Yemen + 5 more

Acting Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, Ramesh Rajasingham lecture to Columbia School of International and Public Affairs on the United Nations' role in the humanitarian system

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Originally published


Thanks very much indeed.

It is a pleasure to be with you today and among such an impressive and diverse group of students and the likely future humanitarian practitioners, policy and decision makers, influencers and global citizens.

Columbia University and its School of International and Public Affairs need no introduction. But I still had a quick look at your website when I was invited to speak. And what really struck a chord with me is that SIPA takes pride in educating professionals who work in public, private and nonprofit organizations with the goal that we all want of making a difference in the world.

That is a goal that we at the United Nations and the humanitarian family share with you. As we’re often reminded, our work is much more than a job, it’s a mission, it’s a cause, to help save and improve lives.

I will be discussing current humanitarian priorities. I’ll give you a snapshot of the UN’s humanitarian response to them. As you will hear, there is a lot of work ahead of us.

Let me start by exploring some of the pressing crises and issues that preoccupy us today.
The Global Humanitarian Overview, what we call the GHO, which is managed by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, estimates now that 235 million people will need humanitarian assistance to survive this year.

This marks an extraordinary 40 per cent rise in needs over last year – and it is almost entirely due to the indirect impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To meet the needs of the most vulnerable 160 million among them, we require $35 billion.

The pandemic forced up poverty levels for the first time in 20 years.

It led hunger levels to double, reaching 270 million severely food insecure people in what the World Food Programme calls “a pandemic on top of a pandemic.”

At the worst extremes this hunger crisis has turned into a threat of famine in several countries, including in Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Sudan and Yemen.

It left 168 million children out of school for a year or longer, interrupting their access not only to learning but also nutritious meals.

And by far - and we know this for sure - the worst-affected group are girls. They will be the last to return to school or may never return to school at all as they have now become breadwinners for their impoverished families, or have been forced into exploitative work and early marriages.

These trends reverse decades of really hard-won progress to close the education gender gap.

This heightened vulnerability came on top of pre-existing high levels of humanitarian suffering, which was driven by prolonged conflicts that see no resolution; the forced displacement they cause; and weather shocks increasingly linked to the climate crisis.

Most countries with the highest levels of need experience multiple mutually reinforcing crises simultaneously. Thirteen of the 20 countries most vulnerable to climate change had a UN humanitarian response plan last year, and almost all are experiencing violence, instability or armed conflict.

In response to these needs, each year humanitarian agencies carry out complex large-scale assistance operations.

These incorporate food aid and cash assistance; healthcare and nutrition; water and sanitation; protection and counselling; support to agriculture and livestock and other livelihoods.

The humanitarian agencies that respond include not only the UN agencies such as the World Food Programme, UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, UNICEF, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, OCHA but also the International Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement, international and national NGOs and civil society organizations - which increasingly carry much of the risk in this system - as well as Governments and the private sector.

OCHA plays a coordinating role in the ‘formal’ humanitarian system and its head is also the system’s head – known as the Emergency Relief Coordinator. This is a role mandated through a 1991 General Assembly resolution. I often visualize this role as a conductor of an orchestra. Everyone playing their instruments perfectly, but without coordination the collective tunes might be less than ideal.

Coordination spans planning joint needs assessments, coordinating on the ground operations, as well as raising financing, sharing information and data, and coordinating advocacy messaging on behalf of people in crises to global leaders and audiences.
At the same time – and I think your course reading touched on this – operations on the ground are organized into ‘clusters’ known as the cluster system, so that each sector, be it education, nutrition or health, is led by a specific agency.

And of course, not all NGOs choose to be part of this formal system – they raise their own appeals and organize themselves on their own.

Last year, in response to the pandemic, OCHA coordinated the Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19, which called for US$10 billion to support 63 vulnerable countries hard-hit by direct and indirect impacts of the pandemic.

This was on top of a pre-existing humanitarian appeal for US$29 billion to meet pre-Covid humanitarian needs.

Nearly all of these countries were experiencing protracted crisis.

By the end of the reporting cycle donors had given almost $19 billion for humanitarian response, but the sheer scale of need meant this met just under half of humanitarian requirements.

Nonetheless, with the funding received partners assisted 98 million people – or 70 per cent of the people targeted.

This year funding shortages will continue to put enormous strain on the humanitarian system. While most donors have increased their aid spending, some – notably the UK – have slashed aid budgets, which will have real consequences on vulnerable populations.

Perhaps the greatest priority that the humanitarian system and all leaders need to tackle is the rising risk of famine.

We have it in our power to relegate famine to the annals of history. Analysis has shown that this would take roughly US$10 billion a year. This may sound like a lot, but it is a paltry amount when compared to the stimulus packages governments have launched for their own citizens. Expanding drawing rights from international financial institutions such as the IMF, are one of several innovative ways that have been posited to raise these funds.

To see this work in greater focus, I’ll turn to three crises – Yemen the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, Afghanistan – one of its oldest – and Burkina Faso, perhaps one of its most overlooked.

First, to Yemen, where years of war have left the economy on the brink of collapse, and mean two-thirds of the population need humanitarian assistance and protection.

Life for the average Yemeni has become unbearable. Two thirds of Yemenis need humanitarian assistance to survive. More than 16 million people will face hunger this year and nearly 50,000 Yemenis are already starving to death in famine-like conditions. OCHA regularly briefs the Security Council on the humanitarian situation in Yemen. Here are some of the grim themes from these briefings.

