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Rethinking Humanitarianism | An interview with the UN’s humanitarian chief

‘I don’t want to leave OCHA without having done something about making the humanitarian effort a bit more human, a bit more focused.’

This is the artwork/banner for a Rethinking Humanitarianism Podcast. The background is orange and the title "Rethinking Humanitarianism Podcast" is placed on the top left. On the bottom left we see a small square that says: With guest: Martin Griffiths. On the right we see a black and white portrait of Martin Griffiths. He wears a suit and tie.

In the final episode of Season 2 of the Rethinking Humanitarianism podcast, host Heba Aly sits down with UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths to explore his vision for his tenure. They discuss how he intends to address unequal power dynamics in the aid sector, the increasing influence of donors, and the need for humanitarians to push back against an ever-expanding scope of activity. 

He outlines his desire for greater political advocacy by humanitarians; a focus on resolving – rather than just responding to – conflicts; and attention to issues like economic stimulus, traditionally considered outside the scope of humanitarian action.

After a 20-year career in conflict mediation, is he seeking to redefine what humanitarianism can be?

For more, check out this article that highlights parts of the wide-ranging interview between The New Humanitarian’s Rethinking Humanitarianism podcast and UN aid chief Martin Griffiths.

Rethinking Humanitarianism will be back later this year with a new season. To revisit previous episodes – or to stay tuned about our upcoming podcast series on innovations in the humanitarian sector – subscribe on Spotify, Apple, Google, Stitcher, or YouTube, or search “The New Humanitarian” in your favourite podcast app.

Got a question or feedback? Email [email protected] or have your say on Twitter using the hashtag #RethinkingHumanitarianism.

TRANSCRIPT  | An interview with the UN’s humanitarian chief

Audio clip, United Nations, April 2018: 

“The peace becomes possible when we see the good in our foes, even though we can see clearly the cruelties of war.”

Martin Griffiths spent much of his career as a mediator, negotiating to bring conflicts to an end, from Spain to Indonesia to Yemen. 

Audio clip, United Nations, Dec. 2018: 

“What we’ve been doing is narrowing the difference between the two sides on issues… In my experience of trying to resolve conflicts, I have learned to take people at their word. To trust, yes, but also to verify.”

In May 2021, he was appointed the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs. 

Griffiths’ decades of experience in conflict zones differentiates him from his predecessors. 

But how does that long view – and his background as a mediator – change the approach he brings as the UN’s humanitarian chief? And how is he rethinking – or even reshaping – the way the emergency aid sector operates? 

In Geneva, Switzerland, I’m Heba Aly. And this is Rethinking Humanitarianism. 

Today, in the final episode of Season 2, we’re sitting down with Martin Griffiths. 

As a child, he went to a Quaker school; in the 1960s, he attended anti-war protests. 

Today, he heads the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. He also has the fancy title of Emergency Relief Coordinator – which means he chairs the closest thing to a sector-wide governance structure within humanitarian aid.   

His predecessor in the role, Mark Lowcock, was a civil servant in the UK government. Lowcock’s predecessor, Stephen O’Brien, was a politician. Before him, Valerie Amos was a career diplomat. 

By contrast, Griffiths began his career in humanitarian response, working for aid agencies like UNICEF, Save the Children, and ActionAid. He went on to co-found the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, which became one of the first organisations to conduct private diplomacy. He would spend the coming decade mediating conflicts around the world, including as an advisor to several Special Envoys of the UN Secretary-General for Syria. 

He is most recently known for his role as UN Special Envoy to Yemen, home to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. 

I find it interesting that when we at The New Humanitarian asked people for their reactions to his appointment as the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, one person told us: “He’s reaching the end of his career. He can afford to be bold and to upset people. There’s everything to be gained from being a transformer and almost nothing to lose.” 

Arguably, Griffiths brings a different approach to the job at a time when humanitarian action is in the international spotlight and going through its own transformation as we’ve been talking about on this podcast.   

How so? He’s focusing on the resolution of crises, not just response to crises; he’s willing to be more political; he’s advocating to address the longer-term structural issues that are causing humanitarian need in the first place or preventing humanitarians from being able to do their jobs.

And in so doing, he might just be redefining what humanitarianism is and can be. 

Martin, welcome to the Rethinking Humanitarianism podcast. 

Martin Griffiths:

Thanks a lot, Heba. Thanks for the opportunity.


