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Q&A: ‘UN doesn’t have to change,’ says relief chief

In his first official visit as United Nations Under Secretary-General for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, Stephen O'Brien visits a camp for the displaced in the Iraqi city of Erbil Campbell MacDiarmid/IRIN
Stephen OBrien began his tenure at the beginning of June

With record numbers of people in crisis around the world, the largest push in decades is under way to reform emergency aid, culminating in a major international summit to be held in Istanbul next year. But to hear it from the head of UN relief, it doesn’t need much fundamental change.

“So often the questions I’m asked assume that somehow everything is broke. It isn’t. The system is not broken.”

As the final consultation in the lead-up to the World Humanitarian Summit wrapped up in Geneva today, IRIN’s Managing Editor Heba Aly sat down with newly appointed UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O’Brien to understand his vision for international emergency aid at a time of unprecedented global crises. 

Just over 100 days into the job, he told IRIN: 

  • The UN does not need to fundamentally change (though it could use a few “extras”); the international aid system is not broken
  • The suggestion that the UN is becoming less relevant than other crisis responders is not true; the UN remains the world’s major aid provider
  • His priorities in office include resource mobilisation (specifically diversifying the donor base), better common data, and a rethink on how to put affected people at the heart of humanitarian response
  • The World Humanitarian Summit process should lead to a greater push for political solutions to conflicts and more effective humanitarian support (from protecting civilians and accessing remote/insecure areas to greater accountability and transparency)
  • Focusing on concrete actions to come out of WHS is “boring”, “uninspirational” and “so off the mark”
  • Changing UN mandates would be an “irresponsible distraction” and unifying UN emergency response would not best serve the nuance and context of each different crisis
  • OCHA is not too big; it has had to grow to cope with rising needs
  • His background as a British politician should be seen as an asset, not a bias

During the interview, he refused to outline specific outcomes he would push for in the lead-up to the World Humanitarian Summit, a $24 million process, insisting that the WHS secretariat’s role was to “listen” not “transmit.”

But in prepared remarks during the closing of the Geneva meeting, he vowed to attract commitments from governments and others to rally around specific proposals that are developing “political momentum” – recommendations that a few years ago, “we could have only dreamed of making a reality”. He cited:  

  • Empowering women and girls to be leaders in humanitarian response
  • A mechanism to monitor the application of international humanitarian law 
  • Financing that would allow refugees and host communities to live dignified lives
  • Adequate and predictable emergency aid financing and resource allocation based on needs
  • Increased capacity, including funding and support, for local first responders

Read our conversation, edited for length, or listen to the full interview below.

Heba Aly: The world is facing more humanitarian crises than ever before and the traditional international aid system is struggling to cope. As other actors – other than the UN – play a more and more important role in responding to crises, the UN appears to be losing its role as the primary custodian of humanitarian response. What’s your vision for how the international emergency aid system has to change to be able to better respond? And could you outline a few core strands you will work towards during your mandate?

Stephen O’Brien: Well I think the premise of your question actually is not correct because when you actually look around the world, the amount of humanitarian need broadly comes to something like $25-26 billion, of which it is the UN’s responsibility to find about $20 billion. And that broadly amounts to a need to save an estimated 80 million lives. … And the UN has become the continuing major actor in providing the humanitarian assistance…

And the world – let’s face it – has never been more generous than it currently is. It’s just the escalating demand of humanitarian requirements has gone up even further. So that’s when, of course, there is a stress in the system… [we are] seeing the gap widen between what we know we want to do and need to do – and what we have the available means to carry out and to achieve. 

And that is why it is absolutely incumbent upon the UN to continue to absolutely understand and marshal the facts, be quick on establishing the data, so that we have the shared basis upon what is the nature and the scale of the challenge. We can put out the clear requirement of what is needed, and that’s our job: to try and get people to generously support, and continue to support, meeting the life-saving protection of civilians and the hope and dignity needs of people who are vulnerable and in need.

But do you think the UN needs to change the way it does its business?

