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

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

Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council and former U.N. aid chief, Jan Egeland (L), visits Domiz camp in the northern Iraqi province of Dohuk, Aug. 21, 2013. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

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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 Jan Egeland, who served as U.N. Undersecretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator from 2003 to 2006. 

During his time as head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Egeland oversaw the international response to the Indian Ocean tsunami and navigated the complexities of providing aid when conflict flared in Sudan’s western region of Darfur. He also helped reform the global humanitarian system. 

Jan Egeland is now secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, a senior adviser to the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria and chair of the humanitarian taskforce on Syria, focused on protecting civilians and gaining access to communities in need.

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

Egeland: The most frustrating (thing) was that I found our collective humanitarian capacity to respond to great needs to be unpredictable. In most cases, humanitarian assistance is now remarkably effective. Already at that time, mortality rates were going down and malnutrition rates were going down, disease control was improving. But we were too often not there when people needed us the most.

That is why I initiated a very focused humanitarian reform process which had three aims - more predictable response capacity in the areas where we saw particularly glaring gaps, including water and sanitation, shelter, protection, and also common services for the humanitarian system. And that led to the today possibly over-bureaucratised cluster system. But at that time there was no one in charge of water and sanitation, there were no working parties with a clear leadership to take on key areas of the humanitarian system, and that has changed dramatically for the better.

Secondly we had a defunct old standby funding pot, which was a small loan window... So I initiated the Central Emergency Response Fund. I was unable to get the NGOs included because of General Assembly opposition, but I got it from $50 million to $500 million in standby money. So then we had financial muscle to respond and that has also greatly helped response.

And the third area was predictable leadership - which meant empowering the humanitarian coordinators more. I called them my field marshals. They really helped provide national leadership - and that improved in many contexts and too little in others.

The system was unpredictable - it is more predictable today, I find.

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

Egeland: It is three-piece for me: principles, protection and proximity. The humanitarian principles have to be promoted and defended more. I find them attacked, politicised, militarised. I see counter-terrorism legislation undermining the right of impartiality, neutrality and independence. I find the whole wave of fighting violent extremism undermining the independence of neutral humanitarian action in the crossfire.

On protection, I would say don't listen to those who say ‘we are still not assisting people’. I have been around for 30 years in this area - one has massively better assistance now than ever before in getting stuff and even services to people. Everything - from disease control, to nutrition, to education to shelter to food supplies - is much better than before.

Where we are failing is not assistance, it's protection - where we keep people alive but we don't defend them. People are abused, and gender-based violence, I think, is as bad as it was.

And then that partly relates to 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. But proximity then means that the international organisations have to be even better, to stay and deliver.

We have to do better local work, but I am not going to agree with those in Istanbul who will say ‘Just hand us the money, and we local governments and national governments and local organisations will fix everything in this civil war of ours’. They are too often biased, or they are persecuted and they are part of the conflict, and the whole point of principled humanitarian action is that it is important also to be able to come from outside and give impartial, neutral support. That is not always easy to do if you are part of the local context, of the local clan, of the local religion or the local cultural background and the local political (situation).

So we have to be more predictable and balanced in our response, and we have to systematically increase the quality of our work in these areas - be able to stay and deliver where we are most needed, and be able to work through and hand over to local structures when we can, and enable and build local structures when we can.

What will drive humanitarian needs in the next 20 years?

Egeland: Conflict was on its way down - it peaked around 1993, and then it went down to a bottom around 2003, just when I started as U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator. And then we have had a steady increase in conflict. However, I think 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.

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

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?”

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