So you are just back from a trip from Nigeria, home to a major humanitarian crisis, of course. You were building relationships with the central and regional governments there. Before that trip, you were speaking to US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. Before that you were in Geneva for formal meetings. Some say you're most in your groove when you're negotiating with militant groups like Boko Haram or the Houthis. Within that huge range of issues that make up your day to day, where do you feel like you're making the most headway? 


What I find brings the different parts of our life together and what I find so interesting in this job is the efforts to understand the parties in conflicts. Because most humanitarian response plans are in conflict zones - not all, but many of them are; most of the big ones have to do with conflict. Understand where those parties are positioned; understand how we can move them towards doing better for humanitarian access, humanitarian space. Very similar in many ways to conflict mediation, which was in my experience over the last 20 years, all about how do we get to that person to persuade him or her to do something different. And whether it's the big crises that I've been involved in, in OCHA, in the past six months - Afghanistan and Ethiopia, and indeed, in Nigeria, in a very different way - the same skills, I think, apply in both. That has to do therefore with empathy, with understanding leverage, with understanding access to the people we need to reach. It’s to reduce it - I think, almost - to call it diplomacy. It's different from diplomacy. It's purposeful; it's to get somewhere. And the great advantage of doing this in a humanitarian context, the big personal advantage of doing this and humanitarian context, is that it's all there to do good. There's no misunderstanding of this. It’s to deliver services. And we'll come on to whether we do that efficiently. But the objective is clear, and it has moral value.


It's interesting that you say it's a similar skill set. So much focus these days within the humanitarian sector is on ending the drivers of need. And you've talked in the past about having started the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue because you had worked in humanitarian response; you'd seen people suffering from war; and you wanted to do something more fundamental than just helping them after war had destroyed their lives. So what made you want to come back into the “pure” humanitarian response?


It’s a very good question. It's very interesting you say that about the beginning of the Center of Humanitarian Dialogue. [It] was entirely staffed by those people, the four or five of us who started the beginning were all just out of the humanitarian sector. We were in Geneva, as they still are. Our council had such luminaries as Sergio Vieira de Mello and Cornelia Sommaruga - the big titans of the humanitarian enterprise at that time. And it was exactly about let's try and get ahead of the game here; let's go upstream. Let's not just do our best work in conflict. Let's try to stop them. And I must say, I found that compelling. Sergio Vieira de Mello was particularly vociferous and articulate about this, saying that if you scan any average group of humanitarian aid workers, they all would have this kind of instinct as part of their stick. And I did find it compelling. I think mediation is incredibly important. And one of the reasons why we started HD [Center for Humanitarian Dialogue] was because mediation wasn't fair. It was slanted towards benefiting states. And there was a kind of revolution in the way mediation was done in those first 20 years of the century. We moved the needle a bit. So there I was: great privilege of being a political envoy for the UN, the unchallenged mediator for Yemen. 

Why did I leave to go back to this? It's probably a mistake. I think the reason I did, what I wanted to find here, is the diversity of the things that we do. It is, of course, a global role, which also has so many different complicated things. And humanitarian action, which is in a way, somewhat simpler in mediation. So, for me, going to this job, this job which was started by Sergio Vieira de Mello, was just, you couldn't turn away from it. It was an amazing opportunity. And as you said at the top, maybe the last thing I'll do is this. And so, let's do it right.


And in terms of doing it right, or, perhaps, as we often talk about on the show, doing it differently. Do you think you bring, because of your background, a more political take on humanitarianism than some of your predecessors?


I started off with the Khmer Rouge, working with them - Khmer Rouge run one of the camps on the Thai-Cambodian border - in 1979. I was in UNICEF, working with [the International Committee of the Red Cross]. I was running that camp. So my humanitarian operational experience goes back a very long way. And I think that's incredibly important for this job. You mentioned the role of the Emergency Relief Coordinator. That role is one of incredible privilege, because it is there to guide and sometimes lead and certainly coordinate the actions of these very experienced, big humanitarian agencies. National, international, UN, NGO. So, having an operational experience, I think is very, very important and I have that. 

Secondly, I understand, I think, better than some, but not as good as others, the sort of political context in which we operate. And I believe that's particularly important now. Because as you know, Heba, the cost of the humanitarian program for 2022 is $41 billion USD. It's an astronomical sum. It is, I understand, five times what international peacekeeping cost at its height. And that $41 billion doesn't cover all the humanitarian actions. The Red Cross, for example, is in addition to that. 

So we need to be much more focused on efficiency of delivery and 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. 

