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UN aid chief seeks more focused and inclusive humanitarian efforts

‘The world shouldn't be run by the North; OCHA shouldn't be run by someone like me.’

(John MacDougall/Pool/REUTERS)

What does the future of humanitarian aid look like from the vantage point of the UN’s emergency aid chief, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths? 

It includes greater political advocacy by humanitarians; a focus on resolving – rather than just responding to – conflicts; and better listening to those people receiving aid. 

What he hopes it won’t include, Griffiths said in a wide-ranging interview with The New Humanitarian’s Rethinking Humanitarianism podcast, is another Briton named to head up the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA.

Listen to his conversation with Rethinking Humanitarianism host Heba Aly:

He is the fifth Briton in a row to hold the role; and his May 2021 appointment was criticised by some as a lost opportunity to rebalance decades of unequal North-South power dynamics and better represent the people the UN is meant to serve. 

It will take a “generational change”, he noted, for people to “wake up to” the reality that “the world shouldn’t be run by the North, that OCHA shouldn’t be run by someone like me.” 

According to the Procedure of the UN Security Council, which unofficially collates UN rules, speeches, and documents, it may be the first time an appointee has spoken up against the system of earmarking some key UN leadership posts to certain countries – a tradition that has existed since 1946. 

Griffiths also spoke out against other sensitive issues within the humanitarian sector, such as competition between aid agencies. 

Griffiths began his career in humanitarian response, working for aid agencies like UNICEF, Save the Children, and ActionAid. He has decades of mediation experience, as co-founder of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, which became one of the first organisations to conduct private diplomacy. He has negotiated with warring parties in conflicts around the world, including as an adviser to several UN special envoys for Syria. Most recently, he served as UN special envoy to Yemen, often billed by the UN as home to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.    

His priorities, he told TNH CEO Heba Aly, include increasing humanitarian access – by being more politically astute, advocating more strongly, and pushing for ceasefires – and making aid delivery more efficient by providing more assistance as cash and localising responses.

“Let’s get access to be smart,” he said. “Let's get advocacy to be focused and targeted.” 

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

He spoke repeatedly about improving accountability to the people affected by crises – addressing recurring cases of sexual expoitation is “an obligation”, he said – but he also saw scope to better listen to what people receiving aid want.

He called for greater representation of local and national organisations on the UN’s humanitarian governing body, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, or IASC, which, as the head of OCHA, he chairs.

“It should not be a closed circuit; it should be open to new thinking. We have to get national organisations much, much better represented at those levels of leadership.” 

And he urged donors and powerful states to give humanitarians more space to call the shots when negotiating with the Taliban: “I would plead for the professionals in this game – the humanitarian agencies, principally there at country level – to take those things forward.” 

Griffiths said he seeks to develop clearer boundaries on the scope of humanitarian response and avoid “mopping up other bits of business”. 

This, he said, required “fixing” the relationship with the development sector, and for humanitarians to be stronger advocates for conflict resolution and more engaged action by development and financial institutions. 

But he also defended giving attention to issues like economic stimulus, traditionally considered outside the scope of humanitarian action. 

What does he hope his legacy will be? 

“I don't want to leave OCHA ...  without having done something about making the humanitarian effort a bit more human and a bit more focused,” he said.

Below are some excerpts of his conversation with The New Humanitarian. Listen to the full interview or read the transcript here

Subscribe → to the Rethinking Humanitarianism podcast

On the appointment of UN leaders based on politics and nationality: “This is too crucial a job to be left to favouritism.”

Thanks to an arcane UN convention, a clutch of top UN jobs are divided up between the permanent five members of the Security Council. China, France, Russia, the United States, and the UK get to put their nationals in the positions that matter most: economic and social affairs, peacekeeping, head of the UN Office in Geneva, political affairs, and humanitarian affairs, respectively.

Asked if he had considered declining his appointment to make way for more representative leadership, Griffiths said it was “perfectly clear” to him that there had been, in this instance, no scope for a non-British citizen to get the role. 

He said he was “very pleased” that the UK government did not support his candidature.

“I do think, that said, that it's a very strange system, which keeps certain positions for the permanent five members [of the UN Security Council]...  

“This is too crucial a job to be left to favouritism.” 

He said he hopes to be the last Briton to take on the role. In reaction, one observer noted: “He could have mentioned this when he was offered the job, instead of just pulling the drawbridge up behind him.” Another wrote: “Why not just stand down then?” 

On “competition” between aid agencies: “There is a design fault in the humanitarian enterprise.”

Griffiths said he was surprised to find the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, the global humanitarian coordination forum that brings together major UN and international aid agencies, a “collegiate” place. 

“I came out of the ‘90s with a lot of scars, having been involved in coordination those days,” he said. 

“Here’s the thing: there is a design fault in the humanitarian enterprise because it is based on competition between agencies: competition for money, competition for the brand, competition for profile.” 

While he said there was “nothing wrong with that”, the competition was at odds with the message – put forth by OCHA and the IASC – that “actually, we don’t want you to compete, we want you to coordinate and cooperate.”

