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Can the UN’s new humanitarian chief be a reformer?

‘Appointing a nearly 70-year-old white man is not a great look.’

John MacDougall/Pool/REUTERS

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Welcomed by some as a solid choice, the appointment of Martin Griffiths as the UN’s next humanitarian chief is seen by others as a missed opportunity for transforming an aid sector being urged to listen to – and become more representative of – affected people.

Diplomats and aid sources told The New Humanitarian that Griffiths, currently its peace envoy for Yemen, would later today be chosen to replace Mark Lowcock as the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator – the fifth Briton in a row to hold the post. 

UN Secretary-General António Guterres picked Griffiths after two rounds of interviews, according to humanitarian officials familiar with the process. The post has been traditionally held by British people as part of a five-way division of key UN jobs between permanent UN Security Council members China, France, Russia, the UK, and the United States. 

Campaigners (and The New Humanitarian) had called for an open contest and a merit-based selection, asking that Guterres put aside the unfair advantage given to the so-called P5. He was also under pressure to select female, non-British, and non-white candidates – to respond to growing calls for more diversity in the top levels of the UN and the aid sector as a whole. 

The British government proposed a different man, civil servant Nick Dyer, according to UN officials and diplomats. Dyer was formerly the top civil servant in the UK’s now-folded development ministry, DFID. Britain’s historical claim to a top UN job was further undermined by a recent decision by the Conservative government to slash its aid budget.

Griffiths, 69, is a diplomat with significant humanitarian experience. In 1998-1999, he was deputy head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the division of 2,200 UN staff he will soon lead.

“Appointing a nearly 70-year-old white man is not a great look,” Sara Pantuliano, chief executive of the UK-based Overseas Development Institute, told The New Humanitarian. “But he stood as an independent candidate and was not the person the British government had put forward.”

“He will bring enormous credibility to the role and is somebody the humanitarian community respects deeply,” she added.

Arbie Baguios, founder of Aid Re-imagined, an initiative that advocates for a more effective and just aid sector, said he has no doubt about Griffiths' personal ability. But, he noted, it is barely a month since Lowcock, his predecessor, said that one of the biggest problems of the humanitarian sector was that it doesn’t listen to local people.

“Local actors – alongside many people in international organisations – for the longest time have said they want to be represented in our sector's leadership,” said Baguios. “This could have been an opportunity to signal that the UN is finally listening, but in their first big act since Lowcock's speech, they've already failed.”

Griffiths’ new position, officially the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC), aims to not only pull together the UN’s relief efforts but also to coordinate the wider efforts of up to a 1,000 NGOs, governments, and other players. 

OCHA raised $266 million in 2020, the largest donors being the United States, the UK, and Sweden. It also manages a global reserve fund topped up by multiple donors, worth $624 million in 2020 and $863 million in other pooled funds geared to specific countries.

“Of course staff wanted new energy, a different profile, a bit of a shake-up – to walk the talk of cultural change, gender-balance, empowering women’s leadership,” said an OCHA staff member, who asked not to be named. “At the same time, he’s highly respected, has a deep knowledge of the humanitarian system, relationships with donors and, importantly, is familiar with the thorny world of conflict and peace negotiations.”

Calls for reform

Griffiths started his career as a British diplomat, moving on to UNICEF and UK-based NGOs. After several years in humanitarian affairs at the UN, including stints in the Balkans and central Africa, he co-founded a mediation non-profit in Geneva. He returned to the UN in 2012 to work for UN envoys to Syria before becoming director of the European Institute of Peace.

Appointed special envoy to Yemen in 2018, Griffiths has struggled to end a regionalised conflict that pits a UN-recognised Yemen government backed by Saudi Arabia against Houthi opponents supported by Iran. Aid has become a weapon in the six-year war.

“His success has been modest in Yemen, but most humanitarian careers are a litany of failure because of the limits of the job,” said Mukesh Kapila, a former UN humanitarian official and professor emeritus of global health and humanitarian affairs at the University of Manchester. “The levers [to effect change] don’t lie within the humanitarian sphere – they are political.”

Griffiths’ appointment comes at a time when humanitarian reforms – including an agenda to put more aid in the hands of local people and for humanitarian action to be more efficient, diverse, and accountable – have little momentum.

Despite Griffiths’ experience, “he comes from the more traditional humanitarian world, led by the [Global] North. I’m not sure how he will deal with the deeper transformation of the humanitarian system that’s needed,” said Pantuliano. “For him to be successful, he needs to show that he’s aware and can lead the change. Being able to flip it on its head will be the litmus test.”

For Kapila, there are two aspects to reform – a bureaucratic process to make humanitarian action more effective, and a larger more inspirational approach that tackles the political drivers of crises.

“I don’t think re-ordering the flow of paper clips is his forte or a good use of his time: I hope he can get a good deputy that supervises the paper clips,” he said. “For the wider transformation of the sector as a whole, he’s reaching the end of his career, he can afford to be bold and upset people. There’s everything to be gained from being a transformer and almost nothing to lose.”

Baguios of Aid Re-Imagined urged Griffiths to begin reforms right away.

“So many of us are beginning to seriously imagine how to create an anti-racist, decolonial future where people most affected by crises take the leading role in finding solutions to their own problems,” he said. “So, even at this stage, I invite Mr Griffiths to already think about his legacy: Under his leadership, will OCHA be an outdated institution to be left behind, or will it join the rest of us in trying to create a more equitable and just humanitarian system that's fit for the future?”


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