So I think what is of vital importance now, and by chance speaks to some of my background, is that we need to be a lot more focused, not on an exit - because that suggests to sort of an abdication of responsibility - but on a resolution. If you look at Syria, and I know you do a lot. Syria is in its 10th year. I had a lot of political engagement through the UN on Syria over the years. And in every year, the humanitarian delivery to the people of Syria gets less and less. And the poverty levels of the people of Syria gets more and more. 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. 

Jan Egeland of the Norwegian Refugee Council will be in New York later this week for a briefing of the Security Council on Syria, as I will be. I know he's going to speak very strongly about the need for the Security Council and other Member States to try to bring an end to this punishment of Syrian people. And it's not easy; and it's tricky; and it's complicated; and it's political. But at OCHA, and I think my position, has to engage with the political. That's a privilege, but you need to do it from the basis of a good humanitarian foundation and attention to the sort of humanitarian ambitions and principles of our members, if you like.


I think many people, even within your own organisation, OCHA, are still trying to get their heads around the new direction that you bring. Would it be fair to say that that's your vision for your role is to steer this endeavor towards more resolution rather than just response?


That's one of the things that we need to do and we are compelled to do it, by the circumstances, by the costs. And I want to emphasise, it's not abdication. It's really not. So I'll be working with our teams in all the different countries to look again each year with more effort at that. But that's not the only thing. 

The second is to beat back the containment of humanitarian space that we've been seeing, and that you've been documenting so vividly in The New Humanitarian. And that has to do with better access, better understanding of the parties to conflict. And by the way, intriguingly, for a humanitarian enterprise, a little bit 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 joint advocacy is, you know, you look at a little bit in vain. So that's part of it. 

And then I think there is all the stuff about improving the way we deliver: the work that's been done on cash as a central component of the humanitarian delivery system, localisation, and so on. 

So I don't think it's a single vision. I think it's necessarily a complex one.


But interesting to hear you talking about moving away from seeing humanitarianism as a purely technical kind of role. 

You've already mentioned a few of the ways, in particular the growth of the industry, in how humanitarianism has changed. I was reminded recently that you were actually one of the drafters of the resolution that created what is now the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA. And, of course, were its deputy head, back in 1998. Coming back to the humanitarian sector now, some two decades later, what strikes you the most in terms of what has changed?


I think it's been a sea change. And I have been out of it for 20 years. So it's really interesting to come back directly, you know, to be overwhelmed by it. The sea change has to do with the way in which humanitarian agencies work together. 

As you know, there's an enormous amount of sophisticated, time-consuming, necessary programme work that goes on, grinds on in every place where there's a humanitarian programme each year: identifying the priority needs, identifying forms of delivery, identifying priorities, auditing what happened before, working in clusters, as we put it, to work on specifics. So that effort - which you don't see, by the way, in anything like the same level of ambition in other sectors - is something which has changed enormously since I left the humanitarian world in 1999.


In a good sense, you mean?


In a very good sense, that is a very good sense - there are things we need to do to temper a bit the overwhelming grinding of this machine of programming; but that's another matter - but in a very good sense. 

Secondly, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, which brings together the key humanitarian agencies, and which I chair, is a pretty collegiate place.


This surprises you?


It does surprise me. I came out of the 1990s with a lot of scars [having] been involved in coordination those days. But here's the thing, and you know this better than me: there is a design fault in the humanitarian enterprise because it is based, of course, on competition between agencies: competition for money, competition for the brand, competition for profile. Nothing wrong with that, but then we then tell these agencies, ‘You can compete, but actually we don't want you to compete. We want you to coordinate and cooperate’. And it's a tension, which is not resolved. And I think, frankly, ultimately, it's not resolvable by our current system. 

I think the improvements made over the last 20 years have reduced [the] dysfunctions that would have resulted from that clash. I think my role, with the sort of background that I have, is urgently to make sure that there is a sort of family of the heads of agencies and that, ideally, it should not be a closed circuit, you know, that it should be open to new thinking. We have to get national organisations much, much better represented at those levels of leadership. Really keen to hear more from them, and localisation, as you know, is one of the issues that we need to see progress on. So the system works much better. I think it delivers better, but the job now is bigger, and the politics are more in our face, really.


What puzzles you about the way it operates today? You've said in the past that donors are a puzzle. I'd love to hear more about that.


