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

by Tom Esslemont | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 4 May 2016 06:30 GMT

U.N. humanitarian chief Stephen O'Brien chats with a Syrian refugee girl inside a tent at a makeshift settlement in Saadnayel in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, Aug. 17, 2015. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

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Ahead of the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul later this month, the Thomson Reuters Foundation has interviewed U.N. aid chiefs past and present on their views about the humanitarian system and how it should be reformed to meet needs now and in the future.

Here we talk to Stephen O’Brien, the current head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), who took up the role in June 2015.

O’Brien, a British politician, will be at the helm of the May 23-24 summit in Turkey, which he hopes will catalyse political will to reduce growing humanitarian needs and boost funding to help tens of millions of people caught up in conflicts and natural disasters around the world.

He has more than 20 years of experience in international development and health care, with a focus on mobilising campaigns against malaria and neglected tropical diseases.

What are the three most frustrating things you have faced as head of OCHA?

O’Brien: Rather than frustrations there are challenges. One, that we have ever-escalating demands to meet humanitarian needs across the world, amounting to 125 million people where we need to raise about $20 billion in the multilateral system to meet about 87.6 million life-saving and protection demands. Last year, we finished only able to fund half what we needed. 

So the challenge is how do we address the ever-widening gap between that which needs to happen and that which we are able to deliver, given the world has broadly never been more generous? It is clear you have to reduce the demand as much as you have to meet the need.

There is a clear set of outcomes we are looking for out of the World Humanitarian Summit, which is to prevent and resolve conflict better - to see the adherence, compliance and accountability for international humanitarian law, human rights law (and) refugee law. There is the need to ensure that we really step up to the 2030 agenda of “Leave No-one Behind”, which is particularly centered around forced displacement today.

There is the need to come together in the clarity of a new business model - for instance, we break down the humanitarian-development divide and work across our silos better, more efficiently, more transparently and with greater delivery.

Which parts of the humanitarian system need the most urgent reform, and how do you go about it?

O’Brien: We need to build on the important transformative agenda which is to recognise we need to work across our silos. In the United Nations, you have people delivering brilliantly on refugees, development, humanitarian, peacekeeping. We need to be much better at delivering horizontally, as much as we have been delivering vertically, down the pillars of the U.N.

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. We know that wherever the money is raised from, people want to know it reaches its intended target, and has really met the needs of the most vulnerable.

What will drive humanitarian needs in the next 20 years?

O’Brien: If I was to give you a hope, it would be that we will have been successful in finding better ways through the multilateral system of preventing and resolving conflict, which is so much a driver of humanitarian needs. If we don’t do that, then the needs will continue to rise.

If you were looking at the most predictable need, then climate-related and climate change effects - as is the case with natural disasters - are always likely to have, proportionately, the greatest effect upon the numbers of people. We do know that, even with mitigation measures on climate change, we will still have climate effects, we will still have natural disasters. The more we can use the huge international will generated by the Paris (climate change) agreement to mitigate, to prepare, to be able to give people the capacity to prevent human tragedy, then that will lessen the impact.

The unknown is how much we are going to continue to be also dealing with the immediate needs and survival of people out of conflict.

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.

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