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The UN in 2023

Palais des Nations, Geneva Edgar Mwakaba/IRIN
Palais des Nations, Geneva

The UN and other aid agencies face ever-increasing levels of humanitarian need: the number of recorded disasters has doubled in the past two decades, according to the UN, while the needs-response gap remains stubbornly steady in the context of a shifting humanitarian landscape - with the dominance of UN agencies and the largest 10 international NGOs gradually being eroded as power shifts to the east and south.

Against this backdrop loom a number of risks that could drive the disasters of the future and for which many humanitarians are unprepared: new disease outbreaks, growing water scarcity, crises hitting mega-cities, cyber-crime, biological and chemical weapons. IRIN asked analysts and UN staff what broad changes in approach, structure and attitude UN agencies need to make to become fit to better tackle our humanitarian future.

Over the past decade the UN has made significant reforms to improve its humanitarian response, many of them positive: protection of civilians is now more central to UN operations; internally displaced people are no longer overlooked; several agencies, including the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), are reaching out to a more diverse set of humanitarian partners; and accountability to beneficiaries is increasingly a focus (linked to the real-time scrutiny made possible by social media.)

Norms and guidelines have been strengthened. UN agencies and NGOs have improved their work in every phase of the programme cycle, says Paul Knox-Clarke, head of research and communications at learning network ALNAP, from early warning to needs assessment, from programme implementation to evaluations.

“Many of the traditional challenges - that assessments are not coordinated, that methodologies don’t match up - are being addressed,” he told IRIN.

Humanitarian response is increasingly driven by evidence rather than anecdote, which marks a “profound shift”, says Peter Walker, head of Tufts University’s International Feinstein Center, “akin to the change in how health care was delivered in the 1970s and 1980s.”

Emergency Relief coordinators and humanitarian coordinators now garner more respect (or at least agency heads turn up to their meetings); there is more transparency across the funding spectrum - 160 agencies and donors have signed up to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), and clusters and pooled funds have improved how the UN organizes itself and coordinates in some response settings.

But change in the UN’s humanitarian sector has too often been incremental, amounting to add-on individual initiatives, rather than involving major structural change and an overhaul of approach, processes and attitudes, say critics. A number of evaluations have pushed for the UN to be more anticipatory, more strategic, more innovative, and to harness the power of the UN’s many branches to anticipate and prepare for future crises.

Individual initiatives are tackling aspects of this - for instance OCHA’s “transformative agenda” draws on learning from the Haiti earthquake and Pakistan floods to try to improve accountability, strategic planning, coordination and leadership. But the revolutionary changes that are needed, are not happening, say analysts.

As Randolph Kent, long-term humanitarian leader with the UN and now head of King’s College Humanitarian Futures Programme (HFP), put it: “What company in the world, that is surviving, has not had a fundamental change in its business model or operating procedure for 60 years?”

Analysts and staff made the following recommendations:

Open up club membership

The most powerful actors in the humanitarian sector are still Western in orientation and assumption, say critics, which has created a “two-tier system” of those who are in and out of the club. The UN risks forgetting about the contributions of the informal humanitarian community - grassroots groups, civil society groups, the Diaspora, host communities, said Ed Schenkenberg van Meirop, head of humanitarian think-tank DARA. “Many still think everything happens in the humanitarian country team,” he said.

Some agencies are making valiant attempts to reach out to other actors without realizing that the rules of the club may need to change. “The traditional humanitarian community tries to turn itself into an exclusive club and now it is reaching out to “non”-traditional members to ask if they want to join. We shouldn’t be surprised when countries turn around and say No,” said van Meirop, referring to Turkey which decided to act outside the cluster system, in Somalia. New actors, like China and Qatar, may not agree on the club rules, stressed Antonio Donini, a senior researcher at the Feinstein Center, who worked with the UN for 26 years.

“There’s a need to open up these rules or re-discuss them… [using] an openness that so far we have not seen,” said Walker. It requires traditional actors: UN agencies and the nine or so largest international NGOs - to “let go”, he said. “The recent trajectory has been to concentrate, not disperse, power. This will challenge the way business has been done for the past 30 years.”

