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How ECHO delivers EU aid - a process illustrated in comic book form

Saturday, 28 August 2010
Posted on Th!nk3Hidden Disaster cover image (Photo: Erik Bongers)Except for the regular invoices and ever-increasing bills, it’s always nice to receive some mail in your post box, and today I received a nice parcel from Luxembourg dispatched from the EU bookshop.

At the heart of the protective cardboard shell was a glossy hardback copy of ‘Hidden Disaster’, a comic book produced to illustrate how the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) responds to humanitarian crises.

While a disclaimer on the inside cover reminds readers that all the locations, characters and the scenario are fictional and “any resemblance to real people is entirely coincidental”, it is hard to read the story without subconsciously drawing parallels to how the EU has responded to the ongoing situation in Pakistan.

The 40-page graphic novel, written by the Belgian Erik Bongers, follows the adventures of Zana, an aid worker who is dispatched by ECHO to the fictional state of Borduvia, which has been devastated by an earthquake.

Amidst fears of an imminent flood that would cause further devastation, Zana, seemingly equipped with just a notepad to record what she sees and a khaki safari jacket with the European Union flag emblazoned upon it, is tasked with writing daily situation reports (‘SITREPs’) to secure additional funding for its worst-hit region, Kellow.

During her adventures through Borduvia and a rebel-held stronghold deep in the Urgi Mountains, Zana encounters tough officials at checkpoints and runs into a rugged photographer and even manages to single-handedly convince a rebel leader to accept European Commission help.

Soon after, peace and stability breaks out across Borduvia, thank namely to millions more Euros in aid pouring in to provide shelter, clean water and food.

Of course it is very easy to criticise the story since no single humanitarian operation can be resolved so swiftly without delays through diplomatic and resource distribution problems, but you have to remember why the book was produced – to teach the reader how ECHO operates, and that is what it does.

In order to do that, the reader does have to grimace through unnecessarily dramatic patches of dialogue such as this from one EU official responding to the breaking news on the TV in the ‘Crisis Room’: “We must inform the Commissioner! She's briefing the European Parliament on the earthquake tomorrow” and also an unnatural conversation between our heroine and Tesjang, a local charity worker, who inquisitively asks “So are there many people from the European Commission here?

The reply comes, “No the aid is channelled through organisations like UNICEF or Oxfam. When the commission finances them, they become what we call our implementing partners.” Entertaining yet educative.

Unsurprisingly the release of this comic book in February earlier this year attracted widespread criticism across the right-wing eurosceptic British press who were quick to jump at the €225,000 (£195,000) price tag for producing 300,000 copies in English, French, German, Italian and Dutch. Yet my feeling post-reading is that it seems a small price to pay.

In terms of the message relayed it also almost undersells the work of ECHO, who are a huge contributor of aid around the world through development and humanitarian projects. For example, ECHO is able to get teams in place very quickly and have an excellent reputation, yet in the book it is not until the 4th day that Zana arrives in Borduvia.

However it should be noted that the success of ECHO in this book is in stark contrast to criticism levelled at the EU over the earthquake in Haiti, which struck only a couple of weeks prior to the release of this book. Back then of course, the newly-appointed EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs Baroness Ashton came under intense and widespread criticism for failing to visit Haiti and for allowing the US to take command of the international aid effort.

Evidently Zana was not modelled on Baroness Ashton

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