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 in countries, donors are represented along with agencies, and we have the humanitarian coordinator chairing it. So that was new to me. It wasn't really quite like that. We had good donorship processes back in the 1990s. But this has changed. And it's really important that we balance that with a recognition and respect to host countries, to local communities, to the fact that - as I saw in northeastern Nigeria last week - it is the local communities which are keeping a lot of displaced camps going. We see it very vividly in Tigray, this last year. It is host governments; and if their contribution is monetised, [it] would be very significant. So we need to build back those partnerships - globally, not just at country level. That's something that's on my to do list. I mean a $41 billion programme, in however many countries - it's so big, it's so massive, that you need to be really smart about how to move the needle.


And which bits of the needle are you trying to move? 


We will improve our capacity, both in OCHA, and at country level, and with the Inter-Agency Standing Committee on issues of access, and humanitarian negotiations and space. So we'll do that. That's clear. And that's my background as well. 

Secondly, I think we need to understand much better - this is going to be the year for it - the impact of climate change. You wouldn't want to be living in the Horn of Africa in these months. It's hell to watch. But we need to understand it better, and move beyond just anticipatory action, but into a different form of programming. 

The next, which is linked to that, is to make sure that there is a sensible relationship and partnership with the development sector. They do 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. And again, northeast Nigeria is a good example, but so is Afghanistan, so is Syria. Most humanitarian projects, programmes have to coexist, and that relationship needs fixing. 

And then there's localisation and cash. There's some of those issues, which are so important. So there's an agenda of issues as well as an agenda of crises. One of the difficulties in my sort of daily life is that your attention and your time is constantly drawn to the crisis, because of course they’re urgent. But that doesn't make them important. And making sure there's time enough for the issues, I think it's going to be important for me. I don't want to leave OCHA - in the very distant future, whenever that happens - without having done something about making the humanitarian effort a bit more human and a bit more focused.


I want to pick up on a number of things you've talked about, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, access. But maybe just where you ended there on making the sector more human. One of the things we've talked about a lot on this podcast is the unequal power dynamics within the humanitarian sector. I heard an interview with you once in which you describe speaking to a refugee in the Democratic Republic of Congo - this was back in 1997; you remember the one I'm talking about - where, while you're speaking to her, her baby dies in that moment, and the baby's liquids flood across your trousers, and she's so embarrassed by this, that she's cleaning your pants in the midst of her moment of loss. And you said that in that moment, you realised the power dynamics that were at play. What are you doing, or planning to do, in your position now, to change those power dynamics?


I’m glad you mentioned that experience. It’s lived with me, you can imagine, ever since. And it was such a clear reminder of the negative power dynamics. And the negative power dynamics between us and the affected people; within agencies - UN, International NGOs, national NGOs, local NGOs. And you see it wherever you go, wherever you visit in the field, people are sitting in different rooms, pretty straightforwardly. 

My way into this issue is to address it within the context of the accountability to affected people. Now, it was very interesting to me that last autumn, when the annual meeting of humanitarian coordinators took place in Switzerland, in Montreux, in October, that group of very distinguished and experienced people from all over the world put this issue fairly high up their agenda. And I think the one that was more important was need for a duty of care on the prevention of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment of women. But that for me is… that's an obligation. That's not an optional issue. This accountability to affected people is an issue, and it's a priority. 

Now, the problem with this is that I believe, from my own experience, that it's much better done by development agencies, for all kinds of reasons the programme's cycle of a development programme is different. I was in ActionAid - you mentioned at the top of the program; we had difficulties in terms of our funding arrangements at ActionAid. Child sponsorship was a problem. But the grassroots community level empowerment work of ActionAid staff all over the world was absolutely wonderful to see. So I had some experience of that. At one point, many years in the past, I wrote UNICEF’s policy on this issue. So I'm aware how complicated it is, and how difficult it is for humanitarian agencies to get this right. 

So I’m glad that they put it high up on their agenda. But I said to the meeting, I said: ‘Let's not be naive about this. It's going to be a struggle. Our annual cycle doesn't help. The fact that humanitarian deliveries tend not to be a la carte - we bring food or tents or non-food items - is different from development. So we need to be quite careful and reasonable and focused on getting it right. And I want to do this, and scale it up from certain countries’ experience. I think it's crucial. It relates to localisation. But it's a slightly different aspect of it.


But you're saying it can be more easily done within a longer timeframe. But within the reality of humanitarian response, it still needs to be addressed. So what are you trying to do to address it?


First of all, let's recognise that most humanitarian operations are not only annual, and so, many of the efforts being made are having a sort of two or three-year horizon, while you fundraise every year, because of the funding arrangements of member states. But you have a two to three-year horizon. So you can actually take humanitarian action into a slightly different place. I think that's possible. 

