Address conflict, climate change, disease to reduce humanitarian need, urges outgoing ‘relief chief’

The United Nations

When he accepted the offer to become UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, four years ago, Mark Lowcock had hoped the need for aid globally was on the decline.

But due to protracted and emerging conflicts, the rising impacts of climate change, and the toll of diseases such as Ebola – and now of course COVID-19 – the number of people requiring assistance and protection reached unprecedented levels over this period.

As he prepares to leave office on Friday, Mr. Lowcock sat down with UN News to underline why countries must work harder to address these common challenges: not only for the benefit of millions of vulnerable people worldwide, but also for the humanitarians serving them, far too often at great cost.

“The good news is the UN, the NGOs, the Red Cross, continue to do a fantastic job in saving lives and reducing suffering, and I think the humanitarian system has really stepped up to the mark in recent years”, he said, speaking from London, adding, “we reach more than 100 million people a year.”

The former top British civil servant, who is informally referred to as the UN “relief chief”, has spent some four decades in international development. He believes that because the human condition has generally improved over this time – with reductions in poverty and hunger, for example – everyone on the planet should be able to enjoy a better life.

Mr. Lowcock will be succeeded by Martin Griffiths, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Yemen. Both men gave their final briefings to the Security Council, in their current roles, a day ago.

He discussed what action is needed now in the humanitarian space, particularly in the face of new extremist threats, but also praised the tireless role of aid workers across the world, many of whom are national staff in countries in crisis.

The interview has been edited for length.

UN News: You’ll be leaving the UN shortly after four years at the head of the UN’s humanitarian wing, OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs). Looking back to your appointment, what were some of the goals you had hoped to achieve as the UN relief chief?

Mark Lowcock: Well, what I hoped in 2017 when I started this job would be that we would enter an era where humanitarian need around the world would decline somewhat. It had increased a lot during the decade of the 2010s, largely because of new conflicts but also because of the effect of climate change. I had hoped it might be possible to reverse that recent trend because over most of the last 50 years there has been huge progress in human development, and people live longer, they are better fed, more children go to school, fewer die of avoidable diseases, and so on. I had hoped we would sort of have doubled down on that progress and that would find its way through to the world’s most vulnerable people who typically are those in humanitarian situations. But I think, objectively speaking, the last four years have been an unusually difficult time.

Firstly, we’ve had an expansion of conflict in many places; a failure to resolve longstanding conflicts like Syria and Yemen, and new ones too – Mozambique, Ethiopia, rising other places. Secondly, we have seen the growing impacts of climate change, which is now a huge cause of humanitarian suffering around the world. And thirdly, we’ve had disease outbreaks: not just the pandemic, but of course the pandemic has made a huge difference. So, although my goal was to see a reduction in suffering, in fact what’s happened is a growth to unprecedented levels, really, in the number of people who need protection and assistance.

The good news is the UN, the NGOs, the Red Cross, continue to do a fantastic job in saving lives and reducing suffering, and I think the humanitarian system has really stepped up to the mark in recent years. And we reach more than 100 million people a year; we certainly save millions of lives every year, and things would be even worse but for the courage and commitment and professionalism and dedication of all the people who work for humanitarian agencies around the world, most of whom, let’s remember, are citizens, nationals, of the countries which are in crisis themselves.

Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, meets a group of young volunteers who are helping the government and humanitarian organizations tackle the recurrent disease outbreaks in Kassala, Sudan.

We have also seen a substantial increase in funding, voluntary funding, provided by Member States for the work of humanitarian organizations. It’s gone up by about 30 per cent in the years I’ve been doing this job. It’s still the case that the gap between the funds we have and the funds we need is large, but we have been able to raise more money, and that has meant suffering has been lower than it would otherwise have been.

But the big thing is, until the world gets better at dealing with the causes of humanitarian problems, and that’s overwhelmingly conflict, climate change, COVID and other diseases, nobody should expect the symptoms to be reduced. There will be more people who need help until the causes are better addressed.

UN News: Without a doubt 2020 was an especially difficult year. How has the pandemic impacted UN aid operations?

Mark Lowcock: The first thing to say about the pandemic is it’s reached every corner of the planet, and its effects have been not just through the work of the virus, and the illness and death the virus causes, but in terms of the huge impact on the global economy and the massive contraction many of the poorest countries have faced in their economies which has led to big increases in poverty in very vulnerable countries. And that is driving even more humanitarian need.

The pandemic has also exacerbated lots of pre-existing problems.

We have seen huge shortages of essential equipment: personal protective equipment, drugs, commodities, and so on. And we’ve also seen them being largely hoovered up by better-off countries. We have seen the terrible inequities in vaccine availability.

The countries doing best coming out of the pandemic are the rich countries who have got the scientists and the pharmaceutical companies and the fiscal base, the tax systems, which means they can raise money to pay for huge vaccination programmes. The poorer countries have not had that yet, and that looks to be still a long way off.