I think that that is as much as to say that somehow something’s wrong. It isn’t. Let us absolutely celebrate the most amazing amount of great work that has been carried out by the UN and the UN agencies, all the UN workers, many who have ultimately paid the sacrifice…

And so the answer is no the UN doesn’t have to change. What has to [be done is] we have to build on all this fantastic track record and build on the best, and yes then change to add and to bring in more innovation, more skills, more ability to generate the high-impact results of life-saving and protection of civilians that we know can be achieved and working increasingly with a wider range of partners… 

You mentioned data; you mentioned resource allocation. What are your priorities over the next few years that you think you, as the [Emergency Relief Coordinator], need to focus in on?

Well of course it’s absolutely vital that all the resources that can be mobilised, and we need to look at innovative and different sources so we intensify the current donor base as well as broaden the donor base, the partnerships. 

It’s clear that we need to recognise that this data management and capture, the collaboration between all the various agencies and partners so that we can have a clear common base of what needs to be done and how we can do it…

That’s why the innovation, the call to all of us, from the [World Humanitarian Summit] consultations from all the stakeholders around the world is to really rethink how we put the affected peoples at the very heart of everything we do. Of course that’s what motivates everybody who’s engaged in this ambitious activity. But how do we really make that happen? How do we really give that sense of collaborative partnership with affected peoples? Rather than knowing that there is a problem and, as it were, taking the action to people rather than working with people.

We are now six months away from this major, historic summit that is meant to radically reform the way humanitarian action takes place so that it better meets the needs of people affected by crises. IRIN has followed the consultations in the lead-up to the summit closely. And until now, I haven’t seen participants coming together around a concrete set of proposals – particularly, but not only, the governments. Do you think the aid system will radically change following this World Humanitarian Summit? 

Well I see it very much as the glass half-full. I do reject any sense that somehow we’re coming from a negative place. Let’s always remember the enormous and phenomenal work that is taking place. We’ve got to be so careful in these summits when we’re giving ourselves the opportunity – a once-in-a-generation chance – to re-inspire the ownership of the cause of doing the best of our humanity to our fellow men and women. And that is what the summit is about: to reset the ambition and re-energize, mobilise our ability to meet these escalating needs. 

Let’s be clear: the first and best way of tackling humanitarian needs is for there to be no conflict. We know that natural disasters will occur... But with 80 percent of humanitarian need now in conflict, it has to be said: the first thing is to demand peace. That means the political structures and political solutions have to come first. 

The second is that we need to be ever more effective in how we deliver humanitarian support, and that is where looking at the protection of civilians, ensuring that basic services are available even in areas of conflict, ensuring that there is access to people in need and that we can raise the resources because donors – more intensified, broader-based as we hope – will be encouraged, will have the continuing confidence that the public money, which they are generously giving, is used to the very best of optimum impact. That means we have to have ever-greater efficiency, ever-greater transparency, ever-greater accountability. Without burdening those who are having to get on with the work at the front line, at the ground level with so much compliance and bureaucracy that it gets in the way of actually delivering the results that we all want to see achieved. And that is a balance that has to be struck. 

So yes, I hope there will be very dramatic, extra ways of delivering humanitarian action. But I start from the point of the glass is half full. I don’t come from a negative perspective. So often the questions I’m asked assume that somehow everything is broke. It isn’t. The system is not broken. It’s simply financially broke. The demands are higher than currently the resources are available to meet those needs. 

You mentioned a few things there: demanding peace, better protection of civilians in crisis, accountability and transparency. What are three concrete outcomes or proposals that you will push for to come out of the Summit to achieve those goals?

…The very word ‘outcome’ implies there needs to be some kind of set of proposals which need to be negotiated. That’s not what we’re doing here.

The summit is a generational opportunity to re-inspire, re-base, get a vision going, making sure people are really enthusiastic behind this great cause of giving humanitarian action. And that’s why it’s been under the Secretary-General’s initiative and leadership. Two years ago, he called on the world to come together – all the stakeholders, a multi-stakeholder process – and that is what we have been building, is to get all the voices heard in a global consultation where we have been to all corners of the globe and had eight regional consultations and many thematic consultations. 

