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

by Megan Rowling | @meganrowling | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 4 May 2016 06:30 GMT

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 John Holmes, who was U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs for more than three and a half years from 2007 to 2010. During that time, he more than made up for his previous lack of experience in conflict, famine, disease and disaster.

Travelling to 43 countries on 85 trips covering 300,000 miles, Holmes was head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) when Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar in 2008, when Sri Lanka's civil war ended in a bloodbath in 2009, and when Haiti was devastated by the biggest earthquake for 200 years in 2010.

Holmes, now director of The Ditchley Foundation, a UK-based think tank on international affairs, wrote a book about his experiences as the U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator, entitled "The Politics of Humanity: The Reality of Relief Aid". 

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

Holmes: I think the most frustrating thing by far is the fact that there you are trying to put sticking plasters on situations where the politicians are not putting the same effort into actually fixing them. So you’re trying to deal with them on a long-term basis when humanitarian aid should be short-term, and the politicians and generals and whoever else it is - who ought to be facing up to the reality and trying to solve the problems in one way or another - are simply not doing it, to the point where you feel you might even be prolonging the conflict by allowing them to ignore the consequences of what they are doing… What the international community reaches for quite rightly - to save lives and retain dignity - too often becomes the substitute for the real action that is needed to fix the problems.

The second one is… the governments which didn’t really want you to do what you had to do. Therefore dealing with them became extremely difficult: Sudan, Sri Lanka – those kinds of quite strong governments with their own strong views about what they wanted to achieve who were then quite expert at trying to frustrate (and) intimidate… the humanitarians who were simply trying to do what they are supposed to do – save lives, end suffering and so on.

The third most frustrating thing is the fragmentation of the system… You certainly wouldn’t want one huge bureaucracy doing it. But the frustration comes when the different bits of the system can’t really get together to provide a properly collective and unified assessment of a situation, and the needs and the impact afterwards…. I don’t think it has improved substantially.

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

Holmes: We still need to go more local, in terms of strengthening local capacity and mentoring local NGOs and encouraging local civil society, and making sure we are as local as we can be in our approaches. There are limits to that, because in conflict situations, locals are sometimes part of the problem - often intimidated by the (warring parties), and they can’t therefore act so well.

But certainly when it comes to natural disasters, we should be doing more than we are in terms of encouraging local capacity - as we have done in South East Asia. It’s more difficult in other places, because there is not much capacity to do anything, but still that’s the direction we need to keep going in.

And it goes with the second (reform) – which is more prevention, anticipation of all kinds: disaster risk reduction. For natural disasters, it’s anticipation, and (then) prevention of conflicts wherever we can. That’s not mainly a humanitarian responsibility, but it’s still important that it’s in there, and so it is not all about response.

The next one is the old chestnut of overcoming the humanitarian-development divide – again it’s dead easy to say and extremely hard to do, or we would have done it already. 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.

Those cycles get faster because of climate change – droughts come around more often in the Sahel – and we haven’t tackled the questions of crop diversification, water management or whatever it might be, which would help relieve some of these problems quite a lot more. We have made some progress, but it’s still difficult.

We still need to move more toward the use of cash rather than giving out stuff – that’s particularly true with food aid, but it’s true with other things as well. We need to be always extremely conscious when we go into places of how we make sure we are developing the local economy or restoring it, rather than destroying it by what we do. The system has gone a certain way in that direction, but there is a lot more to do in that area to make sure we are encouraging local economic resilience and helping local producers and retailers get back on their feet rather than replacing them with free stuff. The free stuff has its place at the very beginning of things, but can very quickly become counter-productive if you’re not careful.

The other one I would draw attention to is that I think we are still not technologically innovative enough. The system is so busy fighting fires that break out all over the place 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.

What will drive humanitarian needs in the next 20 years?

Holmes: In terms of more and more intense (weather) events, what we always said would happen is happening – and we still face the same old problem of you can’t attribute any particular event to climate change. But I think that if you look at the trends, and you combine it with environmental degradation and population rise and so on, you have got more and more need coming from that.

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. That is the bit that is driving the needs most at the moment, and it is internal conflicts like Syria and Yemen. 

We aren’t going to stop climate change, basically. We’re not going to stop it at 2 degrees, whatever we say, and therefore there will be very significant sea-level rise… And that’s then going to drive the phenomenon we have talked about a lot but hasn’t really happened yet on a big scale: climate refugees, which is going to spark more conflict. Those things are all still as serious as they were, even if they are being overshadowed, for the time being anyway, by the Syrias of this world.

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

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.

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