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As the UN’s ‘fixer-in-chief’ steps down, a look at Martin Griffiths’ record

‘God knows, it’s a bad world.’

United Nations (UN) Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths gestures as he stands near damaged buildings, in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake, in Aleppo, Syria February 13, 2023. Firas Makdesi/Reuters
United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths gestures as he stands near damaged buildings, in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake, in Aleppo, Syria, on 13 February 2023.

After three years, multiple crises, and an increasingly fractured global landscape, the United Nations’s relief chief, Martin Griffiths, is stepping down for health reasons. 

The under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator (ERC) is set to leave the job with widespread praise for his role as a skilled mediator and diplomat who did his best to alleviate human suffering amid heinous violence.

But there’s also criticism that the leader of the UN’s humanitarian aid coordination arm, OCHA, has not done enough to help in some long-running conflicts, nor shifted the needle on the aid sector’s agenda to shift power by making aid more locally driven.

Griffiths stepped down at the end of June. As of 3 July, UN Secretary-General António Guterres had not named a replacement.

Amid overlapping emergencies, tight funding, and a crisis of multilateralism, observers said a highly skilled successor, who can both play politics and fundraise, will be needed to lead OCHA – and the broader emergency relief sector – through this era of polycrisis.

A ‘fixer-in-chief’

Griffiths received praise from humanitarian sector observers for his hands-on approach to a difficult job in a difficult time. The career humanitarian, diplomat, and mediator faced successive major emergencies as soon as he started his role in July 2021: in Ethiopia, Haiti, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Sudan, Türkiye and Syria, and Gaza. 

“I leave this job with a sense of work unfulfilled because the world is a worse place now than when I joined up in 2021,” Griffiths said in a 4 June speech, in which he reflected on a tenure defined by strife. “God knows, it’s a bad world.”

But many sources consulted by The New Humanitarian believed Griffiths’ successes were constrained because of the difficult political environment he worked in, rather than through personal flaws.

“You could consider Martin to be one of the most successful ERCs,” said Charles Petrie, a former UN official who has held senior roles in Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Myanmar.

Petrie said Griffiths brought dynamism, commitment, charisma, and a “maverick personality” to the role, making him a leader people followed.

“Humanitarian diplomacy was part of his DNA,” Petrie added. A strong relationship with Guterres saw Griffiths thrust into key crises.

“He’s emerged as UN fixer-in-chief dealing with a lot of crisis situations,” echoed Richard Gowan, who oversees UN advocacy at the Crisis Group think tank. “He’s led from the front and gained a degree of trust and leeway from the [secretary-general] in a way very few other people do.”

These attributes helped Griffiths (along with others) pull off the Black Sea grain deal – an agreement that cracked open grain exports from a Russia-blockaded Ukraine, and lessened pressures on global food markets during its year of operation.

In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Griffiths also took pride in pushing for “the warring generals in Sudan to agree to the Declaration of Commitment to Protect the Civilians of Sudan, eventually paving the way for some aid to start flowing into the country.” 

He also “gets a lot of points for having managed to work out solutions around the collapse of the cross-border mechanism in Syria”, Gowan told The New Humanitarian.

Running from fire to fire

But Griffiths’ efforts have fallen short on other files, from Gaza and Myanmar to the aid sector’s localisation agenda, observers said.

In “Gaza, the unstoppable force of Martin Griffiths met the immovable object of Israeli distrust of the UN”, said Gowan.

“Griffiths is leaving while this catastrophe is getting worse and worse,” said Amjad Shawa, director of the Palestinian NGOs Network (PNGO), in Gaza City. “Efforts at the political level are less than the need to respond to the situation.” 

In his opinion piece, Griffiths blamed world leaders for "failing humanity”, by resorting to violence or by providing “unconditional wartime support… to their allies, despite abundant evidence that it’s enabling widespread suffering and potential breaches of international humanitarian law.”

Others on the front lines of emergency response did not share the enthusiasm of Griffiths’ cheerleaders. “After discussing with some people who are deeply involved in the Myanmar humanitarian landscape, they felt that Martin Griffiths did not contribute much during his term,” said a Myanmar aid worker who holds a senior position at an international organisation, and who asked not to be identified.

OCHA and Griffiths have received heavy criticism for overlooking Myanmar's active civil society humanitarian networks, especially amid the spiralling conflicts that have followed a February 2021 coup.

