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World: Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, Remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies: “Saving lives in a time of crisis: why the global humanitarian system matters”.

Source: UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Country: Bangladesh, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Myanmar, Nigeria, South Sudan, Syrian Arab Republic, United States of America, Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of), World, Yemen

Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington D.C.
5 February 2019
As delivered

Kimberly, thank you very much indeed.

It is really an honour to be here.

Thank you to all of you for coming today as well.

I know that there is another speech being given here today and you could have made a different choice. I know also there is a tradition over there for the speech to be interrupted by rounds standing. I just want to tell you that I have realistic expectations for the next 20 minutes.

Thank you CSIS for the invitation. You have been an influential voice in international policy-making for decades.

Your multi-disciplinary approach to international affairs is the best way to analyze and tackle the most complex challenges facing the world.

I think the work you are undertaking in the Humanitarian Agenda Initiative, as well as the important contributions Amy is leading and the Human Rights Program, Steve Morrison in the Global Health Policy Center and Dan Runde at the Project on Prosperity and Development are all contributing in significant ways.

The mission of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is to mobilize and coordinate effective and principled humanitarian action in partnership with national and international actors

In the words of my boss – Antonio Guterres – today’s world is one in which “global challenges are more and more integrated, and the responses are more and more fragmented”.

In many places around the world, the very premise and value of cooperation to tackle shared problems is being questioned.

Sometimes by those who had been its most staunch advocates in decades past.

But, today I want to tell you how the global humanitarian system – which is the bit of the multilateral system that I am responsible for – is a great example for how and why international cooperation can be effective.

Last year through UN coordinated programmes we reached 100 million people across the world with humanitarian assistance.

We unquestionably save millions of lives every year and protect the most vulnerable people in the conflict-ridden corners of this Earth.

We are not complacent. There is much we need to do to reform and improve our system. I am going to talk about that.

But, I think, it makes sense for policy makers in capitals around the world – including Washington – to support the global humanitarian system.


First: it is a moral responsibility. Our basic humanity demands that we act with compassion to reduce suffering among our fellow human beings.

And second, it is in the national interest of countries like the United States to ensure an effective and efficient global humanitarian system.

These arguments are not mutually exclusive. The two are inter-twined with one another.

As Kimberly said, in my previous job, I ran the UK’s Department for International Development – DFID – for six years. And every day in that job I was thinking about how I could justify to the British public and parliamentarians why a growing UK aid budget was not only the right thing to do for moral reasons, but also the smart thing to do, as it contributed to their safety and prosperity.

For decades, American leaders and the public have understood this well.

U.S. leadership on humanitarian affairs has been a constant throughout my 35- year career in this sector.

My first job as an aid worker was working on the British government’s response to the Ethiopia famine in the mid-1980s.

During that crisis, President Reagan was unequivocal on the need for a principled U.S. response.
“A hungry child knows no politics,” he said, and committed U.S. food aid to those starving children even though Ethiopia was run by a communist government at the time.

The U.S. has a strong tradition as a champion of humanitarian action and human rights.

The U.S. remains the largest financial donor to the humanitarian system – and you have been that for many decades.

You have unmatched capabilities, bringing together financial resources, global presence and influence, research and policy-making capacity and reach, your fantastic humanitarian NGOs and, obviously, your military strength.

But I do not take U.S. support for granted.

In Washington – and in many other capitals around the world – tough questions are rightly being asked of the humanitarian system.

Is it really in our interests to spend money on people thousands of miles away? Is the global humanitarian system efficient, effective and well-coordinated?

Are humanitarian actors committed to reform and ensuring every dollar is spent wisely?

Today, I want to answer those questions.

I will give you a sense of the scale and complexity of the challenges we are facing.
I want to explain how my organization coordinates the system to make it more efficient and effective.
And to outline the effort we are making to reform, to cut waste and to be fit for purpose for 21st century.

Let me start with the humanitarian landscape.

This year more than 130 million people will need humanitarian assistance and protection just to survive. Most of them in places affected by conflict.

