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United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Martin Griffiths Remarks at Opening of ECOSOC Humanitarian Affairs Segment

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UN Headquarters, New York, 21 June 2022

Thank you very much indeed, Mr. Vice President, thank you, Mr. President.

Excellencies, ladies, gentlemen, colleagues, aid workers, diplomats,

It’s very good to be here with you today on this important occasion.

I have long held a deep conviction that, to borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King, the arc of human history bends towards progress.

And I am an optimist by nature, and by professional requirement.

Health care, education, action against poverty, reducing hunger and eliminating violence.

Humanity has made tremendous gains in all these areas.

But my conviction in the inevitability of human progress has been shaken. The global megacrises we face today, and I have already heard about from previous speakers, are growing at a speed and scale that threatens to undo decades of hard-won progress in many parts of the world.

We are seeing a surge in human suffering almost everywhere.

The number of people who need humanitarian assistance, we estimate to be over 300 million, and it has never been that high before.

Hunger and food insecurity, again as we have heard, are at unprecedented levels.

Hundreds of thousands of people, it is estimated up to three quarter of a million people, are on the verge of famine in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen.

The number of displaced people, as the President himself referred to, and refugees has now topped 100 million, a historic marker.

Women and girls, as always and still now, are experiencing a shadow pandemic of violence and a rollback of their rights. A “crise cachée” as it was described to me recently in Mali.

The rapidly escalating climate and ecological crisis, of course, pours fuel on the flames, eroding human life-support systems.

And now the war in Ukraine has led us to a cost-of-living crisis, driving up the prices, across the world, of fuel, fertilizer and food.

And combined, those factors are pushing millions more people into critical need.

The humanitarian system, that we are all very privileged to be part of, should be ready to help, but is already under immense strain.

But if my conviction in progress has been shaken, my faith in humanity’s ability to address even the most pernicious problems has not.

I have seen, as you have, humanitarians pull off the near-impossible in the most difficult and harshest of conditions. I have seen peace suddenly flourish in the most intractable of crises. God bless the leadership of Yemen. And in recent years, collective action has prevented famine in South Sudan, Yemen and Somalia against the greatest of odds. And every day, every month, every week of this year, humanitarian aid workers are reaching millions of people around the world.

But the scale of today’s megacrises requires a new approach.

Humanitarian appeals, for 2022, currently add up to $46 billion for the year. We usually receive just over half of that. Demands keep growing, as we have all observed already this morning, and aid budgets struggle to keep up. Clearly, we can’t go on like this, getting trapped in this cycle of needs growing and funding staying flat, year by year.

And I have said another council that, for example, in Syria we fail more and more people who deserve our assistance and who need it, year by year.

So we need to shift our tactics. And I would like to suggest six ways in which we might observe that.

First, we need to see a free flow of food across the planet by making surplus stocks available and removing blockages of trade in food and fertilizers. And this of course is a daily focus of our discussion in this building and elsewhere.

Second, I feel very strongly that we need to be more accountable, in a fundamental way, in a paradigm shift, to the people that we serve in the humanitarian enterprise, to put their needs and priorities at the heart of everything we do. Not just to listen to them but to be instructed by them.

We must genuinely change course and apply ourselves to meet the demands of people who know their own interests and needs better than we do.

Third, we should try to reject any artificial barriers that stop us finding solutions, and building resilience: the humanitarian, development and peace-making communities, and I have been in all three of those in years gone by, need to work together. And we need to accept that we will also be working together, not one following the other, but all working at the same time to meet the needs of those communities. Communities don’t distinguish between life-saving and the future, they want both. And we must be there ready to provide what they need.

Fourth, we need to work harder on humanitarian negotiations and access – in Ethiopia ambassador Taye is here, in Central Sahel where I was recently, in Ukraine, in Yemen. All of these places demand that we focus on access to people in hard-to-reach situations. Ensuring access is not an on-off switch, it is not a visit, it is not a mission. It’s a continuous conversation and a continuous effort. Our community is full of activists and leaders, well-capable, extremely experienced in the hard work of negotiating and relationship-building that will ensure we reach the people most in need. And it is about relationships, and it is about trust, and it is about understanding.

Fifth, the humanitarian sector must be as anticipatory as possible. So we need to be prepared for what happens, six months from now. In the case of natural disasters, we have opportunities to be better prepared to put aid in place, to preserve assets in case of crises. And we need to do this more frequently, more reliably and again in consent with those communities that will be hit.

Last, I think it’s way beyond time to allow, and insist on, and require, and plan for, a bigger role for local NGOs, civil society and aid agencies. They are the ones on the ground, on the front line.
Day in, day out, they are the ones confronting the extreme deprivations and they know the relationship with communities better than we do. They see suffering every single day and they know what is needed to make a real difference and they are our messengers, as well as our advocates, as well as our deliverers. We need to empower them, we need to bring them closer into our councils and we need to support them in their efforts and in their desire to extend their reach.

Unless we act, today of course, but in the weeks and months to come, we know what will happen this time next year. I will be back, with a larger bill, and a bigger gap. I will be back describing how the arc of history bends in an opposite direction.

Hard-won gains, particularly development gains, governance gains, social gains and social protection in many of our countries are threatened by the scourge of hunger, food insecurity, conflict and climate change. Human progress doesn’t seem to be guaranteed any longer. I believe we have it in our power, perhaps with the elements I’ve suggested like many others, to address the challenges to overcome them.

We know we can deliver a better future for all. And we know from every family in the world, they want to survive today, but build tomorrow, for their family and for their children and for their society. We need to be there with them on that journey.

Thank you very much.

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UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
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