The more that cash becomes central to the delivery of systems, the more a la carte, we will be able to get. I think cash is 20 percent now of the overall assistance and we'd like to get it up to 40 or 50 [percent]. So that will help too. 

So I think we can make improvements - incremental improvements - in this. And we can at least improve our capacity to listen to what people want. There was a very vivid example from the UN and NGO operation into northwest Syria - the cross-border operation out of Gaziantep in Turkey. I was there a few months ago. And in one of the conversations that they had been having with local people, the displaced - who are sitting in Idlib province, and have been for years - I think it was one of the women 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?’ It was just the sort of remark that we human beings make because it's so kind of real. 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, I think in this regard.


Another way, at a much more geopolitical level in which power dynamics play out in this sector is through the appointments to positions like yours. You are, of course, very well aware that you're the fifth British person in a row appointed to the role of UN humanitarian chief. And this time around, there was quite a push for the UN Secretary-General to consider a broader pool of global talent. And I think for some people, your appointment was a missed opportunity - for all the respect they had for you - for OCHA to be more representative of the people that it's meant to serve. Did that give you pause when you were taking up the role? Did you consider declining and advocating for diversity at these leadership levels?


It was perfectly clear to me there wasn't going to be an appointment outside those conventional things. Of course, I do think, that said, that it's a very strange system, which keeps certain positions for the permanent five members [of the Security Council]. I was very pleased that the British government did not support my candidature for this job, in fact. So I came in being British, but not as an official recommendation of the government of the United Kingdom. I remember talking to some people when I did come into this - and bearing in mind that comment that you made earlier about ‘well, this is your last job so better make sure it's a good one’ - I think some of your colleagues were recommending to me, ‘Make sure you're the last, before the world wakes up. This is too…  how can I say this without being immodest? This is too crucial a job to be left to favouritism. That's the proposition, isn't it? I hope we move in that direction. But it's a bigger issue than the humanitarian job. It's the way our world seems to work.


Let’s stick within the humanitarian realm. At the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, a couple years ago, Foreign Policy published an article showing that OCHA was the worst of all the UN agencies when it came to diversity in senior positions. They cited staff describing it as a “neo-colonial fiefdom with a particularly Anglo-Saxon complexion”. And I want to go back again to when you were first appointed, because we did ask a number of people in the sector for their thoughts about you. And one of them said: “He comes from the more traditional humanitarian world, led by the Global North, and I'm not sure how he will deal with the deeper transformation of the humanitarian system that's needed.” 

So you're saying, ‘I want to be the last [Briton in this role]’. From your position as a Western white male, what is your contribution towards dismantling racism and decolonising the structures within the humanitarian sector?


Interesting you say that. I’ve just come out of three hours for OCHA’s people on diversity, equity, anti-racism and acknowledging difference. And I was lucky enough to be in the first tranche of people going into this. And it’s very well facilitated and asked some very tough questions. It was very, very interesting listening to my colleagues, my new colleagues in OCHA, talking about some of the grave difficulties that OCHA needs to address to improve the culture of its workplace, essentially. That’s the point. 

Now, we have good gender parity in OCHA. And I think there’s been a good effort on that. And I'm sure that we should stick to making that better. Diversity is the challenge. That's just within OCHA. But of course, as you're suggesting, Heba, it doesn't stop there. It’s not just OCHA’s staff. I think this goes back to your question about the power imbalance. How do we look at planning at the local level, localisation, affected people's views? 

It's going to be a generational change. If you step back and look at the progress of humanitarian action, humanitarian action started with Solferino and Eglantyne Jebb and all that Northern principled effort. And God bless them, we did have that effort. It's been through a process of improving its technical skills and technical ways of working together. And the next wave is going to be values, isn't it? It's going to be the values that you're referring to. 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.


So how are you going to start?


Well, first of all, we're working on diversity through this dialogue, but also through appointments. A new deputy will be arriving here in February to be the deputy head of OCHA: Joyce Msuya, who is coming from UNEP, UN Environmental Programme. And she and I will be working closely together on this. She occupies a post I had, as you said earlier, 20 years ago. So that will help. She's a very strong voice and strong manager. So we need to drive that within OCHA. 

Within the IASC, it's [about] how we empower national, local voices. And then there is accountability to affected people and localisation as instruments of change. 

