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Interview: Sergio Vieira de Mello

Portrait of Sergio Vieira de Mello, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator in 1998 Ky Chung/UN Photo
Portrait of Sergio Vieira de Mello, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator in 1998

The following is an interview with Sergio Vieira de Mello, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. He heads the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

It is the first in a series of interviews IRIN will be publishing over the coming months.

IRIN: You take over at a time of crisis in the humanitarian community. What actions do you believe you can take to help reverse the setbacks of recent years?

de Mello: There is something of a crisis. At its essence, in my understanding is the criticism, resulting mainly from operations in the Great Lakes, former Yugoslavia, and in a number of African countries that the humanitarian community is not sufficiently aware of the broader consequences - social, economic and political - of their acts. Lack of awareness leads to accusations of abuse, misuse and blunders.

The criticism should be taken seriously, but not exaggerated. Humanitarian action can convey the impression it's above criticism. We are of course accountable in the same way any other form of human action is. In my view however, the criticism is sometimes based on an overestimation of the role humanitarian agencies play in conflict dynamics and an underestimation of the freedom of action they have in specific field situations. What humanitarian agencies can achieve and the constraints they face needs to be better explained. I see this as an essential part of my advocacy role.

I hope also to address some of these issues through the formulation of rules of engagement and disengagement, which we have highlighted as a priority for this year. Reflection on this topic will, I hope, help us understand better how we relate to other actors, in particular political and economic actors. Helping to ensure linkages and coordinated, cooperative action between all international actors in humanitarian crises, is of course the main purpose of my position. The difficulties we are currently facing in Afghanistan, however, illustrate how difficult it can be to formulate and adhere to a unified position where human rights are challenged.

There have indeed been setbacks, but also many major achievements in recent years. The criticism, the "crisis", in part is a result of the prominence humanitarian action has gained. We are often criticised precisely because we are the most visible sign of the international community's engagement with many crisis situations. The underlying problem is that all too often we are left to act alone without political support and where economic and political processes have failed.

IRIN: Where, if at all, do you think the aid community has gone wrong? In what areas, has it got things about right? Is there a model response to an emergency you would like to see generally followed?

de Mello: I am not convinced that the aid community has gone wrong, which is not to say that it has not made mistakes. As I indicated in responding to the previous question, I believe we need to be more aware of the consequences of our acts, explain better our limitations and present a more coordinated front.

There is no single model for how things should work. What works well in one country may not be appropriate in another. Every situation demands its own model.

With regard to the question of where things worked well, I believe the Humanitarian Coordinator, who comes from WFP, in Angola, is generally acknowledged to have done a good job. Likewise UNHCR, despite the many constraints, has been praised for the role it played in former Yugoslavia. In Afghanistan the Office of the Coordinator (UNOCHA) is an arrangement we can be proud of. The ICRC and many NGOs are doing a particularly impressive job there and elsewhere. The Red Cross movement should to the extent their mandates permit, always be integrated into our broader efforts. Many UN Resident Coordinators, in Rwanda and other countries, are doing a remarkable job. There are many positive examples. Another one is the DHA/OCHA role in the Caucasus. I think they are generally credited with having been very useful, particularly in the information collection and dissemination field. IRIN itself is an outstanding example of good work in this field.

The key in my experience, are individuals, in particular their ability to form a team, to lead with enthusiasm and humility, and transcend petty parochial concerns and put the interests of the beneficiaries, the UN as an organization and the humanitarian community first.

IRIN: Do you believe there is any truth to the accusation that NGOs are out of control and sometimes undermine a Government's sovereignty?

de Mello: NGOs are a very diverse group, they cannot all be lumped together. Some in size and professionalism are now comparable to some UN agencies or supercede them! The bulk of increases in aid funding in recent years has been channelled through NGOs in preference to multilateral channels. This has led to the creation of a lot of new NGOs and expansion into activities of old ones where sometimes they are less well qualified. One can not generalize. Some of course are more professional than others. But of course this applies to us in the UN as well.

In general NGOs are the first on the ground to respond to humanitarian crises as I witnessed in the case of the Rustaq earthquake in February. They may cut a few bureaucratic corners in the process, but this cannot be seen to constitute a general threat to sovereignty. Governments of course have it within their power to curtail their action or expel them where they think they have gone beyond their humanitarian mandates. Some NGOs do have a tendency at times to disregard existing Government structures in their eagerness to respond. Arrogance that can at times accompany any sort of international intervention is lamentable and counterproductive. We should also remember and I think this is a positive development, that a growing number of NGOs are national NGOs. That is the way forward.

NGOs often act as what Sartre called our "mauvaise conscience". The balance we have to strive for is always difficult. How many times did I wish I were a diplomat or an NGO worker: it would have made my life much easier, if I could have taken clear cut positions, defending my national interests in or my principled perception of the situation I was exposed to. But that is not why I joined the UN. Each of us has a role to play and we should strive to ensure we do so in a complementary fashion.

