Vacancy: someone to shake up humanitarian coordination

[blog entry]

When he started in his new job as UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator (USG/ERC) in the spring of 2015, Stephen O’Brien was given the daunting task of making the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), scheduled for the following year, a success. Admittedly, a substantial part of the failure of the WHS was beyond his command. The agenda became a shopping list; the number of commitments spiralled out of control; and the financing gap has only grown since the Istanbul summit. The shrinking of needs is easier said than done. But whether O’Brien should have resisted using the WHS as a platform to discuss the humanitarian system’s coordination architecture is another matter.

Coordination of the humanitarian system remains a UN prerogative. While member states have a say both formally and informally, the UN Secretary General (UNSG) designs and draws the boundaries of this construct. This year marks the 30th anniversary of UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182, which established the role of the USG/ERC, and created the Department for Humanitarian Affairs – succeeded by OCHA in 1998 – and the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), which allows OCHA to discharge its coordination mandate. Various USG/ERCs have made their mark: the late Sérgio Vieira de Mello had the confidence of all in the system, not least because he came from an operational agency, UNHCR. Jan Egeland introduced the cluster approach, initially to address the gap in the system’s response to situations concerning IDPs, but which then became the default humanitarian coordination arrangement. And Valerie Amos drove efforts to strengthen accountability for agencies’ performance. The legacies of others, not to mention their names, have quickly been forgotten. In the past few days, Mark Lowcock announced his resignation. Time will tell how he will be remembered.

Reminiscent of O’Brien’s reluctance, Lowcock did not demonstrate a great appetite for, as Mukesh Kapila put it, “a freshening-up of the UN’s humanitarian operating model“. Having been evaluated twice in the five years since it was first established in 2005, the cluster approach did not edge its way into the next decade with flying colours. Still, it was perceived as a good enough way forward for humanitarian coordination. Best practice would have been to continue to review its progress, and the owner of the cluster approach – the IASC – made a recommendation to do so. But this was not something its chair, the USG/ERC, saw fit to act upon – and so the cluster approach grinds on without any significant recent evaluation of its impact on the coverage and quality of the delivery of services.

Given humanitarian coordination is the USG/ERC’s mandate, whoever takes the helm at OCHA must have a vision for the future direction of travel, also as OCHA will soon be in need of a new strategy for the coming years. And it needs to be a direction that involves more than simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The basic promise of humanitarian coordination – that gaps in responses will be identified and agencies will be held accountable for these gaps – has hardly been fulfilled. Accountability remains the weakest link. Which Humanitarian Coordinator (HC) has told a UN agency that it should step aside because it is not delivering? Who decides eventually on the priorities of what services should be delivered first? Many humanitarian response plans look still a lot like the stapled plans of various agencies sold as strategic and collective goals. In practice, donor governments’ funding decisions impact highly on the priorities, but asking donors for their preferences when they provide unearmarked funds, as reportedly happened in the context of the Global COVID-19 appeal, would be the wrong way around.

Part of the conundrum of humanitarian coordination is the confusion between a UNHCR-led refugee response and the HC/OCHA-coordinated clusters, especially in situations that concern both refugees and IDPs – many of which happen to be among the worst crises on the planet. Progress on this matter has stalled. In too many refugee responses, UNHCR has yet to adopt a different, collaborative attitude beyond the level of mere intention. For IDPs, the response also remains fraught with issues, as UN agencies continue to hesitate to take on assertive governments that refuse to become part of the solution. Reportedly, the UNSG’s High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement – established to examine how the system addresses IDPs – also refused to make the humanitarian architecture part of its discussions. All of this calls for a USG/ERC who is not afraid of taking bold steps and instigating change.

With or without a system-wide humanitarian coordination review, there is plenty of evidence from which one can extract helpful suggestions for the future of humanitarian coordination. A study of UNHCR’s leadership in refugee responses identifies a range of actions that the agency should take to improve its coordination. The Center for Global Development published some very helpful suggestions on a more inclusive coordination model, one that would reflect the policy commitment to strengthen the role of local actors. Perhaps these proposals will find their way into a reinvigorated Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance in the new US administration. And these days UNICEF is taking the lead in actively seeking feedback on its role in humanitarian coordination in terms of cluster leadership. Surely these lessons will also be of benefit to others that dominate in the humanitarian coordination architecture.

The selection of the new USG/ERC falls to the UNSG, António Guterres. In the past, when he applied to become the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, he demonstrated a strong interest in a transparent and open recruitment process. It would be a step in the right direction if, this time, the job would go beyond the usual horse-trading among the five permanent members of the Security Council and that nationals from countries other than the UK be invited to apply. The panel that will help Guterres select the new USG/ERC would also be well-advised to ask the candidates about their views on humanitarian coordination and how they would apply lessons from the past. After all, those who do not learn from such mistakes are only doomed to repeat them.

12 Responses

  1. Mark Lowcock has been ERC during the Trump era, a much more polarized international community, with many questions on the relevance of multilateralism. He set about his task in a bureaucratic fashion, conscious of the need to meld humanitarian, development and political dimensions closer. Mark was important for the UN and the SG at a time of uncertainty over funding viz., humanitarian funding in general and specific attacks on WHO, UNRWA etc. I look forward to see who will take this role on and whether the UK is able to keep a handle on the post.

