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UK technocrat appointed UN humanitarian chief - reports

Mark Lowcock Jessica Lea/DFID
Mark Lowcock

It’s an odd job for a man who says he’s averse to acronyms. The UN’s new humanitarian chief, overseeing a sprawling department and a plethora of acronym-heavy mechanisms, will be Mark Lowcock, until now the top British civil servant in the Department for International Development (DFID), the UK’s aid ministry.

Lowcock takes over as famine threatens four countries, humanitarian principles are trampled in Syria, his UN department slashed and the Trump administration plans swingeing cuts to UN agencies.

Two well-placed sources say Lowcock’s name emerged only after the UN secretariat had rejected at least one other name proposed by British government. This happened in 2015, when Ban Ki-moon rejected former UK minister Andrew Lansley, in a diplomatic spat that became public.

Taking over from Stephen O’Brien, Lowcock is the latest in a series of Britons appointed to the position of UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, which runs the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Lowcock’s $192,000-a-year position was reported today by the AFP news agency, and multiple sources have predicted the appointment to IRIN.

The appointment of a Briton marks no change from the last ten years, but putting a civil servant, not a politician, in the job is different. Valerie Amos, who held the post from 2010-2015, was a senior but unelected figure in the British Labour party. O’Brien, her successor, sat as a member of parliament for the ruling Conservative (Tory) party and had limited experience in overseas aid.

But when hospitals are bombed, refugees abused, and the rich countries won’t pay up for UN appeals, is a carefully-spoken lifetime civil servant the right person for the job?

A British source familiar with Lowcock’s record expressed relief he wasn’t a “Tory leftover” and argued his experience will make him “a better manager than his predecessors”. However, Lowcock does lack proven political experience for the arena of the Security Council, where charisma and clout are needed to advocate for humanitarian causes, the source suggested.

In technical terms, Lowcock is the most qualified person ever appointed to the post - holding accountancy qualifications, he has worked for the UK government’s aid machinery since 1985, including postings in Zimbabwe and Kenya. In an interview, a former DFID minister, Andrew Mitchell, praised his acumen and discreet advice: “When he said, ‘That would be quite a courageous thing to do, minister’, we students of Yes, Minister thought very carefully before doing it.”

An OCHA staffer, insisting on anonymity, said the appointment would meet varying reactions among staff: “For the management team he'll be a new challenge to work around, as they have with Stephen, and for the masses, hopefully someone who will lead us out of the current mess we are in.”

“The mess” refers in part to OCHA’s financial and structural troubles following donor cutbacks and critical reviews. Lowcock’s role includes managing 2,000 OCHA staff and providing leadership to the broader humanitarian community as “Emergency Relief Coordinator”, a role bestowed by the UN, but carrying little hard authority. He also should steer emergency aid reforms floated at the World Humanitarian Summit.

In a column for IRIN, another predecessor called the job “almost impossible”.

Ben Ramalingam, leader of the Disasters and Development group at the UK university think tank, the Institute of Development Studies, says Lowcock is a “great choice”, pointing to his technical and financial background. Ramalingam told IRIN Lowcock would be most tested by the charged political landscape and “re-casting the role of OCHA for a changing world.”

Another observer pointed out that Guterres had appointed few women to the critical senior positions in the areas of political, peace and security, nor had there been visible progress in breaking the lock the Security Council’s five permanent members hold on them.

Following the UK’s cross-party commitment to spending 0.7% of gross national income on development, DFID grew rapidly to be the third-largest donor country in world, after the US and Germany. Britain has earned praise from watchdogs and analysts for aspects of its development and humanitarian aid funding, include championing open data and financial transparency, legally “untying” its spending from UK companies and contractors, and championing new approaches such as cash-based aid and collective efforts, including pooled funds.

Lowcock has frequently appeared before parliamentary enquiries and committees, explaining and defending the work of his department. DFID has faced a number of uncomfortable scandals, most recently including unethical behaviour by one of DFID’s biggest for-profit contractors, Adam Smith International, and a botched airport project at the far-flung British outpost of St Helena.

In an interview with an in-house civil service magazine, it’s claimed that Lowcock “doesn’t use acronyms.” That’s a habit the new OCHA USG and ERC might have to reconsider, ASAP.


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