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”

from UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Published on 05 Feb 2019

Thank you, Kimberly.

It is an honour to be here.

I am so grateful to you all for being here today. Particularly because I know that there is another speech this evening you could be listening to.

I gather over there, there is a tradition of standing ovations during the course of the address. I want to assure you that, here, I have entirely realistic expectations.

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.

The work you are undertaking in the Humanitarian Agenda Initiative, as well as the important contributions of your colleagues Amy Lehr in 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.

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 – 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 save millions of lives 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 will 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.

In my previous job, I ran the UK’s Department for International Development – DFID – for six years.

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 assignment 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 United States 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 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 will say why I think the global humanitarian system makes the world safer and more secure.

I want to explain how my organization – the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs – coordinates the system to make it more efficient and effective.

And outline the efforts we are making to reform, to cut waste and to be fit for purpose for 21st century.

Let me begin 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 and displacement today means that NGOs and United Nations humanitarian organizations are mounting major responses on nearly every continent.

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

We are 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 more difficult to sustain.

The result: 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 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.

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.”

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

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

I also understand there is an initiative by the U.S. Congress 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 that all nations need to address.

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 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 defense and offense against Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, and ISIS. He tells a story of a woman who said her husband joined a terrorist organization because there was no food.

Humanitarian agencies 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 lines of preventing the outbreak of deadly diseases turning into 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 them 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 get into some of the details on Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, Venezuela, the Rohingya crisis, and other places.

But let me 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 DRC 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.

Our main financiers clearly recognize and value these results.

UN-coordinated humanitarian appeals, which support many NGOs as well as UN agencies, alone raised a record $15 billion last year, 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 this.

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.

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

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

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.

Second, working with the implementing agencies, to use the needs assessments to develop response plans. Each year, my office publishes the Global Humanitarian Overview, 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 these plans.

That links to the role I try to play on getting the humanitarian sector – the UN, NGOs and the Red Cross – financed so that they can deliver.

For me, a crucial part of that is fairer sharing of the burden. And I am pleased that part of last year’s record fund raising was a reduced share from the traditional donors – like the U.S. And others, like donors 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 resources into this effort – and I am doing just that myself.

Third, 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 non-State armed groups and persuade them to let us safely deliver aid to people caught in the midst of fighting.

This 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, 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, hospitals, water points and the like, and we let them know when humanitarian convoys, immunization 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. 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 our field offices working on that. I am very grateful for U.S. assistance on this issue.

Fourth, 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 organizations have their own governance, mandate and finances. What I am trying to do is to be a supporter, convener, enabler and champion for all of them.

There is a strong commitment to working together better, in the interests of the people whose lives we are trying to save and improve.

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 UNHCR 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 in 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 organization 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 lack innovation.

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

This is 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 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 disasters strike.

This approach can reduce the humanitarian impact of predictable disasters like droughts, cut response times, reduce costs and save lives.

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

Second, the humanitarian community must do better on harnessing the role of the private sector. Too often, our discussion about the private sector is focused 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 anyone else. And we also get why measures to manage the risk of diversion are so important. We need every penny to get to the most vulnerable people.

But no-one, I think, wants counter-terrorism measures to hinder legitimate humanitarian action – by criminalizing it, by slowing it down or by making it impossible for aid to get to innocent people 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 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 recognize there are risks in what we have to do. The only zero risk activity is no activity at all. The question is how we manage it 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 globe 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 lives for their own fellow citizens. We know we can do an even better job, and we seek your help in doing that.

Thank you.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs:
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