    1. Thank you, Jamie, for your comment. I had no illusions that Mark Lowcock, or any ERC for that matter, would overcome the many challenges put in the way of the unimpeded delivery of humanitarian action by certain governments. All I am suggesting is that his successor take a look at the coordination arrangements for humanitarian response and ensure that the model is representative of trends and stakeholders and fit for the future. Member states will want to have a say in this process, but the decision on the way forward primarily rests with the ERC and the UNSG.

  2. Mark like Stephen maintained a cool grip of humanitarian issues while navigating serious politics and interests, and were both honest to their support of coordination leadership at the field. This was not an easy task when major UN partners considered coordination of a lower value to their operations and mandates. The examples are many and varied. The ERC and the RC/HC can manage in this case to contain damage but to improve they would need a different UN system where protection of turf melts in favor of the larger good of coordinating assistance based on need not size or legacy.

    1. Thank you, Ali, for your comment. Your valuable remark that “major UN partners considered coordination of a lower value to their operations and mandates” points to a systemic issue. Agency representatives get still rewarded for what they do for their agency, not for what they do for the collective. When agency staff decide to fulfil a cluster coordination role it is a side-step at best in their career trajectory in that agency. The incoming ERC should raise this outdated incentive system in her/his first IASC and/or UN executive heads meeting. It might not earn her/him brownie points with colleagues but clarify hugely what the issues are that are in the way of more effective coordination and response.

  3. Thanks Ed for these insightful and interesting comments on the humanitarian system as it is poised to recruit its next (hopefully) fearless leader. You successfully put your finger on several of the proverbial wounds of the system, to include the fact that coordination remains the prerogative of the UN, the often debilitating tensions that exist between the UNHCR led refugee response system and the OCHA led architecture, as well the constraints of humanitarian leadership to confront recalcitrant, and in your words assertive, government authorities. I would add the fact that the NGO community in the journey of the now decades old reform process has been profoundly decapacitated, although I realize that may have been the subtext of your comment on the UN’s prerogative. I would also add the overarching observation that the humanitarian imperative seems to have been profoundly undermined in the ability to launch an effective response to acute humanitarian crisis driven by conflict, what our MSF brothers and sisters refer to as the Emergency Gap. Yes, a thorough and objective evaluation of the system is long overdue; most importantly, it must be a critical review process with as broad a participation as possible, with a specific mandate to address conflict driven crisis where adherence to principled response is so fundamental to the protection of the very most vulnerable. Getting the best leader at the top of OCHA would also be helpful, preferably a tried and tested humanitarian, one that is selected beyond the identity of her/his passport.

    1. Thank you, Bart, for your comment. One issue that I also suggest the review should look at, which is often conveniently swept under the rug, is the interface, and impact, of bilateral donor – agency coordination on multilateral coordination arrangements and collective goals.

  4. Thanks Ed. Interesting and informative. On the issue of the next ESG – it will be interesting to see whether the UK is willing to enter a dogfight to retain this position as its own – not least as a totem of ‘global Britain’ (whatever that means ) – despite its relegation of DFID to a confused and diffuse series of departments within the greater FCDO, and the reduction of ODA spend by 30-40%.

    Roles and performance of teh big UN agencies remains the elephant in the room , as you point out, with an outdated structure of confused, conflicting overlapping and often unnecessary mandates. Will the big established UN agencies allow OCHA (small, newer, ‘junior’) to really threaten their resources and influence? Unlikely. Without reform the issue of meaningful accountability will remain unanswered. Separation of UN players dual roles as both resource mobilisers and delivery agents would be a start. The Mine Action world may provide a useful model. There, UN country level coordination centres (MACC’s) assess, coordinate, Quality Assure and fundraise. Delivery (and thus the bulk of resources) however is left to more capable entities, both NGOs and private sector. Far from perfect, (still no voice for those we purport to assist for instance) but I would argue a useful starting point from which to review the existing mainstream humanitarian model.

    1. Thank you, Andy, for your comment. Your reference to the mine action coordination centres is a very interesting one, I find. The confusing triple roles of UN humanitarian agencies (coordinator, donor, and deliverer) have often been raised as a systemic issue. It was Randolph Kent who a good 15 years ago advocated for them to focus on their normative role and to move away from direct implementation. UNHCR, to mention one, has always maintained that it needs to have an operational role to deliver on its mandate, which, in turn, may have been at the detriment of its supervisory role under the 1951 Refugee Convention. UNICEF tends to be jittery about open discussions on its Monitoring and Reporting mandate under Security Council Resolution 1612 (2005). Further reflection and steps on Kent’s proposals would seem long overdue.

  5. One of the most prominent Brits who would be hard to beat for this USG/ERC post is David Miliband, the current CEO & President of the International Rescue Committee (IRC). I would certainly love to see an NGO executive in this role.

  6. Thank you, Francois, for your comment. The most important first step is a fair and open recruitment and selection process based on transparent criteria. The publication of the ERC’s job description is one step in the right direction. It is also good to see that the NGO networks that are part of the IASC have already written to the Secretary General for an appointment based on merit, instead of holding a certain passport.

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