The pace, tempo and longevity of conflict, as Kimberly has said, and displacement today means that NGOs and United Nations humanitarian organisations are mounting major responses on nearly every continent.

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People describe the current phase in history as a ‘chaotic transition’.

We are maybe moving into a multipolar world. But we have not reached a new global equilibrium and the transition process is not delivering greater peace or security to the world.

Regional competition, fragile politics, terrorism, economic inequality, under- development, climatic shocks and mounting pressure over natural resources have all been factors fueling conflict.

In many contemporary conflicts, fighting parties splinter into dozens – or even hundreds – of factions. That means military victories are harder to achieve and conflict resolution is more difficult to sustain.
The result, again as Kimberly has said, is that conflicts last twice as long as they did in 1990.

Fighters break international humanitarian laws with impunity. Rape, starvation, besiegement and the targeting of schools and hospitals have been widely adopted as deliberate tactics of war, especially over the last ten years.

So what does all this mean for the humanitarian system?

The most obvious result is the explosion of need in the last ten years.

But it is not just scale. We are increasingly operating in more complex and insecure environments.
Too many State-controlled armed forces show scant regard for international humanitarian law.

And globally interconnected terrorist groups that explicitly reject accepted norms of behaviour in conflict terrorize local populations and commit unspeakable acts of violence and destruction, including against aid workers.

That includes Islamic State’s variants in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Nigeria, the greater Sahel region and elsewhere.

The Africa expert Alex de Waal has identified the emergence of a new political ideology of ‘counter-humanitarianism’. He describes this as “an approach to conflict that legitimizes political and military action that is indifferent to human life.”

These are worrying trends – especially this year when we mark the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions.

Against this backdrop, I have to say I really welcome the CSIS initiative to launch the high-level taskforce on Humanitarian Access. We need some political energy behind this issue and innovative ideas to address it. And you have assembled a terrific group of people for the taskforce. I want to support the group in any and every way I can.

I also understand there is an initiative by the U.S. Congress – and I have come just now from the Pentagon – to bring greater transparency to reporting on civilian casualties related to U.S. military operations. This is a really positive step, which others should emulate. Although some of these issues may raise political sensitivities, they are issues all nations need to address.

So it is easy to feel pessimistic about the state of the world. But despite the obstacles that we face, the global humanitarian system is achieving remarkable things. And without it, things would, I am afraid, be a great deal worse.

Humanitarian actors cannot claim to bring wars to an end or to halt terrorism. But we do contribute to global security in other important ways.

My colleague and good friend Governor David Beasley – the head of the UN’s World Food Programme – recently observed that his agency was the first line of defence and offense against Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, and ISIS. He tells a story of a woman he met who said her husband joined a terrorist organization because there was no food.

Humanitarian agencies also ensure that almost 9 million children receive education in emergency settings in more than 20 countries. These are children who would otherwise not be going to school. An education gives them a better chance of a livelihood as adults, and arguably also makes them less susceptible to joining radical groups in the future.

The World Health Organization, UNICEF and others are on the front line of preventing the outbreak of deadly diseases turning into regional and global pandemics.

And when conflict causes people to flee from violence – either across borders or within their own country –agencies like the UNHCR – the UN’s refugee agency – and the International Organisation for Migration and others are there to provide those people with shelter, protection and support.
Counter-terrorism. Economic development. Stopping global pandemics. Dealing with mass displacement.

Humanitarian action plays a real role in contributing to solutions to these challenges.

The next question people ask is whether or not the humanitarian system is effective and well-coordinated.

In short, the answer is yes, with room for improvement. We are delivering real results in a coordinated way.

In the discussion we might perhaps get into some of the details on Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, Venezuela, the Rohingya crisis, and other places.

But let me just summarize some key results at the global level.

Every month of last year, international humanitarian agencies provided life-saving help and protection to 8 million Yemenis, more than 5 million people inside Syria, and nearly 5 million South Sudanese.
UNICEF provided clean water to more than 32 million people, vaccinated 18 million children against measles, and provided psychosocial support to 3.5 million children.