I think OCHA has a lot to do and actually can be proud of many of the things it’s done. OCHA runs country-based pooled funds, which are generously donated to by donors, and I think this last year reached over $1 billion globally. And those pooled funds, which are programmed locally - decisions made locally - gave I think a little under 40% - 36% of those pooled funds - went to local organisations. That is proof of OCHA’s determination to do something tangible about changing the priorities and the way things work.


I want to come back to my question on donors, because I - reading between the lines - understood you to be saying the system is weighted perhaps a bit too much towards the donors. I think it's fair to say the humanitarian system’s agenda, its financing, its discourse, its norms, its values - as you've just referred to - are dominated by Western countries. And we see that playing out in many ways. You know, the US is quick to call out Russia for violating international humanitarian law, but itself has a terrible record of abuse of civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond. It's quick to call genocide when it's the Burmese Government in question, but happy to turn a blind eye when Saudi Arabia is committing abuses in Yemen. The EU is quick to defend humanitarian principles, but very happy to close its border[s] to asylum seekers. I could go on. How do you see that hypocrisy? Does it frustrate you - that Western domination of the system?


First of all, I don't describe it as hypocrisy. B. I well understand - given the way the humanitarian community is structured, the agencies first, and the way that they raise funds from those very member states - I totally understand the need and the desire for those member states to get quite deeply involved. I think I'm a realist about this, as opposed to sad about it. I want to say one very interesting thing, which I just earlier this week discovered: when we recently went through efforts to increase attention to cash as a basis for delivery, it was the role of donors in that Grand Bargain structure which helped a lot to get the humanitarian agencies to come to what I think they have come to - an agreement. So donors make very, very useful policy decisions as well. I am not going to criticize them. 

However, as I said earlier, the balance needs to happen. And secondly, perhaps - and Afghanistan is the great case of the last few months - humanitarian action has become, and I see this all the time, more and more interesting, politically, internationally, isn’t it? The Security Council of the United Nations is quite focused on humanitarian issues; often, it will seem to me, even more than political peace and security issues. I, for example, am constantly briefing the Security Council on matters. 

And in Afghanistan, there's some competition among member states to take leads in how to engage the Taliban. I would plead for our space to do that. I would plead for the professionals in this game as you like, the humanitarian agencies, principally there at country level, to take those things forward. So 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. A lot of my job is that sort of stewardship, and to do it on behalf of the agencies.


And I would say you've gone beyond most perhaps in very actively trying to build bridges with non western countries reaching out to the G77, to countries like Pakistan or Bolivia. And to my mind moving beyond simply kind of reinforcing Western views of humanitarian principles. Is that because it has a real implication on the ground, in terms of access, in terms of aid delivery?


Yeah, because the brutal truth, if you like, is that the people who are best placed to either impede or facilitating a humanitarian operation are indeed the people on the ground: the host government, the non-state armed groups, you know, Boko Haram up in Borno State, the Nigerian government and so forth. 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. One of the things that comes out very strongly in the Ethiopian context over the last months is that there's a constant call by Member States and others, for “unimpeded humanitarian access”. It's a complicated concept, unimpeded humanitarian access. Because 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 I think that's our job to define what unimpeded humanitarian access is - rather than the job of Member States. That's our obligation, and our responsibility, and frankly, our privilege.


So what does that look like in Ethiopia, which is one of the most limited countries in terms of aid operations? And you've spoken quite a bit about just how constrained the environment is. You've tried to speak out, as you're suggesting, be in the driver's seat in terms of advocacy on access. That didn't really work; it actually just led to more staff being expelled. So when you are up against all of that red tape, what are you trying to do to increase access? It's, as you mentioned off the top, one of your priorities.


Finding out who needs to talk to whom to get it to work. I've long since learned - for years and years and years - that humanitarian space is rarely, if ever, absolutely granted. It's always constrained and contained in conflict areas - and Ethiopia is no different from anywhere else. Indeed, recently,  there's been some moves to improve access. The government of Ethiopia has brought in certain measures. 

However - and this goes back to perhaps my role as a mediator - 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. We're going to keep trying, we're going to keep arguing, we're going to keep talking to key governments to talk to other governments to talk to other authorities. We'll keep doing this. We maintain very close contact also with TPLF leaders in Mekelle, obviously, with the Prime Minister and others in Addis. 

But 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. It doesn't mean to say that we will predicate our advocacy on a ceasefire. I think that's important to state. We will predicate our advocacy on the international humanitarian principles which demand access to those in need. But there's no question that access during conflict… it’s always been very, very difficult to get it to work seamlessly. And Ethiopia is one of those places.


