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

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

Valerie Amos, U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator, listens to children's comments during a visit to a camp for internally displaced people in Port-au-Prince, after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Nov. 24, 2010. REUTERS/Keith Bedford

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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 Valerie Amos, who headed the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) from 2010 to 2015. 

As U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator, she advocated for humanitarian access in conflict-torn Syria, and urged politicians to put an end to the war, which has now entered its sixth year. She also oversaw recovery work after the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

Amos, who became the first black woman to sit in the British cabinet, as Secretary of State for International Development, is now director of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. 

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

Amos: The politicisation of humanitarian aid. The huge rise of conflicts was very much around conflicts of a highly politicised nature - Syria being the most obvious example, but also Yemen, both countries in which finding a political solution was tough. And those political arguments infected the humanitarian discussion.

The proliferation of actors doing humanitarian work made the job of coordination of humanitarian actors even worse. We were working with a system of coordination which was established way back, when you didn’t have so many actors.

If you look at a crisis like Haiti, for example, after the earthquake which happened in 2010, some people just turned up with a suitcase wanting to help. So how do you ensure effectiveness and efficiency of delivery? And how do you ensure people on the ground actually have a voice in all of this?

The third thing I would say is the creeping competition for resources – people and organisations running after the same pots of money.

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

Amos: If you look at the multilateral system - the U.N. - there are too many organisations with overlapping mandates. So that in itself creates a tension at the outset. I think streamlining and clarifying needs to be done.

If you look at going from humanitarian into development work… I don’t think that has been very well managed or articulated. If you look at protracted crises, for example, I think that the humanitarian element of it goes on for too long in many countries. You need a way of thinking about these crises which goes beyond the humanitarian.

Look at Democratic Republic of Congo, 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. And the development bit of it gets squeezed and the governance bit – 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.

That relationship between humanitarian and development, which has focused in the last few years a bit more on prevention, on countries that face cycles of drought, flooding - it has been slow but all that is very good.

The really difficult bit is the fragile state agenda and how you handle that… Protecting people's rights where there's a growth in conflict between governments and non-state actors. 

Too many countries get away with using sovereignty as a reason to hinder humanitarian response, especially in complex, protracted crises. How will they be held to account? And what about the consistent and almost routine breaching of international law – for example, bombing of hospitals or civilian areas? How can that be addressed?

What will drive humanitarian needs in the next 20 years?

Amos: I think these conflicts will continue. I don’t think we see any kind of sense they are decreasing. (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 every year.

So this mass movement of people as a result of that. It won’t just be people fleeing violence. It will be people fleeing the fact they cannot scratch out a living because there is no water.

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

Amos: It is a personal thing - you need a lot of stamina!

When you are doing a job about coordination, it is entirely dependent on your ability to do things through influence… 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.

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