ladies and gentleman,
We are here today to mark the 20th anniversary of the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Directorate-General - better known as ECHO.
ECHO's 20th birthday, the end of its teenage years so to say, is a reason to celebrate! It is an occasion to recall the essential work that ECHO and its staff are performing every day. It is the moment to honour those who have provided vital assistance to so many people in need, but also to remember those who could not be saved.
ECHO started as a small European Community Humanitarian Office in the beginning of the 1990ies. It was set up in the aftermath of a series of extreme humanitarian catastrophes. A deadly cyclone had hit Bangladesh, famine had claimed too many lives in several parts of Africa and so did the bloody conflict in the former Yugoslavia, to name a few.
European countries were at the forefront of international efforts to bring relief. But the sheer volume of sudden disasters called for a more coordinated approach. The case for "more Europe" was obvious. The creation of ECHO signalled that the European Commission could help in this and demonstrated its lead on the external relations front. So ECHO has always been a symbol of Europe's commitment as a global actor. Even more fundamentally, it reflects the core values of our Union on the world stage.
But ECHO's work is far from symbolic: it means concrete and rapid help on the ground. ECHO demonstrates that together, the EU can act faster, mobilise more funds, secure more doctors and provide more food assistance to those in need, than when acting separately.
Now with our civil protection efforts, we also help inside the Union: for example during the floods in Poland, forest fires in Greece and the red sludge catastrophe in Hungary.
ECHO is therefore one of the most visible symbols of European Union values and solidarity both inside Europe and in the World at large. This solidarity saves lives but also reinforces the role and visibility of Europe in the world.
We have indeed come a long way. In 1992 ECHO was a small office with about 40 people. Today, we have about 300 highly dedicated staff at the headquarters and over 400 people working in over 40 field offices around the globe. I would like to pay homage to their hard work, dedication and courage. They are often Europe's first ambassadors at the frontlines.
But they are not alone. Our humanitarian assistance - about 14 billion over the last two decades - is delivered through numerous International Organisations, very active Humanitarian NGOs and a multitude of other agencies, many of which are represented here today. All of them are the real heroes of action and deserve our thanks! With their help, we have been able to reach out to nearly 150 million of people in need, in over 80 countries.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I discovered ECHO's vital role immediately after I took office as President of the Commission back in 2004, when an earthquake triggered the Sumatra Tsunami, claiming over 230,000 lives. The impact on the shores of the Indian Ocean was devastating. Through ECHO, we mobilised all our capacities to help the survivors with shelter, clean water and health services.
This event may have been on an almost unimaginable scale at the time, but climate change, political instability, demographic pressure and even the technological sophistication of our societies unfortunately make disasters more frequent, more serious and more complex.
We have seen this over the last years. We are fighting famine in the Horn of Africa. We assisted people caught in the Libyan crisis. We extended a helping hand to Japan in the aftermath of the Fukoshima tragedy. And right now we are acting to prevent a repeat of the Horn of Africa famine in the Sahel.
Because to help is also to prevent and mitigate the impact of disasters: and as well all know prevention is certainly better than cure. That is why we are working hard to bring together our various foreign policy tools more efficiently in crisis prevention, from development aid to climate action.
Inside Europe, ECHO is increasingly active, too: ravaging forest fires destroy our natural resources, extreme weather conditions or man-made disasters like oil spills disrupt and endanger people’s lives and affect our economies. When national response capacities are overwhelmed, the EU can mobilise experts to asses the damage, make sure that the fire-fighters are deployed, water pumps dispatched and temporary shelter provided. And our regional funds can help build disaster proof transport and communication.
In my second term as President I took the decision to appoint a Commissioner responsible specifically for humanitarian aid and crisis response - Kristalina Georgieva. And we joined, under one roof in ECHO, the two main tools that the European Union has at its disposal to respond to disasters: humanitarian aid and civil protection. The scale and complexity of disasters and crises and our successful response in the last two years have proven that this was the right decision.
We are now further strengthening these tools. The Commission proposed new legislation on civil protection at the end of 2011 to reinforce pooling of assets, planning and transport arrangements.
We are also preparing the way for establishing an EU voluntary humanitarian aid corps, as the Lisbon Treaty requests. This will allow young people to offer their assistance and perhaps one day get employment in this important field.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I would have liked to conclude by saying that in 20 years we will no longer need a department that deals with crises and disasters. But the tragic circumstances speak for themselves. We cannot stop all conflicts or reverse driving factors like climate change, energy insecurity or demographics, all of which affect those most vulnerable in societies around the globe. Meaning that ECHO's important role is likely to grow further!
As we celebrate ECHO's anniversary, I would like to pay tribute to the generosity of the European citizens. The European Union - Commission and the Member States together - is and remains the world’s leading donor, in humanitarian aid and beyond. This shows the commitment of our citizens to global action, and also the confidence they have in our work. Based on the dedication of ECHO’s staff, I remain confident that we will continue to meet their expectations.