Sobering lessons for the United Nations: Jan Egeland

News and Press Release
Originally published
At a time when international co-operation often seems more myth than measure, the world's response to the tsunami disaster - and the challenge of dealing with fresh crises in an already stricken region, such as Monday's earthquake in Indonesia - have reminded us of our shared vulnerability. What lessons can we learn from such disasters in order to respond more effectively to new emergencies? And significantly, what have we at the United Nations learnt from the tsunami disaster to help us reform this indispensable, if not flawless, institution?

First, the tsunami disaster showed with stunning clarity that when there is a will - a political will - there is a way. Galvanised into action by the sudden immensity of suffering, decision-makers rushed forward to make their pledges known. Never in my 25 years of working in humanitarian emergencies have I seen governments react with such unbridled generosity to contribute money, military assets and manpower. This unprecedented generosity stands in striking contrast to other crises such as in Sudan, or the Democratic Republic of Congo where 1,000 people die every day from preventable causes - a tsunami death toll every six months for six consecutive years since the war there began.

Second, the tsunami showed that only the UN has the universal legitimacy, capacity and credibility to lead in a truly global humanitarian emergency. Days after initiating tsunami relief efforts, regional groups and other core group nations handed over the reins to the UN, in recognition that it alone could co-ordinate some 60 donor countries, military assets from 26 countries and hundreds of international, national and local humanitarian partners. But this is no time for laurels. Yesterday's release of the interim Volcker committee report on the Oil for Food Programme, combined with allegations of sexual exploitation by UN peacekeepers, are just more arguments for change in the vigorous debate about the UN's future.

As we approach the 60th anniversary of the UN's founding, we must summon the courage to listen carefully to our critics and learn from not only our well-publicised failings but also our less-heralded successes. Some of the criticisms are justified, some are not. As Kofi Annan, UN secretary-general, has affirmed, we must fundamentally ramp up our performance, upgrade and modernise our management culture and become the transparent, accountable and effective 21st century institution the world expects the UN to be. The UN and the humanitarian community now stand at a crossroads. To go forward, we might look at the UN's response to the tsunami disaster for guidance. Three points stand out. Call them the "ABCs" of UN performance: accountability, boldness of action, and credibility. Together they provide a road map for a 21st century UN. Accountability comes first. The UN is accountable to the populations it serves worldwide. As important, we are accountable to our donors, our partners, and the public - all of whom have an indisputable right to know how their money is being used. Since 2000, my office at the UN* has run a publicly accessible financial tracking website. Few public or private entities have this degree of transparency.

In terms of boldness, the world wants the UN to do more than talk; it wants it to act - swiftly, boldly and decisively - in times of crisis to mobilise political will and harness resources from around the world. Within an hour of Monday's massive earthquake, for example, my office pulled together key humanitarian partners and mobilised assessment teams. That said, in a crisis we should draw on the expertise of others outside the UN system. We certainly do not have all the answers - or the assets. The private as well as public sector proved a key partner in the tsunami relief efforts. We should draw on its assistance and expertise more systematically in future.

Credibility, meanwhile, has to be earned, and the UN is no exception. We are credible to the degree that we now have an even greater awareness of the need to prevent acts of mismanagement or abuse by our own managers or staff.

In the end, there is no alternative to this institution. We must mend, not end, the UN - not out of starry-eyed idealism but from hard-headed realism. In an age when both threats and security transcend borders, it is in our self-interest to see the UN work: to be accountable, bold and credible in meeting today's needs and securing tomorrow's trust.

The writer is United Nations under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs and is its emergency relief co-ordinator.