Mark Lowcock, new United Nations humanitarian chief. Photo by: DfID 

Mark Lowcock, the new United Nations humanitarian chief, will have his work cut out for him when he soon takes the reigns of a shrinking U.N. Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs. As the agency contracts, the world continues to experience what the U.N. calls the largest protracted humanitarian crises not seen since World War Two.

But present and past OCHA staffers, as well as humanitarian experts who work with OCHA, are cautiously welcoming Lowcock’s entry to the U.N. system, aware of the tough conditions the career British civil servant will likely encounter when he assumes the post by September.  

“There is a question over whether he will he able to succeed, perhaps where we have seen OCHA struggle with having the political attention of the member states.”

— Jamie Munn, director of Norwegian Refugee Council Geneva

“We are confident that Mark is a good choice, but that being said, there is a question over whether he will he able to succeed, perhaps where we have seen OCHA struggle with having the political attention of the member states,” said Jamie Munn, director of the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Geneva office. “And when it comes time for pledging of financial support for emergencies, to bring together states in a way they can look at the needs on the ground, irrespective of the political consequences for assisting.”

Budget cuts and new identity

Earlier this month, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres appointed Lowcock to a dual role — under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and U.N. emergency relief coordinator. The selection came as OCHA faces continued cuts and internal reforms. After OCHA’s budget grew steadily in the 2000s and peaked at $334 million in 2015 — making up 1.5 percent of the global humanitarian requirements — it then dipped to $260 million this year.

Humanitarian needs, costs will intensify in 2017, UN says

John Ging, operations director of the U.N. Office of Humanitarian Affairs, reflects on the costs and challenges facing the humanitarian work South Sudan, Sudan and Haiti — but says that a Trump administration won't dictate OCHA's way of doing work.

An estimated 92.8 million people in 33 countries require more than $22 billion of humanitarian assistance this year, including multiple food insecurity and forced displacement and refugee crises. Yet OCHA’s budget is expected to decrease an additional 20 percent next year, internal sources say. In 2016, the United States was its largest single contributor, making up 18 percent of its budget, followed by the United Kingdom, Sweden, the European Union and Germany. Unfavorable exchange rates, combined with a lack of substantial increases from OCHA’s donor base, has contributed to these cuts.

The bulk of upcoming budget cuts will be managed by current Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O’Brien, but by the time Lowcock takes the helm in late August or September this year, the organization will look very different, explained Rashid Khalikov, assistant secretary-general for humanitarian partnerships at OCHA.

“We increased [the budget] dramatically at the response of several crises, and we were using the savings but we’ve reached the point where we can’t use savings anymore, because then they’re not savings,” he told Devex on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum regional Middle East North Africa meeting. “Donors were very generous, they were unprecedented in their generosity but I don’t think we can raise more money from donors now.”

He added that OCHA has struggled to attract the kind of humanitarian image of its agency cohorts.

“Those who are providing assistance, health, and food, and nutrition, and shelter, they’re much better off than we are,” he said.

OCHA, unlike other U.N. agencies such as UNICEF and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, lacks a clearly decipherable, targeted mission, such as being focused on the needs of children or refugees. It also increasingly does not serve as a focal, coordinating point for humanitarian NGOs working in crisis and conflict zones — its original purpose — says Patricia McIllreavy, vice president for InterAction’s humanitarian policy and practice.

The agency is in the midst of implementing internal reforms, as part of upholding commitments made at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit. These changes will result in strengthening of protection of internally displaced persons and host communities and the expansion of the Central Emergency Response Fund to $1 billion by 2018. The budget cuts could also mean a return back to the agency’s core tenants, and less focus on innovation.

Some change would be welcome, McIllreavy says.

“Does OCHA need to change? Yes, it does, and they are aware of that themselves, which is why [Stephen] O’Brien launched a review of OCHA over a year ago,” she explained.

“My hope is OCHA goes back to basics — many of us who have field experience in the 90s, 2000s, and later, we remember a different OCHA, a more nimble OCHA, one more principled and driving for coordination and collective results. I think over the past few years, in part in response to the demands on OCHA, they have grown and it is hard to stay nimble when you are that big.”

A change in personality and experience

“He’s the one that has to raise the issues and make them important … so he does have to be a charismatic leader in that respect, to be able to play that more outward facing, advocacy role.”

— Christina Bennett, head of program at the Humanitarian Policy Group

Lowcock, a long-time civil servant with the U.K.’s Department for International Development — and the third Briton to lead OCHA, following Valerie Amos and Stephen O’Brien — will assume a public role, requiring him to act as an advocate and visible leader for the humanitarian system as a whole, sometimes reporting to U.N. member states and to the Security Council.

This might be a change, as his work with DfID on the Africa leadership team, finance, corporate performance and knowledge-sharing roles since the 1980s has kept him largely behind the scenes in the agency, where he presently serves as permanent secretary. And it will be a marked different experience from that of Amos and O’Brien, who both had high-profile backgrounds in politics.

Christina Bennett, head of program for the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute and former chief of policy analysis and innovation at OCHA told Devex that she thinks Lowcock is a good appointment, and that his background as a career civil servant makes him “an interesting choice.”

Lowcock’s experience, she said, will be useful given the current multilateral climate.

“This is happening at a time when the external geopolitical environment is challenging for multilateral institutions in the U.S., here in Europe and the U.K., and elsewhere, and when the U.N. [Secretary-General] himself is moving into a phase of reforming different aspects of the U.N. and its role,” she explained.

Still, Bennett said Lowcock has not previously shown the extrovert qualities necessary for the job, but cautions not to dismiss his experience out of hand.

“He’s the one that has to raise these issues and make them as important as the ones we read about all the time, so he does have to be a charismatic leader in that respect, to be able to play that more outward facing, advocacy role. That’s the part we haven’t necessarily seen in his current role in DfID, but that’s not to say he can’t do it,” she said.

Is South Sudan set to reverse its $10,000 aid worker permit fee?

After its announcement, NGOs and government officials are pressuring South Sudan to reconsider its dramatic aid worker permit fee hike. Recent diplomatic meetings in the country could spell a reverse for the directive.

Having someone who can “speak the language of government with other bilateral donors can also be a huge benefit,” said Munn, of the Norwegian Refugee Council. This will matter as OCHA pushes to gain support for underfunded political and humanitarian crises, such as the Central African Republic, whilst places like South Sudan for instance make it more difficult for humanitarian agencies to operate by imposing high registration and visa fees.

“The ERC’s role should be to get those forgotten crises back on the agenda of the majority of big donors,” Munn said. “I think he has a certain amount of experience on the practical side, so that should help us looking at a change in the system and bringing together humanitarian and development actors in a way to develop a sense of the synergies across the two sectors.”

About the authors

  • Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a former U.K. correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.
  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.