I think what you're saying here is that these are humanitarian problems that don't necessarily have humanitarian solutions. And that's where I was going to turn to Afghanistan as another example of this. Even if your UN humanitarian appeal was fully funded, that wouldn't save Afghanistan. And you are, in the same way that in Ethiopia, trying to push for that ceasefire in Afghanistan, you're taking a different approach from what might be traditionally considered humanitarian, in terms of engaging beyond the bounds of humanitarian response. Trying to save the economy, trying to get the frozen assets released, and so on. Would you consider that redefining what it means to be humanitarian in this day and age, that it's not about just delivering tarpaulin and bags of rice anymore?


No, I don't think so. I think the specific drive which led, particularly Peter Maurer of ICRC and I to do a lot of lobbying about the economy in Afghanistan of late has been the fact that humanitarian operations can't work if the economy isn’t rescued. It's a condition precedent for humanitarian operations: liquidity in the sector. 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 as you're suggesting, it's also more than that. What I think is important, to answer your question, is the humanitarians do not stray outside their role of humanitarian assistance protection. And as I said earlier, to allow others to act - development actors, economists, business, the private sector. There's a tendency of humanitarians, because they're quite efficient, to mop up other bits of business. And the emergency money obviously goes through humanitarian hands. 

Afghanistan is a real challenge to this. The humanitarian operation has the privilege of being unconditional. That's a principle in humanitarian action. That means that governments can, should and do fund humanitarian programs. Where they're hanging back from development because of their worries about the Taliban. 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. 

Yes, on economy. It's the same in Syria: the economy is also a huge factor. It's the same in Yemen, where David Gressly, the UN humanitarian coordinator, is working actively on the economic issues, and rightly so. So it's not an alien concept, but it's become more observed and challenging in recent months. And Afghanistan is a place which teaches us a lot. 

Incidentally, [in] Afghanistan, we have very good access. Access is not a problem in Afghanistan. The best access at the moment for humanitarian agencies in terms of the country, for the last 20 years. It doesn't say that there aren't problems or principles. But straight access, not bad.


But you're getting stuck basically doing service delivery in Afghanistan. And I'm just really struggling with what the way out is. If you look across the board on the humanitarian front, you've got rising needs due to COVID; you've got rising needs due to climate change; you've got these crises where you're essentially basic service providers. And as you've said, you can't keep mopping up these messes, where humanitarians are substituting for the state or kind of being stuck with the problems that have structural solutions, that you're in no position to address. So what do you see as the way out?


I don't think there is an easy way out of this one. They're pushed to the front. And as you say, they're now getting involved in basic service delivery, which is better done, as I keep saying, by others. And the humanitarian actions are better done by us. It's impossible for people and humanitarian agencies not to attend to issues of basic services, if they are not attended to by others. 

And many people - many humanitarian aid workers remind us - and I know from my own background, many, many years ago, we ran schools. So it's a basic service. ICRC has done health care for generations. So it's not as if humanitarian agencies haven't done basic services before; they have. But it's somehow that they're alone doing it. 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. 

Go to northeastern Nigeria, where there's a huge need for livelihood development, basic services, preparations; where the humanitarians can do the emergency aid, but we need to partner with others - the international development sector, the international financial institutions, as I keep being reminded, the [World] Bank and others, but also the government. In this new generation of change that we've been discussing here today - 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. And that's part of the discussion that the Inter-Agency Standing Committee has - and needs to have.


In terms of knowing what humanitarianism is and is not: your entire career, and the whole humanitarian industry, really, at least in recent decades, has revolved around conflict. And as you mentioned, at the beginning, climate change is this real new challenge. We recently published a piece by humanitarian ethicist Hugo Slim and he argues that the sector needs to move away from war humanitarianism to climate humanitarianism - developing new forms of climate relief, even legal protections in the form of International Climate Law, just like we have International Humanitarian Law. What is your vision for how humanitarians deal with climate change? What is their specific added value in this massive endeavor?


Well, I think Hugo is right to say it's a big new challenge. And as I was saying earlier, I think this year we're going to see it land on us with a resounding thud. I think the first thing it means for the humanitarian agencies is to see what's the limit of their responsibility in this. And that goes back to what we've just been talking about: the long term responsibilities of other actors - IFIs (International Financial Institutions), development agencies and so forth - who are there to provide the preventive efforts to prevent the consequences of climate change. We should stick to our emergency response obligations, but we need to obviously factor in - as this concept ‘anticipatory action’ does - we need to factor in a couple of things. 