The World Food Programme provided food assistance to more than 90 million people. Very cheaply, by the way – just 40 cents per person per day in Yemen. In non-conflict areas, its just 30 cents a day.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo and neighbouring countries, the UN has vaccinated 60,000 people against Ebola since August last year. The World Health Organization and UNICEF run medical clinics for people with symptoms of Ebola. They ensure doctors and nurses have the necessary supplies, protective clothing and pharmaceuticals. And UNICEF go door-to-door to make sure people know how to keep their families safe from Ebola.

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Our main financiers clearly recognize and value these results.

UN-coordinated humanitarian appeals, which by the way support many NGOs as well as UN agencies, alone last year raised a record $15 billion, up from $4 billion in 2005.

The UN has the largest market share in humanitarian action. We have never been better funded – although needs consistently outstrip available resources.

Each agency plays a key role in a response. But the strength of the system is that we ensure that the sum is greater than the individual parts.

Effective coordination is key to that.

The countries that make up the UN decided, in their wisdom, to create and finance a set of different institutions to support humanitarian action. In the UN, we have an agency for refugees, an agency for food, an agency for children, an agency for population issues and so on. Each is governed separately and seeks money for their activities separately.

But no one agency or organization has the mandate, scale, reach, capacity or expertise to provide all the necessary support in any significant crisis.

And that is why a coordinated response, getting the best from everyone, is essential.

My office – and the clue is in the title of my office, the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance – is charged with ensuring the system is well- coordinated.

So what in practice do we do? Four main things.

First, assess and communicate the needs of vulnerable people caught up in crises. Some of that is about me briefing the Security Council and others on the big picture.

But a lot of it is about detailed, analytical work deep in the midst of the crises, gathering and presenting data on what are people’s needs.

A rigorous assessment of needs means that we are less likely to waste money on low-priority activities.

We can make that system even better. I have been discussing ideas on that with Admiral Ziemer at USAID which I hope we can take forward before too long.

Second, working with the implementing agencies, we use the needs assessments to develop response plans. Every year, my office publishes the Global Humanitarian Overview, which is the world’s most sophisticated, authoritative and comprehensive assessment of humanitarian needs and response.

One area we are improving is how we monitor the impact and results achieved against those plans.

And that response-planning function links to the role I try to play on getting the humanitarian sector – the UN agencies, but also the NGOs and the Red Cross – better financed so that they can deliver.
For me, a crucial part of that is a fairer sharing of the burden. And I am pleased that as part of last year’s record fund raising, we also saw a reduced share from the traditional donors – like the U.S. We saw other donors, including from the Gulf, taking on more.

Persuading non-traditional donors to support multilateral humanitarian agencies is a long-term endeavor that takes time. But we must keep investing time and effort into this– and I am doing just that myself.

Thirdly, I attach great importance to the role my office plays in improving access for aid agencies to people most in need.

We talk to governments and to non-State armed groups and persuade them to let us safely deliver to people caught in the midst of fighting.

That requires my staff to have a mix of local understanding, operational savviness and the ability to build relationships of trust with everyone from the President of a country to a local level commander on a checkpoint.

A key part of negotiating access is civil-military coordination.

In Yemen, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, my team operates a deconfliction system to ensure the warring parties don’t attack aid personnel, facilities and convoys.

We provide the Coalition with coordinates of schools and hospitals, and water points and the like, and we let them know when humanitarian convoys, immunisation teams and other assistance missions will be on the road.

This system has proven highly effective in sparing the aid operation from accidental or incidental harm in what remains a very hot war with more than 30 active frontlines. Without it, we would simply not be able to deliver assistance safely in Yemen.

Within my office, we are strengthening our civil-military liaison capability and will soon have more than 40 people across the world working on that in the toughest parts of every crisis-affected country. I am very grateful, by the way, for assistance from the US Government in staffing up that capability.
Fourthly, I take seriously my responsibility as coordinator for the humanitarian agencies. The UN Resolution establishing my position back in 1991 gives me a mandate to coordinate not only UN entities, but also NGOs and the Red Cross family.