“It's a tension, which is not resolved. And I think, frankly, ultimately, it's not resolvable by our current system,” Griffiths said. 

On membership of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee: “It should be open to new thinking.”

In his role of making sure “there is a sort of family of the heads of agencies”, Griffiths noted that the global coordinating body, the IASC, “should not be a closed circuit”. 

“It should be open to new thinking. We have to get national organisations much, much better represented at those levels of leadership.” 

On dismantling racism and decolonising humanitarian structures: “It’s going to be a generational change.” 

Asked how he – as a white, Western male – would contribute towards dismantling racism and decolonising the structures within the humanitarian sector, he said: “It's going to be a generational change.”

From the early days of humanitarianism, dating back to the Battle of Solferino in 1859 and Eglantyne Jebb, the founder of Save the Children, “humanitarian action has been through a process of improving its technical skills and technical ways of working together.

“The next wave is going to be values… It's going to be adapting to the fact that the world shouldn't be run by the North, that OCHA shouldn't be run by someone like me. And this is another generational change. And it'll take a generation to do it. No reason we shouldn't race at it now.”

Asked how, concretely, he would start moving in this direction, Griffiths didn’t offer any transformative new ideas, but pointed to: 

  • dialogues and training within OCHA: “It was very interesting listening to my new colleagues in OCHA talking about some of the grave difficulties that OCHA needs to address to improve the culture of its workplace.” 
  • the appointment of more diverse staff, including the incoming deputy head of OCHA, Joyce Msuya, currently the deputy executive director of the UN Environment Programme, and a national of Tanzania.
  • empowering national and local voices in the IASC.
  • using localisation and accountability to affected people as “instruments of change”.
  • using pooled funds to get money to the local level. In 2020, 36 percent of OCHA’s pooled funds went to local organisations: “That’s proof of OCHA’s determination to do something tangible about changing the priorities and the way things work.” 

On accountability to affected people: “Let’s change our relationship with those we serve.”

Griffiths said he remained haunted by an incident in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1990s in which a refugee child died while he was speaking to the baby’s mother. The baby’s liquids had spilled onto Griffiths’ trousers and, even in her moment of loss, the mother was focused on cleaning them. “The negative power dynamics between us and the affected people… you see it wherever you go,” he said.

Griffiths said he hoped his legacy would be in improving accountability to affected people and the responsiveness of humanitarian programming, planning, and delivery to their needs. But he gave few concrete examples of how that would be achieved, apart from improving humanitarians’ capacity to listen to what people want. 

He remarked upon being struck by a comment by a Syrian refugee in Turkey, who said: “You can't lean back on a tent. And we've been living in a tent for five years. And can we have something a little bit more solid, so that we can actually lean back on it?’” 

And he chastised the typical response: “ ‘No, no, we keep giving tents, because we don't want you to look as if you're permanently there.’ There's a lot of things that we can do better in this regard.”

Yet Griffiths also stressed the challenges of providing more tailored responses to people in need on such short annual project cycle timelines. “It's probably going to be a bit longer to get [accountability to affected people] right,” he said. “But I hope we can really move that forward.”

On why conflict resolution should be a bigger focus: “We are compelled to do it, by the circumstances, by the costs.”

His background as a conflict mediator – and the skyrocketing costs of humanitarian response – have pushed him to take a different approach to emergency aid. 

“We need to be… finding a way to move away from simply repeating the appeal for another year, another year, another year. We need to look at ways in which we can be aware of and maybe support – from a humanitarian perspective – efforts to resolve the conflicts; efforts to be much more present early on in cases of drought and potential famine…

“We need to be a lot more focused, not on an exit – because that suggests an abdication of responsibility – but on a resolution.” 

He pointed to Syria and Ethiopia as examples. 

In Syria’s conflict, he said, 10 years of aid have not changed the trajectory of increasing poverty in the country. “We are failing each year, more, to do our job for the Syrian people. We need to look at how to move away from that.” 

In Ethiopia, he said, getting access to deliver aid to people in need was always going to be complicated so long as an active conflict was underway. “There's no doubt that absent an end to the fighting between the Tigrayans and the government of Ethiopia, our humanitarian access is going to be patchy.” 

And while he said he would keep pushing for access, he added: “I'm a realist, after all these years of pain, that it's the ceasefire that needs to happen if we're really going to get what we need.” 

Bringing an end to suffering is “not easy; it's tricky; it's complicated; and it's political,” he said. “But OCHA – and my position – has to engage with the political.” 

On speaking out: “To beat back the containment of humanitarian space, [we need] better advocacy.”

Griffiths said one of his priorities was more “focused and targeted” advocacy. 

Many humanitarian aid workers shy away from strong advocacy – for instance on the drivers of need or who is to blame – because they fear it will jeopardise the perception of neutrality and impartiality that they need to do their jobs. 

But “beating back” the containment of humanitarian space, Griffiths said, depended on a better understanding of the parties to conflict, and “intriguingly, for a humanitarian enterprise”, better advocacy. 

“I'm struck by how many improvements we can make in humanitarian advocacy, smart advocacy. I'm surprised, actually, that the humanitarian community – which has so much activism in it, and strong personalities and leaders – that you look at [joint advocacy] a little bit in vain.”