The pandemic has also in a way that’s not sufficiently been understood, exacerbated lots of pre-existing problems. There have been new conflicts that have emerged during the 15 months since the pandemic took hold: Nagorno-Karabakh, places in Mozambique, what we’ve seen in Ethiopia. And to some degree, unfortunately that is the result of malign interests taking advantage of a moment where the rest of the world is focused on a big problem and pursuing undesirable objectives, harmful objectives.

UN News: And how has OCHA confronted those challenges, in terms of the pandemic?

Mark Lowcock: Well, OCHA’s job is basically to be the coordinator for the humanitarian system. We restructured the way we’re organized. You have more people in the field, fewer at headquarters. We have put our finances in order.

When I started this job, OCHA was facing a range of financial difficulties which we have been able to resolve. And we have really focused down on those four key responsibilities we have. Firstly, to identify humanitarian need when it emerges. Secondly, to coordinate the development of response plans in every country where there is a problem.

Thirdly, to raise the money to pay for those response plans. And then fourthly, to help with some specific issues around implementation: not delivering food or medical care or commodities to people, but helping with things like access negotiations in conflict and deconfliction systems where humanitarian staff need to be protected from men with guns and bombs.

UN News: We’ve also seen during this period that humanitarian operations have increasingly come under fire in places such as Syria, Yemen and South Sudan. But you’ve also faced access impediments, bureaucratic blockades and outright inability to get your work done sometimes. How would you describe the humanitarian space over this period?

Mark Lowcock: Well, all the countries in the world have signed up to laws which oblige them to ensure that people, civilians caught up through no fault of their own in conflict or other disasters, can get help in an impartial and neutral way, and humanitarian workers are the frontline of doing that.

And you’re right that we’ve seen far too many violations of those laws that everybody had signed up to: violations both by States, by countries, Members of the UN, but also violations by non-state armed groups, increasingly extremist terrorist groups.

In this file photo, UN Humanitarian Coordinator, Mark Lowcock (r) meets with a group of Syrian drivers on the Turkish side of the two countries’ common border.

It is clear that there is a real challenge to compliance with the laws that should protect aid workers from being caught up, being injured, or killed, or abducted, or interrogated, or abused, when they’re doing their job reaching innocent people.

That system is under huge strain, and one of the things I spent a lot of time doing in the course of my job over the last four years, including through more than 100 meetings where I have briefed the Security Council on what’s going on, has been trying to call that out. And I think we need to see a set of things happen to bring these sorts of challenges under best control.

Firstly, we do need to remind everybody why in the first place they signed up to these laws of war because States’ interests ultimately are better served by complying with the laws, and also there’s a set of very, very important human values and norms which should be subscribed to.

There is a real challenge to compliance with the laws that should protect aid workers.

Secondly, I think it is really important to call out violations when they happen. That can be a quite a frustrating and unrewarding thing to do, as I found in lots of meetings of the Security Council where I have been raising issues and I haven’t always felt they were being dealt with as well as they could have been. But it’s nevertheless very important to keep doing it.

And thirdly, I think we need to develop better understanding of, and new tools for dealing with, some of the new extremist groups. There are now groups that have emerged who don’t really buy into the rules of the game everyone else has signed up to in the decades since the Second World War, and we need to find ways of addressing that.

It’s a very complicated and difficult topic, but developing more effective ways of negotiating access and consent; investing more in understanding the ideological and other motivations and the organizational behaviour, if you like: the psychology of what lies behind some of the decisions made by these extremist groups; and also recognizing that sometimes – and this is a difficult thing for humanitarian organizations – what is necessary is a military response to those groups.

You don’t have to speak to many people who lived under ISIL in Iraq and Syria to know what a terrible, terrible experience that was, and sometimes the only response that’s going to work is a military one. But it’s really crucial that it’s done in a way that wins the hearts and minds and protects the interests of local people, and too often that has not been happening.

UN News: When we started the interview, I had asked you about the goals that you had hoped to achieve. Do you feel you have achieved them?

Mark Lowcock: Well, as I said, I hoped there will be less humanitarian need in the world; in fact, there is more than there was. That on one level is obviously not a positive indicator of what I hope would happen. What it is really important to say, though, is that we have avoided the worst outcomes in some of the big crises. I have been very worried for the whole of the last year of a huge famine engulfing and consuming the lives of, and taking the lives of, millions of people in Yemen. We’ve been able to stave that off so far.

Likewise, in other crises where there are huge numbers of lives at risk because of food insecurity: Northeast Nigeria, South Sudan, parts of the Sahel. As I leave office, we’ve now got a huge famine problem in northern Ethiopia. There is still time to avoid the worst, but not if the men with guns and bombs, and their political masters, fail to change their behaviour. So, we need to keep going on all of those areas.

I do think the humanitarian system has stood up very well to the challenges. I have enormous admiration, particularly for the courage and commitment and professionalism and creativity of front line humanitarian workers. Things would be a lot worse if those people weren’t risking their lives every day to help other people.

Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock with a group of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in Kutapalong Refugee Camp, Bangladesh on 26 April 2019.

I also think we have started to make some progress in innovating in the humanitarian system: trying to act earlier on problems when they arise; trying to make better use of digital technology to get assistance and purchasing power to people without having to put so many aid workers’ lives at risk.

We’ve got better at identifying vulnerable groups, particularly women and girls, particularly people with disabilities, particularly people suffering mental health and psychosocial problems, and designing responses to meet the needs of all those vulnerable groups better.

So, there are a whole range of ways in which I think the humanitarian system is improving, but that is really only taking the edge off the fact that the needs are growing because the causes of those needs aren’t being addressed. And that’s really the thing that the world needs to work out how to deal with better.

UN News: Mr Lowcock, we have questions from various UN News language units. Our Arabic Unit colleagues would like to know what’s the one thing that will keep you up at night?

Mark Lowcock: The thing I worry about-that’s really what this question is getting at – is above all, whether the world can find a set of arrangements for geopolitical collaboration and cooperation which enables some of the big crises, and many of the worst ones, whether it’s Syria or Yemen, are in the Middle East, where your questioners have sent this question in from.

Until the world gets better at dealing with the underlying causes and resolving those problems, humanitarian need will be very high. I haven’t seen much sign of improvement on that yet, but I am hopeful that maybe, particularly because of the new posture being adopted by the Biden administration, that could change over the next few years. And that will make a huge difference.

UN News: Our colleagues in the Chinese Unit say that many developed countries now seem to want to give up their commitment to spend 0.7% of their GDP on official development assistance. How much impact would this move have on humanitarian assistance worldwide?

Mark Lowcock: Well, I think there’s only one country, actually, that has stepped back from that commitment, and I hope that stepping back will only be for a very short period and will quickly be reversed.

I do think it’s still a huge problem that certainly when the UN-coordinated humanitarian appeals and responses are considered, far too big a share of the burden is met by a very small number of western countries. The system we have for humanitarian action in the UN, unlike say for peacekeeping or for paying the general bills of the UN, is a voluntary system.

In the humanitarian space we have a voluntary system, and in recent years, 70 per cent of the bill has voluntarily been met from just four sources: The United States, Germany, the European Union and the United Kingdom. And I don’t think that is a viable, sustainable approach into the future.

I think it would be very, very good if more countries played a bigger role in financing the collective effort; if there was less free riding, frankly.

UN News: From our Russian Unit colleagues: You know and see firsthand the scale and the depth of suffering in the world. How do you not succumb to despair and depression? And what keeps you going?

Mark Lowcock: I think the fundamental thing is you have to believe things can get better. And you have to understand that the things you are doing do at least make some contribution to relieving people’s suffering. I have worked for 40 years on international development and related issues, and much of what I have seen has been improvement in the human condition.

When I was born, the majority of people on the planet lived in the most extreme poverty. They were hungry most of the time. Many children died in infancy. People were unable to send their children to school. There’s been huge progress, and those conditions prevail now in about 10 per cent of people’s lives. We need to give those people the same opportunities that many people across the planet have had.

Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock briefs the Security Council Considers Situation in Syria, 18 June 2019.

UN News: Have you ever regretted agreeing to take on this demanding job?

Mark Lowcock: Well, you know the Secretary-General rang me up in April 2017 and asked me if I would take up the job. I think if the Secretary-General of the United Nations rings you up and asks you that, you need a very good reason to decline!

I have admired watching the work of all my colleagues. I think that without what humanitarian agencies do, things would be a lot worse. In that sense, it’s a professionally rewarding thing to do.

I must say I have been extremely lucky with my boss. One of my best tips of advice to younger colleagues who sometimes come to me and ask me what’s your advice in terms of career development? And one of the best tips is pick a really good boss. Go and work for someone you really admire.

And I have been incredibly lucky to work for António Guterres. He’s a very, very brilliant man, and he’s a very, very good person to work for as a manager. He’s clear what he wants. He has a very clear set of values. He expects you to deliver and he lets you get on with it.

One of my best tips for younger colleagues is go and work for someone you really admire.

I have many, many days I have been doing this job had to go to him and ask for a bit of help on a topic, and I have always been amazed by how quickly, instantly, he has responded, and how constructive his response has always been.

UN News: Is there any particular advice you would give to your successor?

Mark Lowcock: Well, my successor fortunately is a very, very experienced person who I think probably knows a lot more about the international humanitarian system than I do, so I don’t really think he needs advice from me.

Obviously, Martin and I know each other very well. We have worked together very closely on Yemen for three years now. He and I have had lots of discussions. He’s asked me lots of questions about what’s going on so he can prepare himself to take up the job. I will be watching from the sidelines. I will be cheering all the humanitarian agencies on. If there are ways in which I can offer thoughts or ideas or contribute, I’m happy to do that. But I know that OCHA and the humanitarian system is going to be in very good hands under Martin’s leadership as the new Coordinator.

UN News Release. More on this here.