The New Humanitarian Annual Report 2021

  1. Home
  2. Africa
  3. East Africa
  4. Sudan

Interview with Sir John Holmes - 'I'm adaptable to the circumstances'

Briton Sir John Holmes is the new United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.

His appointment by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was announced in January 2007. He takes over the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), previously headed by Norwegian Jan Egeland, from this month.

Born in northern England in 1951, grammar school-educated and Oxford graduate Holmes has had a 34-year diplomatic career and was most recently British ambassador to Paris. On the eve of the official start to his new job, Holmes talked to IRIN in a telephone interview about his priorities, his background, partnerships with non-governmental organisations and donors, criticisms of the OCHA-managed Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), UN reform and ‘humanitarian space’.


Holmes: “I haven’t got a lot of humanitarian experience, nor have I ever claimed to have a lot … but when I was in India [managing the British aid programme in the 1990s] in a sense, I came across the humanitarian ethic, the humanitarian imperative then. There are plenty of people around me who have lots of humanitarian experience and I hope that I am learning very fast.

“I admire what Jan Egeland did and I will want to continue that, consolidate that in my own way, obviously … try to make sure things happen on the ground … try to have the right kind of partnerships with the Red Cross and the NGOs; making OCHA a better-managed organisation. I’m a direct-speaking kind of person in general - when I need to shout from the rooftops I will do so. I’m adaptable to the circumstances.”

Engaging with NGOs

“Some of those criticisms [about his appointment] came from NGOs and I have spent a lot of time in my last month talking to NGOs in London, in Geneva, in New York and in Paris, listening to their views. I think I can demonstrate by what I do that I deserve their confidence – that’s the important thing – it’s not really what I did before that matters, it’s what I do now. I’m keen to listen to them and keen to work with them as equal partners … It’s not reasonable to say that someone who hasn’t done humanitarian work before can’t do it. I bring a different kind of experience, a lot of international experience, a lot of diplomatic experience … that should be valuable for OCHA as well.”


“Obviously I’m right at the beginning so it would be premature to be too definitive about this but clearly a lot of what needs to be done is to carry on with humanitarian reforms that have been put in place. There’s still a lot of work to do to consolidate those, to make them work effectively; that is obviously the CERF, the clusters [coordination in thematic areas], humanitarian coordinators and their role on the ground … There’s a lot of work to do, I think, in making OCHA more professional in terms of its personnel management and the standards of its work.”

On the CERF

“The CERF is a relatively young institution and no one can claim it’s operating perfectly yet. I think it’s doing a good job – that’s my initial impression – in directing money towards forgotten crises, for example. Clearly the NGOs have some issues with it. They would like to have direct access to it. I think that’s something we can look at although there are other issues about that … There are issues about transparency in where the money is going, there are issues about whether this is additional money or not – I believe there is additional money, but that’s not the view of everybody, so that’s one of the things I want to look at in my first few weeks.

"There are some issues that need to be resolved [with donors] about how far it can be said to be needs-based and how far it’s transparent and how far we can see clearly where the money is going. ‘Is it too UN-centric, where do the NGOs fit into this?’ A whole series of questions there; natural questions.”

On UN reform and humanitarian space

“I doubt whether we’ll get into mega-mergers [between UN agencies or departments]. Clearly there is a need for greater UN coherence but one of my concerns will be to make sure that humanitarian space is not lost … and to make sure the right balance is struck between the UN operating in a coherent and coordinated fashion, while also making sure that there is enough separation. That is a concern I’ve heard expressed a lot as I’ve been preparing myself and something I want to look at very carefully.

“It’s not just the civil-military division, it’s also the question of the UN operating in one sense as a peacekeeper and a political mediator and [also] as a humanitarian agency. Those two things need to be kept separate; otherwise there will be a confusion of roles.

“We have to be absolutely clear that the humanitarian side has to be separate up to a point and has to obey the principles that have always underpinned humanitarian work – impartiality and independence and neutrality.”

On Darfur

“I think my first trip will be to Africa. The most obviously burning problem remains Darfur where, in the absence of a political solution, humanitarian needs are enormous. [Humanitarian conditions and access] may be coming to a critical point. I want to go and see for myself.”


“I want to be an effective advocate for the humanitarian community. I’ll speak out where necessary about what I see and what I hear and if I think things aren’t going well. Are we doing a good job in coordinating humanitarian efforts on the ground in the event of a natural disaster, or in an ongoing crisis … are people getting the aid they need, when they need it, in an effective manner and a coherent fashion? That’s how I will be judged, that’s how the organisation will be judged.”

[IRIN is an editorially independent project of OCHA]


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:

Share this article
Join the discussion

Right now, we’re working with contributors on the ground in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries to tell the stories of people enduring and responding to a rapidly evolving humanitarian crisis.

We’re documenting the threats to humanitarian response in the country and providing a platform for those bearing the brunt of the invasion. Our goal is to bring you the truth at a time when disinformation is rampant. 

But while much of the world’s focus may be on Ukraine, we are continuing our reporting on myriad other humanitarian disasters – from Haiti to the Sahel to Afghanistan to Myanmar. We’ve been covering humanitarian crises for more than 25 years, and our journalism has always been free, accessible for all, and – most importantly – balanced. 

You can support our journalism from just $5 a month, and every contribution will go towards our mission. 

Support The New Humanitarian today.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.