These groups have accused the UN – and OCHA in particular – of being too close to the junta. The agency was also accused of hostility to a locally led plan, called the Inclusive Humanitarian Forum (IHF), designed to improve aid access to areas outside of the junta’s control. Sources claimed the agency pushed for the dismissal of former special envoy Noeleen Heyzer, for her support of the IHF. OCHA has denied the accusations.

Some observers say Griffiths has been spread too thin, running from fire to fire as emergencies ignited. 

“I think he really got sucked up into all the response and humanitarian diplomacy around these crises,” said Julien Schopp, vice president of humanitarian policy and practice at InterAction, an NGO network in the United States. “So there is a question about how do you then have enough time to focus on humanitarian leadership and policy and broader management questions.”

It was “not extremely clear in the past few years” who ran OCHA, and what the job responsibilities and accountabilities of the ERC and deputy ERC were, he added.

After Griffiths started as relief chief, he said he wanted to make humanitarian aid “a bit more human”, and to even out the power imbalance between those who provide aid and those who use it. In 2023, he launched the Flagship Initiative, a pilot coordination programme intended to make aid responses more accountable to the communities they are trying to help.

But despite the anticipation that surrounded its launch, the initiative has not been without its problems. It was “rolled out in a very secretive manner with the justification that ‘everything is led by the field, so you guys in headquarters don’t need to know’,” said Schopp.

The initiative is “very much linked to Martin as an individual”, Schopp added, and he was unsure of the project’s future without its founder at the helm of OCHA.

Overall, “the international aid system still largely favours international organisations in terms of leadership, decision-making, as well as funding,” said Anita Kattakuzhy, director of policy at NEAR, a network of Global South NGOs seeking aid system reform. The growth of big international aid organisations “runs counter to localisation”, she added.

In Gaza, Palestinian NGOs can only access 25% of the national pool fund, and “sometimes less” said Shawa. “We are not satisfied about the percentage of funds for the national NGOs from the pool funds. We are looking to increase it,” he said.

Must haves for the next relief chief

Whoever the next ERC is, calls to shift aid sector power are unlikely to abate, and will be a key dynamic to navigate. Shawa is one of many aid leaders calling for Griffiths’ successor to be from the Global South – “to have proper coordination and representation”, he said.

Shawa urged a “fair partnership between local and international organisations”.

Most humanitarian and climate emergencies with global funding appeals are in the Global South. “The UN cannot afford to select anyone other than the best person for the job who can better understand and connect with crisis contexts,” said Mohamed Yarrow, the executive director of the Centre for Peace and Democracy, a Somali NGO. He continued: “It would be quite wrong to arbitrarily restrict the search for the next ERC to nationals of any member state.”

The last five to hold the position have been UK nationals, despite UN General Assembly resolutions, civil society campaigns, and even British politicians demanding “geographic diversity” and “merit” in top UN appointments.

It is a sentiment with which Griffiths himself appears to agree: “This is too crucial a job to be left to favouritism,” he told The New Humanitarian in 2022.

Given the pressures facing the global aid system – funding and trust among them – the new relief chief will need to help redefine the relevance of humanitarian actors in today’s conflicts.

A top priority for the new ERC will be to tackle the gnawing funding struggles that have become an overarching worry across the humanitarian sector. 

“It's never been quite as difficult and as bad as it is now,” Griffiths said of the humanitarian donor funding landscape in June. 

As well as being an effective fundraiser, the new ERC will need to be a strong diplomat, “able to think strategically about how the sector is changing and what is driving humanitarian crises going forward”, said Gowan.

These attributes can support each other. Accessing long-sought aid funding from so-called non-traditional donors like China will require “someone who can make those arguments to the Chinese in an effective way”, said Gowan.

Given the pressures facing the global aid system – funding and trust among them – the new relief chief will need to help redefine the relevance of humanitarian actors in today’s conflicts, Petrie said. This includes rethinking humanitarian approaches, and exploring how aid can go beyond providing immediate relief to addressing underlying causes of crises.

And given the decline of international humanitarian law and principles, the new relief chief should “push to re-socialise with decision-makers and with the public the importance of humanitarian action”, said Schopp. He also called for a chief operating officer-type figure to manage OCHA, reporting to the ERC. “Those two functions are quite huge in themselves and if we expect one person to do both, it's setting them up for failure, especially given [the] policy and coordination work OCHA needs to do,” added Schopp.

Whoever replaces Griffiths as relief chief will inherit “a very complicated” global context, said Shawa. “[Their] mission is not easy, for sure.”

Edited by Irwin Loy.

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