We’ve now got the synthesis report. This is containing many recommendations and calls for action, grouped amongst broadly five themes, and this is giving us a great clarity and momentum to build towards the summit. 

Implementing these great, inspirational, visionary ideas, building on the best, making sure that we do capture the innovation and the better ways of broadening what we do, that of course is the plan that needs to be rolled out after Istanbul. Otherwise people are always talking about concrete actions as though they’ve got some kind of negotiation up to Istanbul. That’s of course a complete misreading of where we are. And indeed the General Assembly in 2014 passed a resolution very much committing to, and approving, this process of a multi-stakeholder summit process, which is exactly where we are. 

If I understood you right, that means there will be no concrete outcomes or proposals that will be agreed in Istanbul?

No you didn’t hear me say that and I’m certainly not going to answer that question because that would be for you to know the summit before the future can be known. I mean that would be extraordinary for somebody from IRIN to ask me the question, which of course everybody’s going to have to be much more patient and much more eagerly awaiting this fantastic, exciting opportunity that we have at the summit. 

And otherwise you might seek to even negotiate what might be in those outcomes and that would be completely inappropriate because we’re going for a very, very high level of inspiration and leadership. This is not about trying to find the lowest common denominator of agreement. 

But what I’m hearing from everyone at the summit is: It’s great to have this inspiration and this talk, but we don’t know what concretely is on the table for us. How are we actually going to get to that vision if we don’t have a road map? So I’ve heard several governments say I’m not going to send my minister or my prime minister to the summit unless I see some substance.

Well you’ve just asked precisely the wrong question of course because you’ve just said ‘everyone’, and then you’ve referred to member states. There are actually very few member states here. This is mainly the consultation of the world. It’s a global consultation. Member states are vital stakeholders, but they’re not the only ones who have an interest in humanitarian action and inspiration and leadership. 

And so when you say you’ve been hearing this about a roadmap, yes of course people at a bureaucratic level want to have the chance to talk about a document. But that is very uninspirational. That isn’t what gives people inspiration and a sense of real political motivation to get behind the idea of delivering the best of humanity to our fellow men and women who are in need. 

And so I think there’s a grave danger that both at a journalistic level, and sometimes at the working level, there is a real sense of: ‘Let’s get away from all this enthusiastic, inspirational stuff; let’s get back to a really boring level of work day and negotiation to talk about a few little concrete items which might make a marginally incremental difference’. That’s so off the mark. And so, if you don’t mind me saying, you’ve just asked me precisely the wrong question. 

Well, I would say it’s not only the states that have voiced these concerns but also civil society actors. Those same civil society actors and that various group of stakeholders that you’ve described have also said: ‘How are we actually going to there?’ I think there’s a real concern out there that it’s great to have a lot of discussions, but unless we have a concrete path to take, we will never actually see the change that you’ve described. So that concern is widespread, much beyond just the governments. 

Well it’s not how you put the first question. But secondly, on this basis, if I was to give an answer to that now, the global consultation we’re in would be completely insincere, completely unauthentic. We’re here today because we have the culmination of a global consultation. We’ve been listening, not transmitting. 

One of the proposals that has come out of the summit consultations thus far – and I think we have reached the stage where it’s time to consolidate around specific ideas; the consultation phase is now reaching the end – … one of the recommendations has been to make the international emergency aid system more inclusive and more coherent, in particular to change the composition of the governing coordination mechanism – the IASC (Inter-Agency Standing Committee) – and to review UN mandates. One specific recommendation was to turn the 10 or so UN agencies that deal with humanitarian response to a more unified UN emergency system with unified lines of accountability. Is there any serious chance of change in mandates or mergers of agencies?

Well maybe you and I aren’t talking to the same people, but I really haven’t been hearing a great demand for mandates because people know that’s an incredibly introspective thing that will end up tying us up for ages and postpone the chance of really intensifying and increasing our ability to deliver humanitarian action on the ground in this escalating world of humanitarian action that’s needed. So I’m not hearing demands that we want to start unpicking the mandates and getting into a great debate on that, no. Actually I’m hearing mainly the contrary – that that would be the most irresponsible distraction. It would give a lot of the commentators a wonderful chance to have lots to do, but it would actually be completely irrelevant to the people in need who need us the most. 

