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An ‘almost impossible job’ - 10 tips for the UN's next humanitarian boss

Cartoon of a man with the whole world on his shoulders
(Stan Eales)

Former UN humanitarian chief John Holmes has a few words of advice for the next person to take up the job, British politician Stephen O'Brien.

Next week, O’Brien, a former British international development minister, succeeds Valerie Amos as the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. Holmes, who was in the role from January 2007 to August 2010, is now director of the Ditchley Foundation, which helps shape policy on major international issues. Here's his advice.

Ten things to bear in mind when you start your new and almost impossible job:

  1. Forget your nationality. Britain should now just be a major donor – important and sometimes irritating – but give it no special treatment in your professional role.
  2. Travel a lot, but not too much. You need to see and understand all the major crises on the ground, particularly when you start, but you also need to contribute to the strategic discussions in New York and run OCHA (the UN humanitarian agency) properly.
  3. You have a bully pulpit and a degree of influence on the rest of the humanitarian system, but little power. Hone your powers of persuasion, and use the media more than they use you.
  4. Establish good personal relations with the heads of the main aid agencies, the NGOs and the Red Cross/Crescent movement. You will need them at times of stress.
  5. Be tough on governments misbehaving, but remember to be tougher in private than in public if you want to keep the aid flowing.
  6. Be nice to the donors. You can do nothing without them. But never feel captured by them (or anyone else).
  7. Work closely with the development community, and try to overcome the artificial barriers between them and the humanitarians.
  8. Build local capacity and invest more in disaster risk reduction, preparedness and anticipation. It becomes clearer as you go along, but you should be fully aware of it from the start.
  9. Pace yourself. It’s tough mentally and physically, so don’t burn yourself out too soon.
  10. Remember at all times the people on the ground you are trying to help. That’s what makes the job ultimately rewarding.

Above all try to enjoy at least some of it, despite the frustrations.

John Holmes, Emergency Relief Coordinator, 2007-2010

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