Czech official: Providing humanitarian aid and development cooperation increasingly becoming European team effort

Petr Gandalovič

Helping Zambian farmers cope with climate change, tackling drinking water problems in Peru, opening an eye-clinic in Cambodia or strengthening the tourist potential of Georgia – those are just some of the projects that the Czech Republic has undertaken to help improve living conditions in distant parts of the world. Now, the immediate priority has become responding to the needs of war-torn Ukraine. I spoke to Petr Gandalovič, head of the Foreign Ministry’s department for humanitarian aid and development cooperation about what the country is doing to alleviate the suffering of Ukrainian refugees and help people in need elsewhere.

“One day after the Russians invaded Ukraine the government of the Czech Republic earmarked 300 million Czech crowns for immediate humanitarian aid to the country. Of course, it is not easy to get aid where it is most needed because of the armed conflict and the security situation. We have excellent cooperation with our NGOs People in Need, ADRA, Caritas CR and other smaller ones. Many of them have long-established contacts and cooperation with the locals. They are not new in Ukraine, they have contacts with local staff and they have been able to bring humanitarian aid where it is most needed, not just to western Ukraine but also to the eastern parts of the country where it is needed even more.”

Has the form of aid changed?

War in Ukraine | Photo: Alexei Alexandrov,  ČTK/AP

“The aid we provide covers all sorts of things. We help displaced people, since Ukrainians have not only been fleeing abroad but to safer parts of their own country. Those who have sought refuge in the Czech Republic are helped by the Czech Interior Ministry. The Czech Foreign Ministry is helping those who are displaced in their own country or non-EU neighbor states. They need shelter, food and basic supplies and that is what we provide. We also help to provide health care and emergency services. We do not help those in Poland or Slovakia because as EU member states they are subject to other aid mechanisms as we are, but we are helping displaced Ukrainians in Moldova for instance. Moldova has been hard-hit by the refugee wave and for them the impact is that much stronger because of the fragility of their own society and the mere fact that there are only 2.5 million Moldovans, so proportionately the number of refugees they have taken in is a much bigger burden.”

This war is having repercussions worldwide. Will the war in Ukraine, the refugee crisis and even the economic crisis linked to the war have an impact on how you spend your money in the coming years? Do you expect it to change your priorities?

“First of all, we should say that there will be repercussions particularly in the developing world in the area of food security. Because Ukraine was a big supplier of cereals to these countries and to international humanitarian agencies like the World Food Program who would then distribute food to Yemen and to poor and fragile countries and this will have an enormous impact.”

There has even been talk of a famine in some states…

Illustrative photo: Couleur,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“To some extent yes, and this is another argument that as much as we are now focused on Ukraine we cannot forget about these other areas which will also suffer. So it is a big challenge, there is a crisis at both ends so to speak. We have to keep helping Ukraine – and increasingly there will be a development and reconstruction element present in that help –and at the same time we really cannot forget about the developing world which will need us as well. And, needless to say, the money is not endless.”

What other priorities does the Czech Republic have in terms of humanitarian aid?

“Well, traditionally we have priorities like displaced people, stabilization, climate effects and what we would call “disaster-risk reduction” which involves adaptation to the climate change and ways in which countries that are affected by climate change can better prepare themselves for major floods or other disasters.”

Can you give me an example?

“In Cambodia we will help them to put in place warning systems so that the public is better prepared to respond to floods.”

Turning to development cooperation – I know the government selects certain priority countries and certain priority areas for a given period of time. Can you tell me how they are selected?

Development cooperation in Moldova | Photo: Czech Development Agency

“This is a common approach of countries that provide development cooperation – based on the understanding that it is important for focus on country or region and stay there for a longer period of time. Not to go from one place to another and try to please everyone. Even the richest countries that provide much bigger amounts of humanitarian cooperation try to select priority areas and priority countries, because, in a world where resources are not endless, you have to prioritize. The Czech Republic currently has six priority countries – and three of them are associate countries to the EU –Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moldova and Georgia. And then of course we have Ukraine which is a special case and which we already talked about. And among the low-income countries we have Zambia, Ethiopia and Cambodia.”

Maybe we should first explain the difference between development aid and development cooperation – are they two phases of the same process?