As far as the architecture and instruction of the delivery of both UN agencies and way beyond, we’re talking about international NGOs, many, many national NGOs, delivering on the ground very bravely. We’re talking about philanthropists, academia, many people locally, volunteers and communities and the self-help that comes from people who suddenly are faced with perilous demands. And it’s clear that there is always room to do things better; there is always room for more efficiency. But there has to be a clear alignment between the skills and the experience, and you can’t do that by having a one-size-fits-all mega architecture, that somehow it’s like a one-stop shop. When you think about the demands of helping people in Nepal, versus the demands of helping people who have run necessarily from Ramadi into Baghdad, escaping terrible pressures. These are remarkably different skills which require different people to be doing different things to be giving the best support. 

Your predecessor, Valerie Amos, is credited with really putting your agency, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, on the map. OCHA’s budget has grown to around $300 million per year. It now employs nearly 2,000 staff. But OCHA is meant, of course, to be a coordinating body. And some governments are now complaining that it’s gotten a bit too big; we’re seeing a bit of mandate creep; and we’re not necessarily seeing the quality of information-gathering that they might like. What are your plans for managing OCHA as an organisation?

Well that’s interesting. Not one government has said that to me. Not one. And I’ve now been in post for four months. 

The one thing that I have learned – and I’m absolutely clear about – is the information-gathering, the data-capture, the authority that comes from knowing the facts, quickest on the ground, in a way that are credible and well-sourced. Then putting that together in a way which can be communicated widely so people can depend upon it to make decisions, where we can marshal what is necessary to resource the actions that we need to deliver life-saving (aid) and protection of civilians. Through even good infographics you can reduce to one page, everybody can quickly understand what is the need in and around Syria at the moment, and you can see that off a particular document that OCHA has been skilled to produce. It is clear to me that that core business is one which is highly valued and I’ve received and heard nothing but praise for that and I regard that as something we need to continue to invest in… 

Inevitably with the huge rise in demands, it’s no surprise that the size of OCHA has had to rise – not in proportion – but has had to rise in order to help make sure those demands are serviced… 

I think it is very important to recognise that we have a real task to always be striving to do thing better, more efficiently, making ever better use of the resources made available to us, and I’m deeply conscious, having been on the other side of the table on these matters in the past from previous parts of my career, but at the same time the needs have never been greater. Therefore, we have to find a way of rising to meet those challenges. 

IRIN published an article earlier this year by John Holmes, another predecessor of yours, giving you advice for your term in office.  I don’t know if you had the chance to see it, but the first point on his list was: Forget your nationality. You are of course a former British politician. You’ve served as the prime minister’s under secretary of state for international development. And I have heard concerns from some in the aid sector that you are quite close to Downing Street and don’t sufficiently represent the humanitarian sector. How do you respond to those concerns?

Well I don’t believe that those observations are well-founded. I think it is very important that when you become an international civil servant, which is what I have become in the last four months, that you’re very mindful that sense of international context. 

Nobody can ever deny the experience they’ve had and I hope I can bring the vast range of experiences I’ve had as an international lawyer, then as an international manufacturing industrialist, then as an elected politician, then as a minister, and as somebody who was then an envoy to one of the most needy places in the world – the Sahel, the south of the Sahara, across a whole swathe of many countries in Africa – and I hope I can bring those, plus all my voluntary activities – particularly focused on seeking to control malaria and other neglected tropical diseases – to bear upon the responsibilities I now have, which is to lead a remarkable organisation full of dedicated and skilled people where we are seeking to deliver right across the whole of the needs of humanity on our planet. 

I hope I can do that to the very best of my ability and that anybody who just because of the CV that we all carry – nobody comes to any of these jobs without experience – that they will realise that perhaps their perceptions, that if you come out of one particular country or one particular set of experiences that that necessarily means that you’re partial. I hope people as they come to know me better will realise that that is simply not well-founded and be a most inappropriate criticism.


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