Global: Top UN official interviewed on global aid challenges

DUBAI, 10 November 2008 (IRIN) - John Holmes, UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, has been in Dubai attending the inaugural Summit on the Global Agenda held by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum (WEF) in partnership with the government of Dubai (7-9 November).

Billed as a gathering of the world's 700 most innovative and relevant minds - leaders from academia, business, government and civil society from around the world - its aim was to collaboratively address some of the key issues on the global agenda. While in Dubai, Holmes talked with IRIN.

IRIN: How useful are gatherings such as the WEF? Many see them as jamborees and at best as talking shops since they lack the mechanisms for implementing any decisions reached.

John Holmes (JH): Of course they are talking shops but this particular one, which is a sort of global brainstorming, is the start of a process rather than an end in itself. The idea is you take what you can learn from these discussions back into your own organisation, back into your own field and try and make some of the linkages which exist. One of the things we were talking about quite a lot was the way in which different experts exist in their silos without really making any contact with people in the other silos -even though the cross-cutting issues are very clear. We saw some evidence of that just in the humanitarian side, for example. Discussing with those dealing with migration, we found they weren't even talking about the humanitarian consequences of climate change which include, we fear, much bigger scale migration. So we were able to plug them into that and say: 'what we would like from you is some better statistics about what might happen.' So I think there are some useful linkages which can turn into real things as well as just talking shop.

Preparedness and empowerment

IRIN: You are on the WEF Council on Humanitarian Assistance. What specific ideas have you brought to the council in terms of climate change and food insecurity?

JH: What we were discussing was the need to do two things which aren't exactly new ideas but we were trying to formulate them in a reasonably coherent way. One is to spend a lot more time and effort on what you might call the upstream side - the prevention, the disaster risk reduction, the preparedness side so that there is more effort and more resources and more thought going into that, rather than concentrating too much on the response side after the event - which is necessary because you need to help people when they're in their moment of need but it is not a very good investment because you can't solve any problems that way. And the second related thought is to try to empower national governments, local communities, maybe regional organisations - to make them have more capacity, be more empowered, so that the international community doesn't need to intervene so much and can reserve itself for cases of really major need. So those two things go together if we can get that combination right. It is what we try to describe as a new business model for humanitarian assistance. These thoughts have been had before but we are trying to encapsulate them in a new way.

IRIN: But what has hindered this development? Kofi Annan when he was UN secretary-general talked about the need for humanitarians to move from a culture of response to a culture of prevention. This has not happened yet.

JH: I think it is something to do with human nature. In our personal lives we know that prevention is better than cure, prevention health is better than response afterwards, but we don't actually behave in ways which correspond to that. I think similarly governments and international institutions know in theory that it's much better to invest more and do more on the prevention side but they don't actually do it. You have to convince finance ministers, you have to convince presidents and prime ministers that they need to invest in something the results of which will only be seen in 10 or 15 years when they may no longer be in power. That is quite a tricky thing to do. So you've got to have your arguments marshalled. You have got to be able to prove to them - as we hope to be able to do in the new study which is under way - that this is actually a really good investment because there are going to be more and more disasters from climate change and hence the importance of the disaster risk reduction agenda because of the link to climate change. I think climate change was the other big theme of this discussion. As someone put it in the end: 'It's the climate, stupid!' It is not the financial crisis or the economic crisis which is really fundamental, it is the climate.

Impact of global financial crisis

IRIN: How far has the global financial turmoil affected overall humanitarian aid?

JH: So far it is not affecting it but you wouldn't expect that - the crisis has really only just started. The consequences would be felt - if they are felt - in government budgets, in aid budgets perhaps next year, perhaps more in 2010 because it may take time to filter through. But we don't know that; that is only a fear. What we are trying to do is to give out a strong message that whatever the pressures may be, whatever the pressures in terms of bailouts or economic slowdown - and therefore the need to spend more on unemployment benefits or whatever it might be - please do not cut these development and humanitarian budgets.

Bilateral versus multilateral aid

IRIN: In your discussions with leaders of the Gulf countries, for example, how responsive have you found them to be on issues of humanitarian concern as they live in very safe and secure environments?

JH: I haven't been talking to them on this particular trip because I have been engaged in these WEF discussions but we do talk quite a lot to them. I think what you see here is generous humanitarian impulses and a desire to help in particular areas, but those impulses and the resources that come from them are not then channelled through what we regard as the best channels, which are multilateral channels. There is a long entrenched tradition here of giving aid bilaterally. I have no problems with that. But we are trying to encourage the countries of this region in particular (a) to channel more funds into humanitarian causes but (b) to channel more of what they do give through the multilateral channels because we believe that is the most effective way of doing it and also where they will get more credit for what they do do.

Climate change, food

IRIN: What are the main humanitarian challenges the world is facing?

JH: I think the long-running conflicts take an enormous amount of time, resources and effort and they will remain challenges. They may not get any bigger as drivers of humanitarian problems but they are there. The biggest problem for the future is probably climate change because it is going to produce more and bigger disasters and that's going to be an accelerating trend for the next 20, 30, 40, 50 years. Whatever they do about reducing greenhouse gas emissions isn't going to change the reality of climate change for a very long time so those extra disasters, the extra droughts, the sea-level rise, the problems which could be gigantic of glacial melt in the Himalayas - those could produce humanitarian disasters of a scale we have never seen at least in recent years. The Tsunami may pale into insignificance. And then there is the food crisis which has not gone away at all, particularly in developing countries. So there is a need to increase the amount of food and nutritious assistance we can give to the most vulnerable groups, but also a massive need to increase investment in developing countries in small-holder agriculture because otherwise we are not going to tackle that problem successfully.

Disaster fatigue?

IRIN: Do you think there is a general public fatigue in the West to humanitarian crises as depicted on TV screens?

JH: Perhaps, perhaps but we are aided, if you like, by the fact that the news media like bad news and disasters so they do tend to cover it. Maybe you can see that there is a desire maybe for new images. One of the striking things this year is that we have had yet again quite serious drought in parts of Ethiopia which is not being covered by the media in the same way that it was covered 10 or 20 years ago. Partly that is because our response to that drought has become better so people are not dying in the same way. It's not a famine in the way it was in the 1980s and 1990s which gave rise to Live Aid and all those things. But I think there is partly a sort of fatigue there which we need to be careful of. Luckily there isn't a donor fatigue at the moment at least. I think we will see what happens with the financial and economic crisis but donors have been relatively generous in recent years in contributing to humanitarian causes even though we rely on a very small number of them.