The protection of civilians needs to be upheld – civilians have been bombed and shelled, 4 million have been forcibly displaced. The latest round of open conflict is in Marib in the north, with the front lines dangerously close to civilian areas.

To reach people in need we need humanitarian access – something that is negotiated and agreed ahead of time. OCHA manages a ‘humanitarian notification mechanism’ in Yemen which informs Coalition forces of the locations of humanitarian movements and premises, to protect operations so they can continue. This enables the Coalition to fulfil its obligation under international humanitarian law to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure in conflict.

Similar notifications also go to Houthi forces.

In 2020 the system processed 13,500 notifications, 98 per cent of these were acknowledged by the Coalition. But aid agencies continue to face administrative hurdles, as well as insecurity that hampers their ability to reach all in need. It’s the enemy of life-saving operations.

And next, funding. Two years ago humanitarian agencies staved off famine in Yemen as donors took note, and stepped up their funding. And last year we reached more than 10 million people a month across all of Yemen’s 333 districts.

But this year, severe funding shortages mean many families get just half the food they need.

At a High-Level pledging conference for Yemen held two weeks ago, we received only US$1.7 billion in pledges – less than half of the $3.8 billion needed to avert famine.

These shortages will force humanitarians to make brutal life and decisions about how and where to prioritize aid.

The only end to all this suffering is progress towards peace and agreement of a nationwide ceasefire. The UN has welcomed the US’s affirmation of the importance of diplomacy to end this war.

And part of the recovery – if and when it comes – will involve economic support through injections of foreign exchange that can bring the exchange rate to a more sustainable level, as well as keeping ports open to enable imports of essential goods.

Recovery is often a distant dream in conflict-ridden countries. Take Afghanistan, which has experienced 40 years of war, compounded by devastating droughts linked to climate change.

I went to Afghanistan at the end of 2020 to see for myself the impact of this endless violence.

The number of people in Afghanistan who need emergency aid has almost doubled in two years, to reach over 18 million. Some 5 million people are one step away from famine.

But despite these staggering numbers, I saw glimmers of hope. Dialogue between the Government and the Taliban towards resolving conflict has renewed.

And we can see opportunities where simple support to basic services through more sustainable programming – let’s say for example in the periphery of Kabul where you have irregular-favela like communities, including displaced people, barely surviving without access to these services.

Where there is opportunity we have to take it and be innovative in the way we programme – it cannot be same old, same old. We need new more community-based partnerships attending to their specific needs. These communities themselves need to own the programme. How we go about this depends very much on the level of risk we are prepared to absorb.

Finally to a crisis that is quietly burning as the world turns the other way: Burkina Faso, which is part of a wider spiraling crisis across the Central Sahel region.

The violence is largely fomented by extremist groups, and is wrapped up in struggles over land and resources, combined with fragile basic services, fragile governments, prolonged, intermittent droughts linked to climate change, and endemic poverty.

By the end of 2019 Burkina Faso had one of the world’s fastest growing displacement crises, with 1 million people forced to flee their homes.

Our humanitarian priorities include helping the Government establish safe conditions for returns. Massively scaling up humanitarian operations– and raising the funding to do so.

Lasting solutions must include better economic opportunities for young people. Building up the country’s basic services. Strengthening good governance. And very importantly, empowering women and girls.

All of these solutions go beyond the humanitarian mandate and involve stronger collaboration between the humanitarian and development sectors, and in some cases peace actors as well - as well as Governments, to bridge the humanitarian to development divide.

Some are trying to do this. The World Bank for instance, has launched a ‘prevention and resilience allocation’ to boost water, health and other basic services for the most vulnerable people.

I had the opportunity while in Burkina Faso recently, to visit the city of Kaya, just northeast of the capital Ouagadougou. There, UNICEF has linked its emergency water services to a longer-term plan to expand the Government’s water network. This is a great example of the kinds of sustainable solutions these fragile situations need.
These stronger collaborations are one way the humanitarian response sector is innovating.

Another important way is by shifting from a response-led approach to an anticipatory one.

Traditionally humanitarian agencies and donors are set up to watch crises unfold, at which point they mobilize the funding and logistics to mount a reactive response.

Shifting to an anticipatory approach means forecasting data to identify shocks which, when they reach a specific pre-agreed threshold – a certain amount of rainfall say, or the price of wheat in the market – will trigger an automatic response.

The idea is to avert crises before they happen. This approach must be underpinned by accurate data, and strong analysis, which is driving innovation across the humanitarian sector.

Findings from the growing number of anticipatory pilots around the world show this approach is swifter and has more reach thus saving lives and reducing suffering. And it is far cheaper and is more dignified for affected people

Today roughly less than 1 per cent of humanitarian funding currently goes to anticipatory financing. But we are setting out to increase this proportion.

So I hope I have given a sense of a few of the humanitarian crises and themes that we are currently grappling with.

And I hope that many of you will become future partners, who can help address the drivers of humanitarian need and deliver on the vision of the world we have at OCHA. That is, a world that quickly and effectively comes together to help crisis-affected people get the humanitarian assistance and protection they need.

I am now open to answering any of your questions.

Thank you.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
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