The UN’s top humanitarian official is stepping down, opening up speculation about the nationality of his successor and prompting assessments of the Briton’s achievements and shortcomings over the past four years.
In an email to the 2,100 staff of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on 7 February, Mark Lowcock announced he would step down in the coming months to spend more time with his family in the UK.
Appointed in May 2017, Lowcock inherited a string of internal budget, administrative, and management challenges, while also being confronted with demands for broad reforms of humanitarian aid stemming from the World Humanitarian Summit. During his tenure, relief operations faced shrinking room for manoeuvre, with direct attacks, blockades, and manipulation – notably in Syria and Yemen – complicating many of the situations the international community was responding to.
News of Lowcock’s departure led some diplomats and aid-watchers to praise Lowcock’s work. Geneva-based Gareth Price-Jones, executive director of the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response, an aid agency alliance, tweeted: “He absolutely knows his stuff, combined with an acute appreciation of #humanitariandiplomacy and its limits”.
But other analysts and colleagues contacted for this article painted a more mixed picture. While several recognised his achievements in stabilising and restructuring OCHA – including moving some functions from New York and Geneva closer to the field – others wished Lowcock could have articulated a clearer vision, demonstrated more vigour as an advocate of humanitarian principles, and been a more transparent and inclusive manager.
Initiatives and controversies
Lowcock has been a vocal champion of anticipatory and early intervention when an impending crisis is known about in advance – that’s a shift for a humanitarian model that typically responds after a crisis has happened. Calling anticipatory action a “no-brainer”, Lowcock pushed the boundaries of the $600 million Central Emergency Response Fund to allocate up to $140 million for anticipatory actions in countries facing predictable crises, such as food shortages or flooding.
From the outset, Lowcock supported closer alignment between humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding agendas – and maintained that humanitarian needs wouldn’t be reduced without faster progress on achieving the sustainable development goals. He built new alliances with the World Bank – through, for example, the Famine Action Mechanism (FAM), which aims to prevent future famines through better analytics and faster financing.
He mobilised support for the UN’s largest ever single appeal – $10 billion to support 63 countries in the humanitarian response to COVID-19. Today, the plan is roughly 40 percent-funded, the bulk of it going directly to UN agencies, disappointing many who hoped this would be an opportunity to support frontline responders, especially national NGOs. OCHA’s management of donor-supported pooled funds and CERF did allow Lowcock to channel some funding to NGOs working on the pandemic.
While Lowcock's organisational abilities have met with some praise, his people skills are commonly cited as a weakness. Some of those contacted for this article said even his farewell email to staff seemed curt and lacking warmth. One senior aid official noted its praise of Lowcock’s boss, UN Secretary-General António Guterres, rather than colleagues and partners, reacting: “No thank you to staff... or even a reminder of the important work and mission of OCHA and their accomplishments?”
“The next incumbent needs to raise the game – bring more profile, passion, and higher energy to humanitarianism as well as a freshening-up of the UN’s humanitarian operating model,” said Mukesh Kapila, a former UN humanitarian official and professor emeritus of global health and humanitarian affairs at the University of Manchester. Kapila said the times demanded it: “Everything is changing with COVID, climate change, many more actors, new geo-politics, new technologies and tools.”
Some crises were both intractable and put OCHA in an uncomfortable limelight: Yemen has been a continuing disaster, worsened by humanitarian aid being dependent on the belligerents. While Lowcock thanked Saudi Arabia for its $500 million pledge of humanitarian support to Yemen in 2019, and agreed to public relations moves to please Riyadh, human rights groups voiced criticism over the inherent contradiction of aid coming from donor countries whose roles in the war worsened the humanitarian crisis and broadly obstructed aid from reaching the country.
As under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Lowcock was in charge of OCHA’s worldwide operations, including teams in Geneva and New York. OCHA had income of about $280 million in 2019, and managed a further $1.48 billion in pooled donor funds in 2020.
Lowcock was the fourth Briton in a row to have held the job over the last 14 years – part of an unspoken quota system whereby certain countries get to hang on to key positions at the UN HQ: The French have run peace operations for years, the United States gets political affairs; while the Brits have held the top humanitarian position since John Holmes took over from Norwegian Jan Egeland in 2007.
This arrangement has been roundly criticised for strengthening the outsize influence of permanent Security Council members China, France, Russia, the United States, and the UK.
According to Lowcock’s announcement, Guterres will replace him “in the coming months” – well before the UN chief’s own position comes up again in January 2022. Guterres has signalled his interest in a second five-year term.
Other countries might now stake a claim to Lowcock’s position, especially as the UK has cut its international aid budget by 30 percent, about $6 billion. That move, blamed on COVID-related budget stress, may have dented the UK’s leadership position amongst donor nations. Germany and Sweden were mentioned by humanitarian insiders as major donors that may feel better entitled to now head OCHA. Even if the UK does lose out on one senior position at the world body, the UN’s International Labour Organization is also headed by a Briton at the same rank.
If Guterres does consider giving the role to a national of another country, it will likely lead to intense lobbying from London and might trigger a wider reshuffle. “I think the Brits will fight to keep it, especially after Brexit,” said one senior UN official in Geneva, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.
Top UN positions like Lowcock’s are filled by individuals proposed by the member states, typically political allies of the party in power. Lowcock was an exception, being the top civil servant at the UK’s now-folded aid ministry, the Department for International Development, DFID.
With Lowcock’s department – and the UN as a whole – facing calls to improve gender balance and widen diversity at senior levels, many observers are asking: Will the UK put forward another white male?