Brussels, 2 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union today said its annual contribution of humanitarian aid to Tajikistan will fall by 20 percent to 8 million euros ($9.7 million).
Cecile Pichon is the top EU aid official in the country. She heads the Dushanbe office of the EU's humanitarian aid arm, ECHO, where she manages a staff of 14 people.
In a satellite-telephone interview, Pichon told RFE/RL that the reduction in humanitarian aid is partly due to a decreasing need for straightforward humanitarian aid, and partly a result of the EU redirecting its aid efforts elsewhere.
"And, of course, when there is no other possibility than to give staple foods, then we do that, but the problem is more and more [about] access to food and just the availability of food."
However, Pichon said, the need remains great in Tajikistan. "The situation in Tajikistan, I would say, it has improved, but if you take the long-term consequences of the civil war, the break[up] of the Soviet Union, and drought -- there were two or three years of drought -- then the consequences are still very much visible," she said. "The population at risk is still very high. Altogether, you can say that [the situation] is improving little by little, but there are still huge needs in terms of humanitarian assistance."
A few years ago, Pichon said, up to 80 percent of the population in Tajikistan was living below the poverty line. The situation has improved only slightly since then, she said.
The EU has given Tajikistan 145 million euros ($176 million) since 1993. Humanitarian aid grants totaled 10 million euros in both 2002 and 2003. A background paper from the European Commission -- seen by RFE/RL -- says this aid will be completely phased out over the next three years. The paper says the decision was taken after "extensive consultations" with Tajik authorities and beneficiaries.
Instead of direct food aid, Pichon said the emphasis now is on access to food. "What we do is, more and more, where we have possibilities to give seeds or more durable assistance to families, then we do it," she said. "And, of course, when there is no other possibility than to give staple foods, then we do that, but the problem is more and more [about] access to food and just the availability of food."
Pichon said the proportion of food aid in this year's 8 million-euro grant is down to 35 percent. The rest will be spent on health care, drugs, the training of medical personnel, and water purification.
The European Commission document says surveys conducted by ECHO show that just above 5 percent of the Tajik population suffered from severe or acute malnutrition last year, compared to more than 20 percent in 2001. The target population for this year's food aid is 65,000 people.
ECHO is also targeting water and sanitation needs, which directly affect infant mortality. ECHO surveys show that nearly half of the Tajik population lacks access to safe drinking water.
Finally, the Tajik health sector will also be a major recipient of EU aid. The European Commission says that, despite increases in 2004, the Tajik health budget represents less than 1.5 euros per person per year.
Pichon said ECHO manages projects across Tajikistan, as well as in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. She says the EU's humanitarian aid office is known and respected in Tajikistan and enjoys good relations with national and regional authorities.
"I would say Tajikistan is quite a nice country to work in, if I may say so, compared to the other countries I have worked [in] before, which were Russia and the Balkans [region]. I would say that [in Tajikistan], the authorities are very open and very positive towards foreign assistance and especially humanitarian assistance. The people we are working with -- the beneficiaries, the population -- has so many needs, and what we provide is so essential that the assistance is very well perceived, and we don't face major obstacles," Pichon said.
Pichon said much of the EU's assistance to Tajikistan is increasingly focusing on advancing disaster preparedness to help build the requisite capacity to predict, respond to, and cope with natural catastrophes.
Pichon said the EU is also trying to promote resource-sharing in the region, developing contacts and decreasing tension between communities. "At the local level, at the community and local level, [the relations] are often very good and very enthusiastic," she said. "At the national level, [the relations are] often quite positive, but it is difficult to get everybody around the table. At the moment, this is something definitely which is not easy in the local context. But we plan, for instance, to go very soon to Uzbekistan to monitor a project, and we hope we can also meet the authorities -- it is part of our role to have the assistance of the authorities in our [cross-border] projects [so they run] better."
Pichon declined to comment on the recent violence in Uzbekistan, which the authorities are blaming on Islamic militants. She says it is essential that aid agencies remain neutral. However, she notes that some projects could be affected.
"We're a service that tends to be neutral, so we don't address political issues. The only thing I can say [is that] our office is a regional office, so we cover the whole of Central Asia, and we do have projects in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. But they are related to disaster preparedness, which is a major issue in the region. Of course, we follow very closely the situation in Uzbekistan, and we do go there to monitor the projects we fund in Uzbekistan. So, of course, what has happened over the last few days is very [significant] because, as far as we are concerned, we want to make sure that all the projects we fund can continue running in a proper way," Pichon said.
Pichon says one near-inevitable effect of the developments in Uzbekistan is that movement across borders will be seriously impeded.