On the increasing influence of donors: “I would plead for our space.”

He said one of the things that surprised him on returning to the humanitarian sector after 20 years in mediation was the increasing influence of donors on aid programming. 

“It was new to me that donors have such a sort of partnership role in the humanitarian programme. And indeed in the so-called humanitarian country teams, donors are represented along with agencies… That was new to me.”

He stressed the importance of balancing that donor engagement with a similar effort at the level of host countries and local communities, in the form of “recognition and respect”. 

He noted that, in this era, the UN Security Council is extremely focused on humanitarian issues – perhaps even more so than peace and security issues – and that he needed to balance the time and attention given at that level with time spent building relationships elsewhere. 

“The brutal truth is that the people who are best placed to either impede or facilitate a humanitarian operation are indeed the people on the ground: the host government, the non-state armed groups... They're the principal actors in our world that we need to understand, and engage with. We need to spend as much time as possible on them, really, because we need to get them to understand why we're asking for this.”

He pointed to a constant call by UN member states and others for “unimpeded humanitarian access”, noting that no such thing exists. “In no country that I'm aware of globally, humanitarian operations are allowed to operate without checks and balances from host or local authorities or local armed groups. What does unimpeded mean to you?”

And he urged donors to back off. 

“That's our job, to define what unimpeded humanitarian access is – rather than the job of member states.” 

He said that in Afghanistan, member states were competing to take the lead on how to engage the Taliban. 

“I would plead for our space to do that. I would plead for the professionals in this game – the humanitarian agencies, principally there at country level – to take those things forward. My job is to try to keep the boat balanced, so that we don't tip over into being politically partial, or partisan to one group of member states or another; so that we don't have a situation where the Security Council is telling us what we need to do; but that we're telling them what they need to think about.”

On the scope of the humanitarian system: “There's a tendency of humanitarians to mop up other bits of business.” 

Asked if he isn’t stretching the definition of humanitarian response by focusing, in Afghanistan for example, on unfreezing assets and trying to save its economy, Griffiths said it was pre-condition for humanitarian operations.  

“Humanitarian operations can't work if the economy isn’t rescued… You can't pay frontline health officials if there's no money in Afghanistan; if the banking system doesn't work. So restoring the minimum needs of an economy is necessary for the humanitarian system.” 

But he also suggested that humanitarians should not stray outside their traditional roles of emergency assistance and protection. 

“There's a tendency of humanitarians, because they're quite efficient, to mop up other bits of business.”

In the case of Afghanistan, donors are unwilling to put money into development projects that necessarily work hand in hand with the ruling authorities, the Taliban. Instead, they are directing their funding towards independent humanitarian efforts. 

“So we are put right in the front seat. That's fine being in the front seat, but don't take all the other seats in the car. Just stick to your own,” he said. 

In reference to development organisations, economists, and the private sector, he said humanitarians need to allow others to play their role – and also urge them to do so, especially in instances when humanitarians find themselves “alone” in providing basic services.  

“The humanitarian model, which is direct delivery – much more than through state structures – is one which has to be temporary, because it's not affordable, and it’s not sustainable.”

He said basic service delivery is better done by others, but humanitarians end up holding the fort, so to speak: “It's impossible for… humanitarian agencies not to attend to issues of basic services, if they are not attended to by others.”

On working with the development sector: “That relationship needs fixing.” 

Griffiths said he hopes to move the needle on ensuring a “sensible” relationship and partnership with the development sector. 

“They do [some] things better than we do, of course. And we should not get in their way, so that they do do it. We do other things better… 

“This new generation of change that we've been discussing – changes of values – it also will bring in new demands in terms of partnership for the humanitarian community. And I think a good partnership is based on a clear idea of what we are and what we're not… 

“Northeast Nigeria is a good example, but so is Afghanistan, so is Syria. Most humanitarian projects, programmes have to co-exist, and that relationship needs fixing.” 

On how humanitarians should deal with climate change: “It’s work in progress within OCHA.”

Asked what specific role humanitarians should play in addressing climate change, which, he said, would land with a “resounding thud” this year, Griffiths said humanitarian agencies are not yet clear on the limits of their responsibility. It is a “work in progress within OCHA” to articulate the boundaries of the obligation of humanitarian agencies with regards to climate change, he said.

He called on moving beyond just anticipatory action “into a different form of programming”, which could involve predicting droughts and floods, and tapping into new forms of climate financing. 

But he once again stressed the long-term responsibilities of other actors – including International Financial Institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as well as development agencies – to prevent the consequences of climate change. “We should stick to our emergency response obligations,” he said.

Griffiths called for some “sort of – not a summit – but a real important policy process” this year to better focus humanitarian efforts when it comes to climate change.

On his legacy: “I will be seen as somebody who did a lot more on access.”

While he hopes to move the needle on accountability to affected people, Griffiths said it was “more likely that I will be seen as somebody who did a lot more on access, and who lived through a period of humanitarian action where it was right under the political microscope, and right up in the spotlight of the Security Council.” 

Listen to the full interview here.

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