Likewise on humanitarian principles - do not water them down, says Cyprien Fabre, head of European Union aid body ECHO in West Africa, (they already have been), but try to understand different perspectives - some NGOs prioritize justice over impartiality - and come to a mutual understanding.

What can you do for me?

Re-jigging the power imbalances that are so integral to the humanitarian system must also feature in a transformed relationship between humanitarian “givers” and “takers”, says Kent. “We’ve moved away from the sense of the hapless victim, but we are still a system that inherently promotes a sense of inequality… We need something more interactive… something more along the lines of: I can offer you this, and you can offer me that.” For instance, in Ghana excellent work is under way about climate change adaptation - someone should be questioning how to apply that expertise in the UK, or India. “That is a more interesting perspective,” he said.

Humanitarians of the future need to test public-private partnerships and business models, and give the space for innovation and embrace the risk that this entails. “A government may not want another international NGO in its country, but it might like having a private sector company that may have an enduring interest in the country. Might Johnson & Johnson, for example, be as or even more effective in promoting health than an NGO,” queried Kent. “Do we understand how business can promote sustainability and resilience? Can OCHA set up a platform in collaboration with the World Economic Forum to demonstrate how innovations and innovative practices coming from the private sector and other non-traditional actors can strengthen crisis prevention, preparedness, response and post-crisis recovery?”

UN agencies need to “support people to take risks and put money behind good ideas,” said OCHA humanitarian affairs officer Andy Thow. “Most good ideas come from national or regional staff, not from headquarters,” he said.

Some agencies, such as the World Food Programme, are engaging in these debates; systematically addressing how markets can deliver food, and how they can help them to, through cash or other approaches. “This challenges the notion of humanitarians as food or health deliverers. It’s very interesting and we’re just at the beginning of this debate,” said Walker.

Advocate, anticipate and lead

Over recent years, many analysts have stressed the need for the UN to concentrate on improving leadership, advocacy and strategy in humanitarian crises. “UN agencies must tackle these issues over the next 10 years if they are to improve the quality of responses globally”, said Sara Pantuliano, head of the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

If UN agencies come together to collectively set standards, monitor the quality of response, disseminate lessons learned, and improve and monitor progress on disaster risk reduction, early warning and preparedness, “now that would be remarkable,” said one interviewee. This would involve visionary thinking but also lightening up daily administrative processes (tasks like hiring staff or procuring equipment require endless steps and form-filling) and opening space for longer-term planning. A 2011 HFP study of six UN country teams, judged the majority of agency leader’s staff time was spent on short-term planning tasks.

Opinions differ on whether implementing operations weakens UN agencies’ capacity to advocate on complex issues of humanitarian principle - like access in Syria. It depends on the context, says von Meirop: in a Syria-type context where the government is a party to conflict, strong, punchy advocacy might have more ultimate impact if not trying also to implement. “Let’s not be naive, the political agenda dominates everything… In a context like this, accountability goes way beyond communicating with disaster affected populations. It is about involvement and participation and choice. Take those Syrian refugees who are forced - by host governments - to live in camps, which are often criminalized and dangerous - rather than settling with families.

“Accountability is working out the best way to protect them and help them to retain their dignity.”

Better leadership on all of these fronts might involve a move towards genuine coherence. “We’ve broken up the needs of human beings into different agencies, many of which have different accountability frameworks - it doesn’t make sense,” said a UN staff member. Bringing agencies together under fewer roofs would solve a lot of problems around institutional turf and mandates. However, such an ambitious project would have to be Member State driven, and “Member States don’t want this - they like having a say over their individual UN agency.”

Pitching for multi-sectoral funding ought to be more manageable, though cluster-led coordination has pushed for more demarcation. Funding reform is way overdue, said the staff member. "We haven't adapted the CAP [Consolidated Appeals Process] in 10 years... People should have figured it out by now."