IRIN: What can your office do, what actions would you propose to help restore the UN's credibility to handle international emergencies?

de Mello: I am not sure that our credibility is shattered. Countries continue to ask our assistance in responding to emergencies. We are still praised in many circumstances. UNOCHA's work in Afghanistan for example. I also mentioned before WFP in Angola and HCR in former Yugoslavia. I could have added UNICEF in Operation Lifeline Sudan, or UNDP and UNRWA in Lebanon as well as many other examples. And we tend to forget the role UNDRO played first and OCHA Disaster Response Branch plays effectively now in pulling together international resources in reacting to natural disasters.

Having said that, it is clear that the UN can not handle emergencies on their own. We need donors, we need NGOs, we need political, economic and dare I say it, in some situations peace-keeping support. Increasingly, as funds are getting tighter, we have to prove to donors that we are effective and a worthwhile investment.

My role as an advocate, as the Emergency Relief Coordinator is to try and bring all actors together. Mrs Ogata in Bern the other day called it a conductor's role. She and others are right in expecting of me to provide them with the same music sheet. This what the Secretary-General and Member States expect from my Office.

IRIN: How can OCHA truly coordinate bigger UN entities without clear authority or financial leverage? Isn't it a question of a David trying to coordinate a Goliath?

de Mello: Authority comes with resources and information but also with credibility. I hope by demonstrating the highest levels of professionalism and by focusing our efforts that we can add value and prove that we are worth listening to, coalescing with.

With regard to authority, GA resolution 46/182 and the Secretary-General's July 1997 reform report confer a fairly clear mandate and authority on my Office. Member States have also reiterated their support to me in this regard. But I do not believe coordination can be imposed. Agencies have to see the benefits. It is our task to demonstrate these.

The analogy of David and Goliath does not quite apply. They were enemies. OCHA and humanitarian agencies are allies. I intend to prove that, in many different areas.

IRIN: How did the UN reform process tackle this widely-perceived problem for OCHA?

de Mello: Reform was a useful, if painful a process for OCHA. We are smaller, more focussed. I hope better equipped now to add value. We are also more aware of the need to fully associate and involve developing countries. It is a euphemism to say that they have developed misgivings about the identity, agenda and role of humanitarianism. We must correct the distortions.

IRIN: Do you detect a crisis of confidence in the humanitarian community after a battering from Somalia, Rwanda and Zaire and a change of mood amongst African governments?

de Mello: There is a battering, but it is not just of the humanitarian community, although we are often on the frontline. The international community is being obliged to rethink its approach to developing countries. African countries rightly want to be masters of their fate, want a say, want to be better listened to, a more equal partnership. We have learn to do this better and not to appear to be trying to impose alien values.

This also applies to the humanitarian community. I alluded to an example before. In the rush to respond we often ignore or overlook local capacities, both Governmental and local NGOs. These need to be more consistently bolstered.

IRIN: How can the UN adapt to or support the so-called "African Renaissance"?

de Mello: For a start we have to have to learn more about local initiatives and support them more. I believe this is now generally recognized. It is also a priority I have highlighted for 1998. We have to reflect more and see how we can combine our resources and focus UN agencies and international NGOs on local capacity building. OCHA will participate and if needed support a large African NGO meeting planned in Addis later this year. At this and other fora we will listen and see what contribution we can make. We intend to open a small office with the Department of Political Affairs in Addis precisely to listen and to learn more. As a Brazilian, Africa is part of my heritage and I have strong sympathy for some of the new ideas now emerging from the continent.

IRIN: Who is responsible for internally displaced people in the UN system?

de Mello: This is a another key issue and priority for OCHA. Everyone and no one is responsible in operational terms. This is part of the problem. The IASC has held many discussions on this issue in recent years, but I believe at the field level, the difference is yet to be felt.

In the last few months, I have had a series of meetings with the Secretary-General's Representative for IDPs, Francis Deng. We have agreed that a senior IDP Coordinator will be appointed in my office to help make real progress on this issue. I have asked operational agencies to ensure he has counterparts in their agencies. We hope to appoint a highly experienced and skilled person seconded from the ICRC, an institution that has a particular expertise in this area and special responsibilities under the Geneva Conventions.

What we need is a better division of labour on a case by case level, with an allocation of clear and unambiguous roles for protection and assistance. This can not be done globally but it can be done on a case by case basis based on the resources and capabilities of the agencies on the ground. I hope the mechanisms we are setting up will help achieve this.

IRIN: Please give some practical examples of how the UN could be doing a better job in the Great Lakes, and what you will do to make it happen.

de Mello: That is a very large subject. It is fact something we will be reflecting on in Stockholm on 5/6 April with all actors concerned including representatives from Governments and national NGOs. I'll mention only a few points here.

Clearly the Great Lakes require an integrated, non-paternalistic, preventive approach, based on objective, non-ethnic analysis of the different conflicts and their solutions.

One of the priorities at this juncture in the Great Lakes is ensuring a smooth transition or at least linkage between humanitarian and rehabilitation activities. In Rwanda, UNHCR and UNDP have established a joint programming unit. Similar initiatives need to be taken elsewhere, to allow more focus and more coordination in this area.

There is also a need for better regional coordination of humanitarian actors. Humanitarian developments in one country almost inevitably have repercussions next door. Ambassador Dinka is playing a very important role. I hope to further strengthen the support he gets from my office as well as from the operational agencies.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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