EU catches up in race to help Haiti

January 18, 2010

OUKTP-UK-QUAKE-HAITI-UNIn the six days since a powerful earthquake struck Haiti, the world has responded with vast amounts of aid and promises of long-term reconstruction, something the Caribbean country’s creaking infrastructure desperately needs.

The World Bank and the United States pledged $100 million each, the United Nations promised $10 million and announced a “flash” appeal for $500 million more, and dozens of companies including Google, Microsoft and Bank of America committed $1 million a piece. Hollywood stars, rap singers and tennis champions all immediately raised money themselves or lent their support to encourage donations to the relief effort.

The European Union was, at least initially, a bit more low-key.

The bloc of 27 countries has a foreign aid budget of nearly 8 billion euros ($11.4 billion), around 45 percent of which is allocated to humanitarian relief and development work. But 24 hours after the quake hit, with fears of up to 200,000 dead, the EU as an institution had promised only 3 million euros of “fast-track funding”. Individual member states had made their own, generous bilateral pledges to Haiti, but the EU and its executive Commission was still battling to coordinate a unified response from the 27 member states as a whole.

Two days after the earthquake struck, the EU’s newly appointed high representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, said  EU ministers would meet to discuss the situation. Over the weekend — with bodies still being dug out of the rubble in Haiti — the EU announced that ministers would discuss holding an international conference on Haiti during Monday’s meeting, but didn’t say when any such conference would take place or where, or what the aid funding target might be.

When the ministers met on Monday morning, emergency relief and long-term reconstruction assistance of more than 420 million euros was announced, including 137 million euros of immediate aid. That will go a long way to helping the tens of thousands of Haitians who still don’t have proper food, water or shelter nearly a week after the quake hit.

The message is clear: when the EU wants to act, it can do so decisively and generously. The problem is, it takes time before the wheels of the 27-country juggernaut start to roll. For Ashton, who must coordinate the EU’s foreign and security policy, including the work of 3,000-strong European diplomatic corps, that is going to be one of the foremost challenges.

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Every dark night is followed by a bright sunny day. So, patience and attention is required and things will be fruitful in near future.
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