The head of Oxfam International's Brussels office expresses mixed feelings about the EU, discusses a new buzzword in humanitarian circles, and meets representatives of the Arab Network of National Development OrganisationsMonday
I start the week with contradictory feelings about the European Union. On one hand, we are denouncing EU policy on biofuels that puts food into tanks, drives land grabs and contributes to food price increases. Today we are launching Oxfam's new briefing paper The Hunger Grains
in five languages, which explains what the problem is with biofuels.
Biofuels mandates were initially promoted to reduce carbon emissions but evidence shows that they are creating problems rather than solving them, both on the environmental and social fronts. Media has picked up on our work precisely because there is an on-going debate within the college of European Commissioners on the real direct and indirect impact of biofuels. For the first time ever, the commission is acknowledging that first generation biofuels compete with food, something that has also been publicly denounced by agro-industries such as Nestlé. Hopefully, this is the beginning of the end of a well-intentioned policy that has turned out to have devastating impacts on the world's poorest people.
On the other hand, I feel optimistic about the role of the EU after the State of the Union speech that commission President José Manuel Barroso gave last week. His words come with a political boldness that is very welcome in these times of political and economic uncertainty and paralysis. A federation of national states that will truly operate with one voice in foreign affairs and builds a society based on fairness and equity is a vision I can easily identify myself with. My only question is: why didn't Mr Barroso say this already a few years back?
I launch myself into an early effort to balance work and life and I decide to go running to the Parc Cinquentenaire, joining a group of women friends of friends. My boost of self-esteem around my once a week effort gets dampened when I learn that these amazing women go running every day. Never mind, the running gives me a boost of energy and by 9.30am I am already at the office.
My afternoon is dedicated to one of the things I enjoy the most about working for Oxfam: brainstorming with smart people spread around the world – from Dakar to New York – on how to make the best out of EU's leadership in this new trend that is emerging in the development and humanitarian debate, 'building resilience'. This new buzzword has substantial meaning behind it, and a huge potential to improve the lives of people living in vulnerable situations, be it in the Sahel, the Horn of Africa or in other places where people suffer from constant food and climate change crisis.
And today's dinner is spiced up with one of the usual misunderstandings of working couples: "What's for dinner?" asks one, to receive a surprised look from the other followed by a line of the sort, "well I thought you were taking care of it". Luckily, we all love pasta and a bit of Somontano's wine helps to get over the misunderstanding.
Who says that Brussels is boring? Coming out of the European Parliament from a rather dense discussion on the next EU budget that will set quite a few of our monies for the coming seven years, I find myself in the middle of the Belgium campagne. Just outside the EP, there is a myriad of stalls selling freshly made cheese and organic honey. I recall today is the Big Day of the Good Food March
, a citizens gathering on the future of food and farming. I join the fun and get myself tasty fresh cheese with tomatoes. I must admit that I am tempted by the saucisson but having too much of it is not really good for your health, or the planet for that matter.
The evening goes hand in hand with this issue: attending the opening of World Vision's new EU office, really round the corner from the parliament, so the density of advocacy EU geeks per square metre in this part of town is getting difficult to beat. Everyone is chatty and at ease. I realise that I know most people in the room, a very 'Brussels crowd of EU people' and non-governmental organisations and I wonder if it is time to discover other cities. Expectations are met when EU humanitarian commissioner Kristalina Georgieva arrives for a few minutes and greets us: she looks exhausted but when she starts her speech, she speaks with her heart in her hand. What a great woman.
Today work starts early at the Residence Palace, where Oxfam, along with WWF, have brought together an interesting group of people for a breakfast debate on meeting development goals in the face of global environmental pressures. The discussion is launched with the 'Doughnut' concept that argues that we must use the world's resources to meet every person's rights, while collectively living within the planetary boundaries. No matter what you do in life, you should read this paper
that Kate Raworth presents in such a thrilling way. And the good news is that ending poverty need not be a source of pressure on the planet – for example, we could end worldwide hunger with just 3 per cent of the current global food supply.
Getting three commission cabinets, the European External Action Service and representatives from EU member states talking in a fresh debate is a bliss in the Brussels scene. No doubt, Chatham House rules help get minds out of the conventional wisdom and political correctness. No speeches are allowed and sharp questions and answers are thrown in with everyone contributing towards the hot questions: how to get European leadership for the global challenges such as fighting climate change? What is the model of prosperity we want, is it economic growth or rather jobs and livelihoods with fair and just living standards for all?
But don't think that my days are just spent in this Brussels bubble of EU institutions: today I have lunch with 10 men and women from the Arab Network of National Development Organisations who have come to tell us their story and their calls for societies that respect women's rights and freedom for civil society organisations. They are a source of inspiration and strength.
Fridays are usually less hectic days. Today I decide to block four hours in a row to focus my mind on drafting our next EU advocacy strategy for 2013-2015. I pull out the notes from the strategy day we had with the whole Oxfam EU team, a bunch of very smart, hard-working and sharp people, that dreamt with no fear of the Europe we want in 2020: a progressive leader that acts as a peace broker in the world, shows bold leadership against climate change and engages in sustainable ways to end poverty for ever.
Lunch with a good old friend, whom I met when I was working in the commission delegation in India, whose tantrums are these days about how the EU could make a relevant contribution to the after-Millennium Development Goals era, the post 2015 framework that encompass development without wrecking the environment. A tough one.
Many of my carbon savings achieved during the week through my bicycle – my only means of transport – get undone by driving my eldest kid to a sports club and taking my youngest one to a birthday party where there is no public transport. I mentally note down not to take up birthday invitations that involve more than 15 minutes' drive, a waste of carbon, time and life. I compensate this by pulling car resources to the maximum to go to a big birthday party, this time not for children but for a friend turning 50. A fantastic setting in a kiosk placed in a kids' playground that bothers no one and allows us to enjoy the music until late night. A very nice good bye to summer, dancing my adrenaline out and celebrating that I am still quite a few years far from having to organise such a feast for my 50s.
Late nights bring a certain toll the day after, which comes with slow pace and a nice lunch in a brasserie with friends. A homely Sunday afternoon follows suit, with no bigger ambition than helping out my children with homework and trying a new recipe of a vegetarian tartetatin. Regaining balance is a good end to a busy week.Natalia Alonso is head of Oxfam International's EU office in Brussels