Q+A-Why reform the humanitarian system? Past, present U.N. aid chiefs discuss

by Megan Rowling and Tom Esslemont | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 4 May 2016 05:00 GMT

U.N. humanitarian chief and Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O'Brien (C), sits with Syrian refugees during a visit to Al Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, Sept. 19, 2015. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

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U.N. officials, relief workers and governments meet May 23-24 to improve aid response in conflicts and disasters

By Megan Rowling and Tom Esslemont

LONDON, May 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - U.N. officials, aid workers and government representatives are expected to examine ways of overcoming the biggest obstacles to the delivery of aid in conflict and disasters at the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul later this month.

Convened by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the summit comes as aid officials warn of ever-growing humanitarian needs due to crises ranging from Syria's conflict to more extreme weather and rising seas as the planet warms.

Ahead of the May 23-24 meeting, the Thomson Reuters Foundation interviewed the head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Stephen O'Brien, and his predecessors Valerie Amos (2010-2015), John Holmes (2007-2010) and Jan Egeland (2003-2006) on the changing face of humanitarian response.

Q: Which parts of the humanitarian system need the most urgent reform?

O'Brien: There is a need for us to work very hard towards collective outcomes, meaning getting more multi-year programming, more multi-year financing and not just meeting immediate needs, but also more medium- to long-term needs.

How do we empower local people, working more collectively, in collaboration with local NGOs and others? But at the same time there has to continue to be accountability/transparency.

Amos: If you look at protracted crises... you need a way of thinking about them which goes beyond the humanitarian. Look at places like Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) or Somalia, where humanitarian interventions have gone on year after year after year.

You cannot say that the DRC is not in need of humanitarian assistance - and yet so much of the focus is on those pockets of the DRC where you do have that humanitarian need. Then you have the big peacekeeping bit of it. The result is that the development bit gets squeezed and so does the governance bit, including all the work that needs to be done on the rule of law ... to give the people of the DRC the confidence that it is moving in the right direction.

Holmes: We still need to go more local, in terms of strengthening local capacity and mentoring local NGOs and encouraging local civil society. But there are limits to that, because in conflict situations, locals are sometimes part of the problem - often intimidated by the (warring parties) and can't therefore act so well.

We need to overcome the humanitarian-development divide... it's dead easy to say and extremely hard to do. But we need to get away from situations where the humanitarians go in and stop the worst, and then the money dries up, we disappear again, and the underlying causes have not really been tackled, and we're back again in three or five years doing the same thing.

I think we are still not technologically innovative enough. The system is so busy fighting fires that... the capacity to do research and development, and to make use of IT innovations and somehow to mobilise all those clever people in Silicon Valley or Silicon Roundabout to volunteer their services, to provide some apps which could really start to fix some of our problems - not enough of it has happened.

Egeland: Principles, protection and proximity. The humanitarian principles have to be promoted and defended more. I find them attacked, politicised, militarised. Where we are failing is not assistance, it's protection - where we keep people alive but we don't defend them.

(On proximity) It's true that there are too many aid workers in capital cities, in easily reached places, and in the places where the cameras are easily at hand. We are still unpredictable in being there according to needs.

Q: What will drive humanitarian needs in the next 20 years?

O'Brien: We ... know that even with mitigation measures on climate change, we will still have climate effects, we will still have natural disasters.

Amos: I think these conflicts will continue. (And) I think it is the complexity of climate-related disasters. So you have a country which will have a conflict in one part, which is affected by a climate-related shock, which is ongoing, where you might have a drought every five years and now it is every other year, and as a result of climate change it is probably going to be every year. So this mass movement of people as a result of that.

Holmes: In terms of more and more intense (weather) events, what we always said would happen is happening ... At the same time, this is being dwarfed by what is happening on the conflict side. We used to say 70 percent of humanitarian aid went to the victims of conflict, and now I think it is 80 percent

Egeland: Longer-term we are going to have this lethal cocktail of natural disasters, weak and bad governance, and internal strife that will make humanitarian work extremely challenging and extremely important, and where we will need to be very principled and high-quality in our work.

Q: What single piece of advice would you give to future OCHA chiefs?

O'Brien: The only thing I can say is be aware there aren't enough hours in the day.

Amos: Your focus has got to be on getting the best out of people - so there has to be clarity of vision. It has to be a shared vision.

When you are working at that kind of speed, with so many crises and working with so many different stakeholders, you have to have a sense of what motivates all those different actors - and how you can actually bring about change and reform in a very crowded environment.

Holmes: Go and see for yourself what's going on, talk to the people who are actually involved in it, and suffering it. Because only then do you understand it, only then can you talk about it with authority, and only then can you have the right influence that you need on the rest of the system, on donor governments and on public opinion because you're speaking from real knowledge.

Talk to the difficult people but also talk to them privately. It's all very well denouncing them publicly, and sometimes they need that. But if they think you are just grandstanding for the sake of it, they don't take much notice of you.

Egeland: It is the basic leadership dilemma, really. You have to try to set the agenda yourself, not let everybody else set your agenda. There are so many actors, there are so many voices, there are so many competing demands that, in the end, one becomes too much (an) administrator of response to others' priorities instead of being a leader in the areas where you see change is needed. Get time to ask yourself and others: "What are we not doing that we should be doing now?"

You can read full interviews at the links below: 

Q+A with U.N. aid chief Stephen O'Brien: "We have ever-escalating demands to meet humanitarian needs"

Q+A with ex-U.N. aid chief Valerie Amos: "Too many countries get away with using sovereignty to hinder humanitarian response"

Q+A with ex-U.N. aid chief John Holmes: "You are trying to put sticking plasters on situations"

Q+A with ex-U.N. aid chief Jan Egeland: "I find the humanitarian principles attacked, politicised, militarised"

For more on the World Humanitarian Summit, please visit: http://news.trust.org/spotlight/reshape-aid

(Reporting by Megan Rowling and Tom Esslemont; editing by Katie Nguyen; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)

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