“We do not use the term development aid, because when we talk about development we see that process as cooperation, it is not a one-way highway, but a dialogue in which the recipient is supposed to be a partner, rather than a subject. So we only use the term “aid” in connection with humanitarian aid. In the event of a disaster there is not time to formulate priorities, you just go in and help as much and as effectively as possible.  In the case of development cooperation you should develop a partnership with the recipient country, let them have a say in what will be the priority and what will be the project undertaken.”

When you negotiate about this cooperation do you ask them what they need most or do you offer to help according to the Czech Republic’s strengths – such as water management, agricultural technology, solar power…

Development cooperation in Ethiopia | Photo: Czech Foreign Ministry

“Well of course, we offer things that we are good at and also where we have experience and know-how. For instance, when I mentioned the three associate countries to the EU, countries like Moldova, they  are going through reforms which we ourselves went through not so long ago. And I am not talking about political reforms –but reforms in water treatment systems, in environmental protection, nature protection governance and so on. These are all areas where we can share our know-how. And that is greatly appreciated by these countries, because, with all due respect to the bigger donors from Western Europe, they do not have that experience. That is what makes us a valuable partner, even though the amount of our development cooperation money is less than that of other countries, even of our size, like the Nordic countries, or Germany.”

And how does it work with the Czech companies involved? Do you offer to engage them in these projects or do they volunteer?

“There are very strict criteria as to what represents development cooperation resources. You cannot say that every economic cooperation is development cooperation –we have strict criteria that are determined by the OECD. Of course, we do not deny that development cooperation is one of the foundations of better cooperation in other areas, including economic cooperation. We do not see it as a one-way road that will bring business to the country, we hope that the country in question will not only improve its living standard but also improve conditions for doing business to make it more attractive for investors and companies that will want to do business there in future years.”

So there are benefits for Czech businesses at the end of the day…

“Of course, it is no secret that there are eventually benefits for economic cooperation, but that is not the primary purpose. The primary purpose is to help the given country and its people.”

Is our cooperation plugged into European projects and do you prefer bilateral or multi-lateral projects?

“Well, the distinction is such that in the case of bilateral projects we provide concrete support for a concrete project in a given country. In multilateral projects we provide money for international organizations like UNDP, UNICEF or others that have the expertise and are active in a given country and who often do a better job of providing assistance and cooperation that if we were to try to do it ourselves. So we need to consider and carefully balance the priorities – developing stronger bilateral ties with that particular country, and greater visibility if we help directly, but on the other hand we want to do it right. And organizations like UNDP know how to do it right. Of course, there are ways of combining both approaches, for instance in the UNDP you may establish your own trust fund and so you have a much greater say in what is actually done for your money. So it makes the cooperation closer and it makes you more visible because you basically work on behalf of that multilateral organization.

"And when it comes to the EU, the EU itself is a multilateral organization, but at the same time it is us – we are the EU. So in the third world we try to team as Europeans, to be visible as the EU not to provide a series of fragmented, isolated bilateral projects. It doesn’t always work like that, because obviously each country still wants to be visible on its own, but at the same time there is much more willingness now to team up, to join forces and to present our development cooperation as a European project. This is why we have developed the term TEAM EUROPE. It means - this is us, Europeans cooperating with a recipient country.”

What is key to making development cooperation effective – or as effective as possible- in view of political, cultural and legislative differences in the recipient states?

“If we knew the answer to that we would be much better off. Nobody has the right answer. That is why we are joining forces in the EU and sharing our experience and know-how. We approach the recipient country with a comprehensive plan and of course Europe is a bigger partner and as such is much more respected. Because obviously with these projects we want the partner country to fulfil some conditions, such as to change their legislation in some area, for instance. So we do not only provide some sort of assistance –we cooperate and we want to be partners, but the partner has their own homework as well.”

How has development cooperation changed in the past two decades?

“That’s a broad question. But to answer briefly – it has been centralized to some extent, though not entirely, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and it is viewed as an inseparable part of our foreign policy. We have also adopted the prioritization approach that we spoke about-to select countries that will be our partner for a longer period of time where we can develop much deeper relationships with the partner government.”