Security crossroads?

Innovation and risk-taking should extend to UN security protocols and policies, said several interviewees, arguing that in complex emergencies such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, the UN’s role has shrunk because of risk averse policies that severely limit the UN’s access to communities in need. If the UN does not figure out more flexible ways to work and stay in complex emergencies, “it could become irrelevant in politicized crises,” warned Pantuliano. Another critic summed it up: "It's just MSF and the ICRC who are out there."

Allegra Baiocchi, head of OCHA in West Africa, told IRIN: “We need to be able to be nimble, flexible, rapid,” when it comes to security decisions… "We need better intelligence of risks that are connected to operations rather than siloed in separate departments. Security incidents set back operations by months, even years. I think we are at a security crossroads - we need to work on our acceptance but also improve our security management systems.”

Syria is a "watershed moment" said von Meirop. "It should be the catalyst for finding the way to be more effective in situations of armed conflict. And that includes the coordination role of the UN."

Catch up on accountability

In line with inhabiting its leadership role, the UN should find ways to navigate, verify and authenticate the mass of information that emerges from crowd-sourcing and social media, so that communities, authorities and aid agencies, can use it better. In 10 years’ time agencies will have to have realized that information is a right in crises - something as important as food or shelter, says Walker. And “this speaks to OCHA’s very mandate and mission,” he said.

What won’t we do?

Over the next decade UN and other humanitarian agencies need to more clearly define what they will and will not do. “That conversation about what we are here to do, about what the system is, who is in it and what their roles are, needs to be had,” said Knox-Clarke. “If you see it as a universal fire service that will respond to each disaster and save all lives possible, and then add to that prevention, early recovery, and resilience, then that is very ambitious and a lot more capacity is needed.” But if the role is just stepping in when the state cannot or will not respond, it may be more manageable.

The current mismatch between what defines humanitarian aid and how it is used must be cleared up, agrees Walker. “The nub of humanitarian aid is providing a light in the darkness - and accepting that we can only really deal with symptoms,” said Walker. This includes protecting people from fear and violence - including sexual violence - which while improved in some areas (child protection, say), still lacks the leadership and coherence of one agency to drive it forward. “But that is very different from where the money goes.” As Development Initiatives' funding specialist Oliver Buston put it: "You would come up with a very different programme if you were funding a decade-long $500 million project in Sudan versus 10 one-year $50 million projects."

The top 10 recipients of humanitarian aid have changed little year on year over the past decade - Sudan, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Somalia, Afghanistan among them.  He went on to say that that is where resilience comes in: an activity that must be politically-driven, and involves long-term flexible funding. As Kent said, “The UN has a profoundly important role to play, but not the one it is doing."

Let governments lead on resilience

UN humanitarian agencies cannot drive the resilience debate, says Baiocchi. They must involve the entire UN Development Group, including the UN Development Programme, UN Division for Sustainable Development, and the monetary institutions, regional organizations and national stakeholders. “Take the Hyogo Framework for Action”, said Mihir Joshi, coordinator of the Asian Disaster Reduction and Response Network (ADRRN), “This must contribute to each of the post-2015 development goals, or resilience will go nowhere.”

And in many cases this will involve supporting national capacity to respond. “We say we want to work with governments, build a real partnership, but do we really?” asked Biaocchi. “With actively engaged governments, we say they’re interfering - we’re quite schizophrenic about this.” Some need less help - Mozambique, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, have significantly improved their ability to respond to large-scale disasters and in these instances UN agencies will need to step back and play a service role.

“The traditional view of many northern aid agencies is to build capacity through a workshop,” said Jemilah Mahmood, ex-president of NGO Mercy Malaysia. “That’s not what’s needed: it means money, people to be seconded into local authorities to strengthen them internally."

Ultimately, building this capacity and focusing on resilience “is not up to ECHO or the UN or the World Bank, but it’s up to governments,” said Fabre. “Unless there is political will to push this, you can put in as much money as you want, but it won’t make a difference. That change has to come from within.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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