All those organisations have their own governance, their own mandate and their own finances. What I am trying to do is to be a supporter, a convenor, an enabler and a champion for all of them.
There is a strong commitment at the top of all the organizations to working together better, in the interests of the people whose lives we are trying to save and improve.

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We can join up more and better. That is reflected in, for example, the agreement Henrietta Fore at UNICEF, David Beasley at the World Food Programme, Filippo Grandi at the UN Refugee Agency and I have reached to join up to develop a single shared system for providing cash to people caught up in humanitarian crises.

Another example is our collaboration to deal with the scourge of sexual exploitation and abuse. We are doing a lot together on that, with excellent contributions especially from NGOs. To give just one example, we are all collaborating to ensure that people guilty of abuse in one organisation cannot find a way out through employment in another.

So, as I have said, I am clear that the humanitarian system is a global public good which delivers concrete results.

But I am also convinced that it needs to be improved and reformed.

One point often levelled at multilateral institutions is that we are too bureaucratic, too process-heavy and that we lack innovation.

And the UN Secretary-General agrees with that. He has launched a series of ambitious reforms through the UN to decentralize authority and decision-making to field leaders, to simplify processes, to promote efficiency and strengthen accountability and transparency.

And that is all already making a difference.

Let me give you a few other examples of areas that I think are ripe for innovation and reform.
First, I think we need to look at the way in which humanitarian action is financed.

We need to shift our reactive financing model to one that is proactive and centered on early and in some cases, preventative action.

With increasingly powerful data analytics, we can now track clearly the early warning indicators to predict when and where crises are developing.

If we then have in place pre-agreed financing triggers, we can act swiftly when disaster strikes.
And this approach can reduce the humanitarian impact of predictable disasters like droughts. It can cut response times. It can reduce costs And it can save lives.

The UN has a developing collaboration with the World Bank on this, which I hope will yield concrete results later this year.

Second, the humanitarian community must do a lot better on harnessing the role of the private sector. Too often, our discussion about the private sector is focused just on charitable donations from firms. I’m obviously not against that.

But we also need a different kind of conversation. Primarily, we need to acknowledge the for-profit motives of private sector entities.

And then focus on the comparative advantages of the private sector – supply chains, technological solutions, expertise, R&D – and look for win-win opportunities to collaborate with them. I have had excellent conversations in recent months with Mastercard, Google, Amazon, Salesforce, major insurance companies and many others on this.

The final issue I want to highlight that requires some innovative thinking is around how humanitarian agencies navigate areas where proscribed armed groups are operating. That includes handling increasingly complex counter-terrorism legislation and managing the risk of aid diversion.

We all understand the crucial importance of tackling terrorism. It affects poor people in poor countries more than it affects anyone else. And we also get why measures to manage the risk of diversion are so important. We need to get every penny to the most vulnerable people.

But nobody, I think, wants counter-terrorism measures to hinder legitimate humanitarian action – either by criminalising it, or by slowing it down or by making it impossible for aid to get to innocent people who just happen to be unlucky enough to be living in areas where terrorist groups are dominant.

For example, in Nigeria some financiers are saying that civilians who have lived in areas under the control of the Boko Haram insurgents for more than 6 months need to be vetted before receiving help. That means that women and children who have managed somehow to escape the Boko Haram terrorists need to wait for approval before they can receive help with, say, water and health services.
We need to recognise there are risks in what we have to do. The only zero risk activity is no activity at all. So the question is how we manage risk sensibly.

Let me make one last point. The global humanitarian system is not the answer to all the world’s problems, but without it the world would certainly be a much nastier and more dangerous place.
The UN’s second Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjold wryly noted, “The UN was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell."

And that is exactly what thousands of humanitarian workers around the world are trying to do right now.

Being an aid worker in these conflict-ridden crises is, alongside journalism, one of the world’s most dangerous professions. A hundred colleagues a year are being killed in the line of duty.

Everywhere I go I am impressed with the courage, commitment, determination and professionalism of the NGO workers, the Red Cross staff and my UN colleagues. Most of them are nationals of the countries in crisis, often risking their own lives for their own fellow citizens. We know we can do an even better job, and we seek all of your support in doing that.

Thank you very much indeed.



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