One - that we may be able to predict - and that could be a silver lining - we may be able to predict ‘it's going to be a drought there, a flood there’. Secondly, we need to look at new forms of financing, climate financing, as people like Nick Dyer, for example, in London, keeps reminding us that there's an opportunity there because we need to fill the cash gap. 

It’s work in progress within OCHA as to the limits of what is the obligation of humanitarian agencies. Obviously, it's being dealt with in the other agencies. And I think this is something which we could well have a sort of - not a summit - but a real important policy process during the months of this year, based on what's going to be probably a difficult experience in the field.


It's interesting, because on one hand, you ascribe or seem to ascribe to a more purist view of humanitarianism, where we should just stick to the humanitarian response. And on the other hand, as we've been talking about, there are many ways in which I think you're broadening the mandate in really trying to get at what is it that will make the biggest difference for people who are affected by crises? Where can we have the greatest leverage? So I think that's an interesting tension. 

We ask everyone on this program, at the end of every episode, what one practical thing they can do, or they have done to improve the way the world responds to crises. You have said that in this work it's very useful to worry about whether you're doing it right. And so I wonder what you, if there was one thing that you want to achieve, to change - one thing that you'd like affected communities to tell you that at the end of your tenure, you did right, or you improved - what is it?


I hope that the legacy, if you like, depending on how long I'm allowed to do this, will be in the area of affected people, and the accountability to them, and the responsiveness to them of humanitarian programming, planning, and delivery. I hope it's in that. I think it's probably going to be a bit longer to get that right. But I hope we can really move that forward, because that's also an important part of my experience. 

I suspect that what is more likely than that is 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 and other things. And, okay, let's do that. But let's get access to be smart. Let's get advocacy to be focused and targeted. But let's also change our relationship with those we serve.


Martin, thank you for joining us on the Rethinking Humanitarianism podcast. We've covered a lot of ground and I appreciate you taking the time.


Thanks a lot, Heba. Thanks.


Much of what I’ve talked about with Martin are topics that have come up throughout Season 2 of this podcast. So for more about power dynamics in the sector, the challenges of responding to crises in Ethiopia and Afghanistan, how the aid sector deals with climate change, check out past episodes or visit our website: www.TheNewHumanitarian.org/podcast. 

This was the last episode of Season 2. Thank you for listening and engaging with us throughout the season. If you’ve got thoughts on this episode, this season, or what you’d like to hear from us in Season 3, write to us or send us a voice note. You know the address: [email protected]

We will be back with Season 3 of Rethinking Humanitarianism later this year.

But in the meantime, The New Humanitarian will be bringing you a new podcast series about innovations in the humanitarian sector. Host Alae Ismail will take a user-centered approach to innovation. So she’ll be talking to people affected by conflict and disaster to ask them how innovation can help them. In the first episode, you’ll hear about a platform that enables people affected by crises to voice their anonymous feedback on the aid they’ve received. 

Stay tuned for that next month! 

Today, we’ll leave you a clip from an event The New Humanitarian hosted two years ago, where Kenyan political analyst Patrick Gathara speaks to a topic that not only came up in this conversation with Martin but has been a running theme in many of our discussions on Rethinking - that the world can’t keep responding to crises without addressing the underlying structural issues that cause them. 

This podcast is a production of The New Humanitarian. 

This episode was edited by Marthe van der Wolf. 

And I’m your host Heba Aly.

Thank you for listening to Rethinking Humanitarianism.

Audio clip, The New Humanitarian, June 2020: 

“One of the problems with the aid system, and the humanitarian system is that it provides a solve for this thing. It perpetuates this idea ‘if we just fix the immediate emergencies, then we don't have to speak about the structural problems’. Sp we keep or maintain countries in this situation of precariousness for years. So you keep talking about chronic crises, but it is implied that there are weaknesses within the country, or that let's build resilience. So people learn to cope with a system that really should not exist, but should it be built in resilience? It should be removing the reason why we are saying build resilience . But that's not what we talk about. And this is what I think for me becomes the problem with the whole structure of humanitarian aid or the whole aim. What are we trying to achieve? Are we trying to fix the immediate problem? Yes. We've got somebody starving. Or are we trying to say that we should never have people starve? And I think, in as much as humanitarians tend to say, we are only dealing with the emergency, then they become part of the system that perpetuates, the chronic problems on this situation of precariousness.

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