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Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock: Remarks at the Humanitarian Congress, Vienna, on The future of humanitarian aid, 29 March, 2019

Originally published


University of Vienna, 29 March, 2019
As delivered

Annelies [Annelies Vilim, Director, Global Responsibility], Karin [Karin Kniesel, Federal Minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Austria], ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much indeed.

Thank you for the invitation and I am delighted to be here in Vienna, the birthplace of multilateralism.

I do want to start by thanking our NGO partners for organizing this event. The Austrian Red Cross, Caritas, Global Responsibility, MSF, SOS Children’s Villages and others.

And on behalf of everybody I am sure, who is sitting on the front row seats with me this morning, I want to thank you in the civil society community for the outstanding work you do to relieve the suffering of people, who through absolutely no fault of their own bear the brunt of suffering in humanitarian crises around the world. Thank you very much indeed.

So, we are here today to take stock of humanitarian challenges around the world. There are problems that we will be dealing with in the next 20-30 years and how we build a better system to deal with them.

I am going to set out for you what I think are three big challenges and three big ways we need to build a better system.

Let me just start though, with a brief recap of where we have come from. I am basically an optimistic person. I think, if you spend 35 years, as I have done dealing with these kinds of problems, you have to hold on to the hope that things can be better. But probably my DNA makes me optimistic as well. But I think the facts give us reasons to be optimistic about some things.

Because over the last 50 years, which is basically my life span compared with the previous 150,000 years of human history there has been an enormous transformation. When I was born, most people on the planet lived lives that were characterized by hunger, lack of education, disease and brevity. People lived short lives - most of them. And over the last 50 years, what has happened is there has been a transformation in many parts of the world, across many countries.

These days, most children go to school, healthcare is better in most places, life expectancy has gone up a lot and far fewer people are hungry.

And if we can be inspired by the progress made in lots of places, we should believe that for the remaining problems we have those 150 million people - who Karin referred to and Annelies referred to - who are caught up in humanitarian crises, part of the probably 10 per cent of the world’s population, who live in the most extreme suffering it has to be possible to make progress for those people.

And is a strength that we have a humanitarian system that is more effective than it has ever been before and does a better job than previously despite all our challenges which I will come onto in relieving the suffering of those people.

Last year, the United Nations through our humanitarian work reached more than a 100 million people and we unquestionably saved millions of lives. Humanitarian agencies in total last year raised something like US$23 billion around the planet, of which $15 billion was raised for UN-coordinated response plans. Those are both record amounts of fund-raising. And to those people, who worry about compassion fatigue, what I say is my experience is that if the need is communicated clearly and donors believe that the money will be well-spent. It is possible to raise resources to reduce suffering in these crises.

Humanitarian response plans are more comprehensive, more effective than they have been before for all the continuing challenges that we face. And I could give you lots and lots of examples of where I think the system is staving off things that without the work of the humanitarian agencies be even be worse.

Let me just give you one. The place still where the humanitarian crisis is worse than anywhere else in the world is Yemen. Twenty-four million people, 80 per cent of the population in need of humanitarian assistance. Most of them are on the verge of survival. We had pledged for our appeal this year - $2.6 billion to relieve the suffering of those people.

There are 250 agencies working across Yemen. Thousands of aid workers mostly Yemenis working to relieve the suffering of their fellow Yemini systems. The UN’s World Food Programme is reaching 10 million people a month with food assistance keeping them alive. We have been able to stave off what has been the world’s worst outbreak of cholera in human history. But for the humanitarian response effort, we would unquestionably be today what would have been having a discussion on what would have been the greatest humanitarian tragedy in the 21st century, the loss of lives would easily run into millions. We have staved that off so far.

So, for all the challenges, I am about to get into, let us hold onto the recognition that without the humanitarian system things would be a lot worse.

Now, I could talk about many challenges that we face in the period ahead. But I just want to flag three which I think are particularly intractable. And I think if we can generate better collective progress on them, we can improve the world at a faster rate.

The first is how we deal better with those protracted conflict-driven crises, which generate mass displacement. So, I am talking about places like Syria, I am talking about places like Afghanistan.

Those places where the central problem is the behaviour of the men. And it is by the way mostly men with the guns and bombs. We need to find better ways of dealing with those kinds of crises.

Secondly, we need to find a better approach to deal with climate change-induced or related crises.

Three weeks ago, I was in Zimbabwe and Malawi. I went to Zimbabwe to launch our appeal for $234 million of humanitarian assistance to help the country cope with a combination of the drought and the economic crisis.

Then I went onto Malawi to look at the response effort to deal with the fact that last year’s harvest again because of erratic rains was inadequate to enable most subsistence farmers to survive. So, the effect of climate change in southern Africa is that there are fewer years in which for maize-dependant rainfed agriculture, subsistence farmers, the 90 days of adequate rain happens. There are a fewer years now that happens because of climate change.

And then of course, 10 days after that, we saw the impact of Cylcone Idai. Massive destruction across a great swathe of Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. Those problems -climate change leading to erratic harvests and extreme weather-events - are going to get more common in many places, we have to find a better way of dealing with them.

The third category that I think we need a better response to are those places where most of response seems to be dealing with symptoms rather than underlying causes. So, we are very concerned in the United Nations at the moment about the situation that the Sahelian countries face. And our analysis is essentially as follows: the combination of demographic pressures, population growth environmental stresses exacerbated by including climate change, governance problems – with too many governments not sufficiently responsive or accountable to the needs of their people and development failures.

