Saving lives in the nick of time

NOTES FROM THE EU DELEGATION - Thomas Wiersing (The Philippine Star) - November 29, 2020 - 12:00am

The month of November has been trying times for all of us as Typhoons Rolly and Ulysses severely hit Bicol, Cagayan and most parts of Luzon. Also for many in our EU delegation, the damage that the typhoons did were not purely abstract – some of the families of colleagues were affected.

You may have read already that the EU for the humanitarian response to the two typhoons has provided 2.35 million euros (P134.92 million). But how does this actually work, how do we know about the needs and how do we decide who benefits from the assistance? Let me explain it a bit:

During these typhoons, our humanitarian aid expert based in our delegation in Manila, whom we shall call Ana, was always confronted with a race against time. There should be no let-up.

Like on impulse, her goal has been to provide a first line of emergency relief in the immediate aftermath of this disaster (and many others before like volcanic eruptions and earthquakes which always hit by surprise) through one of our humanitarian instruments called the “Acute Large Emergency Response Tool.” As soon as travel became accessible, Ana would be immediately deployed to enable our humanitarian office to assess the needs of families affected by the disasters.

Ocular inspection had to be done quickly, coupled with visiting and hearing narratives of families on the ground and discussing with all the important stakeholders in the community.

Countless stories of fathers and mothers who lost their children or children who lost their parents came in one after the other; people who had to hang on to their lives by going to the rooftops; mothers scrounging for morsels to feed their children; fathers who had to go back to their destroyed houses for fear that whatever was left of their properties would be ransacked.

These are the kinds of snippets of vulnerable families that our expert had to listen to, those who almost had no capacity to further survive after having lost their shelters and livelihood.

Our expert does not, however, just rely on her assessment skills nor on her empathy and listening capabilities alone, as she is always assisted by the Emergency Response Coordination Center (ERCC) in Brussels. This 24/7 center provides scientific analysis of the effects of the typhoons against demographic data and satellite images (such as those from the Copernicus Program) of the impact that helps in quantifying the humanitarian crisis.

Every second counts, and as soon as Ana had a clearer idea about the damage and the needs, she informed our colleagues in Brussels. Within 48 hours from the onset of the typhoons, the EU, through the Civilian Protection and Humanitarian Aid, was able to provide the above-mentioned assistance.

A million-euro question in times of disasters is – where do funds go? The European Union courses its humanitarian aid through non-government/international humanitarian agencies, including the United Nations or the Red Cross System, which implement the relief operations in the most underserved communities.

Why does the EU not distribute the assistance itself, directly to those who need it? Simply because we want to help. And we have partners on the ground to help such as the Philippine Red Cross, which has a much stronger presence in the country than the EU and, thus, it is much better placed to buy and distribute whatever is needed.

As the EU is adhering to multilateralism even in the provision of our humanitarian aid, the EU always believes in multilateral engagement underpinned by strong cooperation and dialogue with other key donors.

The selection of partners/grantees is very tedious as all are evaluated on the basis of organizational capacity, financial management, track record, etc. and grantees must ensure that they have the best interests of the beneficiaries at heart. And of course we are accountable in front of the European taxpayers who have a right to know what happens with the money.

The EU is one of the major humanitarian donors in the Philippines and worldwide. When we decide to provide assistance, is this a “political” decision? No, we provide life-saving assistance whenever there is a disaster or humanitarian emergency in line with the four principles grounded in International Humanitarian Law, EU humanitarian aid: to address human suffering, with particular attention to the most vulnerable groups of people, while respecting the dignity of all victims (humanity); not to favor any side in a conflict (neutrality); to provide solely on the basis of needs, without any kind of discrimination (impartiality); and to be independent of any agenda, be it political, economic, military or others (independence).

To cap all these, the EU always does its best to save lives even in the nick of time.

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Thomas Wiersing is Chargé d’Affaires a.i. of the EU Delegation to the Philippines.

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