A combination of those things is generating huge grievances. Grievances are being manifested in conflict insurgencies and increasingly terrorism. Those things are generating huge displacement, and destruction of livelihoods, so what we have at the moment is a public policy response – an international public policy response which is dealing with the symptoms. So, we are throwing humanitarian assistance at the problem of displacement and we are investing in military solutions to conflicts and terrorism. And what we are not doing in anything like adequate scale to addressing the underlying causes.

One thing I promise you is that if we keep working mostly on the symptoms the problem will get worse.

So those are three big challenges. Let me know give you three ways in which we can strengthen global efforts in the humanitarian system in particular to deal with some of these challenges. The first is although as I said the humanitarian system is effective and saves many lives, we do I think need to modernize the humanitarian financing system.

Firstly, we could be making much more use of private sector insurance systems. A significant proportion of the problems we are dealing with can be prepared for through insurance. So when the hurricanes hit the Caribbean, if you remember in September 2017, a number of countries had bought often with donor help insurance policies. And some of them like Dominica got an instant payout into the tens of millions of dollars with no appeal process or people like me ringing up generous countries asking for the money or any other process. Simply an instant payment because they bought insurance. In my opinion, if events like Cyclone Idai are also susceptible to treatment through insurance policies.

So that is the first area in which we need to strengthen the financing system.

The second area is to make much more use of what I would call contingency financing systems. Let me just give you an example to explain what I mean by that. I insure my house, I am guessing quite a few of you also insure your house as well. I do that because my insurance company will sell me a policy at a price that I think is value of money. They know that something happening to my house is unlikely – it is a rare event. So, they are willing to sell me a policy at a rate that I think is value for money.

There are some other things though that I think is not worth me buying an insurance policy for. So, for example, I do not insure my children’s iPads. My insurance company’s experience with me on that score is such that they are willing to sell me a policy only at a price that I don’t think is value for money. So, I have a contingency financing system that I run for my children’s iPads. They know when there is a problem, the contingency is that I will solve the problem. They have a 100 per cent confidence in that on the basis of their experience. There is a little social contract implicit there.

Now the same concept is applicable to crises that we deal with which are no so insurable.

So, one very clear example of this is the case of drought in Somalia. Somalia, we know will be subject to recurrent drought. Because it will happen so often an insurance company will only sell an insurance policy to deal with it at an extortionist rate. So, it is much better to put in place pre-agreed contingency financing through shared institutions.

So instead of doing what we do at the moment watch the problem grow and develop and people like me ring up, launch appeals and some months later the money come through, we have a much more automatic system. And some of our shared intuitions like the World Bank, and we have Franck Bousquet from the World Bank sitting with us this morning, have products such as the Deferred Drawdown Option that deal with exactly that problem. And we need to make greater use of those products.

The third thing we need to do in modernising the humanitarian financing system is have a much stronger focus on early action. We are trying to develop ideas for that through the Central Emergency Response Fund, which is a voluntary fund, which that I run, which is funded by Member States of the United Nations. For example, at the end of last year, we provided $10 million to the countries neighbouring the Democratic Republic of the Congo to help them prepare against the very real risk of Ebola crossing the border from Congo to South Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda. We know if those countries weren’t well-prepared that could cause a massive problem.

So, acting early on something which is very likely to happen is something we need to do more often in the humanitarian financing system.

And then lastly on modernizing the humanitarian financing system – we need to sort in the traditional elements of the system, which is largely what my office coordinates, assessing needs, response plans and raising money we need to deal much more with the fact that as the kind of crises we have. So, most of the crises we are dealing with are protracted and yet we seek to raise money one year at a time. That is not the smartest approach. We would do much better if we sought to raise multi-year money. We would do much better if we invested in the groups that are the most vulnerable in those crises specially women and girls, specially people with disabilities, especially other marginalized groups who are under-supported in most crises at the moment. So, modernize the humanitarian financing system.

The second thing we need to do into the future is address the observable declining compliance with as Karin says, “the laws of war”. The single biggest cause of suffering is declining compliance with international humanitarian law. This is what men with guns and bombs do.

Now, on Monday, Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross and I will be making our pitch to UN Security Council on what as a practical matter can be done to reverse this declining compliance with the laws of war and have better upholding with international humanitarian laws.

We need to be realistic that the state of dialogue in the UN Security Council is what it is. You know the members of the Security Council are not agreeing on everything at the moment as you may have noticed But I do think, maybe Peter will comment more on this, there are a range of areas where it is possible to make progress in reducing the deleterious impact of the behaviour of the men with the guns and the bombs. And this is a very good year to be having a focus on that because this is the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Geneva protocols.

And the third area that we need to strengthen the system is to move beyond simply mitigating suffering to have the humanitarian system contribute more to solutions. The thing I have just said some years ago would have been a very controversial thing to say. There is a very strong spirit which came from very worthy and laudable perspective of separating humanitarian action from everything else. But I think in the modern world, the smart thing to do particularly because there is a huge amount of resource and capability and ability to offer solutions from the humanitarian sector is to put that to work for the people who are suffering in these crises.

Joining up better between the humanitarian track and the development track and also political solutions -again as Karin was talking about. But I think in fact is the humanitarian thing to do. If we do that better, then we will be successful in what I think should be our most important aspiration which is to reduce the need for humanitarian assistance. It is not from my point of view a good thing, that last year we needed to raise a record amount of money for humanitarian response. That is not a success measure. Last year we raised $15 billion, 10 years ago we needed to raise something $5 billion. So, it would be a success measure if we make progress in addressing the underlying issues – it is some of the things that that I talked about – if we get back closer to where we were 10 years ago. Not by caring less about people suffering but at by doing better in solving their problems.

Thank you very much indeed.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
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