The President of the International Committee of the Red Cross Peter Maurer says he isn't surprised at the new United Nations Secretary General António Guterres' call for institution-wide U.N. reform and a renewed focus on conflict prevention. The pressure on the current multilateral system has been building — and will continue to build, he said — for a long time, and humanitarian organizations working in the U.N.'s orbit will have a critical role to play.
“The U.N. is now sandwiched between two trends: This increasing importance of multi-stakeholder partnerships, and the re-emergence of the assertive state,” he told Devex on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and Africa in Jordan last month.
On the one hand, cross-sector partnerships are increasingly “an important reality,” he said, which can bring the private sector, public sector, NGOs, business communities and academia to the table. On the other hand, countries whose populations or leaders are beginning to feel alienated by globalization — countries such as Russia but also to some extent, the United States and the United Kingdom — are divesting from the multilateral system, thereby undermining its political, development and humanitarian power on the global stage. This tension is compounded, Maurer said, by a rise in global terror and conflict, which strains not only the U.N.'s political influence, but its security and humanitarian capacities as well.
“The sort of traditional consensus-building of the U.N. system and bureaucratic blockages and bureaucratic complication is just not good enough.”— Peter Maurer, president of the ICRC
Maurer, who is a former Swiss diplomat, oversaw Switzerland's accession to multilateral organizations, including managing its relationship with the U.N. After taking over as president of the ICRC in 2012, Maurer led the organization through an unprecedented period of growth, increasing the organization's budget by 50 percent in four years. The ICRC's reliance on the U.N. at a time when global conflicts were multiplying faster than ever meant that Maurer saw first-hand the U.N.'s struggle to retain a position in the world that was slowly but clearly becoming anachronistic.
“The sort of traditional consensus-building of the U.N. system and bureaucratic blockages and bureaucratic complication is just not good enough,” he said.
“I think that’s where we are now and why it is so difficult to reconquer the space for a new form of multilateralism which probably cannot only be state-bound,” he said.
A new model must include “many more stakeholders of global affairs,” namely private sector entities, but also a model which “doesn't neglect states just because they are unassertive” in order to relocate its position, he said.
Maurer added though that Guterres is so far “doing a great job” of finding that fine line, specifically his approach on the humanitarian and development side “to shift the focus clearly to conflict prevention.”
The current level of armed conflict worldwide costs the global economy approximately $50 trillion per year, and deaths from armed conflict between 2008 and 2014 tripled from 56,000 to 180,000 according to a study by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Humanitarian organizations simply cannot continue to act as “clean-up crews for the dysfunctioning of the multilateral system,” Maurer said.
“The lack of impact of the multilateral system on the conflict situation, that’s relatively recent in terms of these huge spiking costs,” he said, explaining that while the tension has been growing for thirty years, costs “spiked only in the last five years,” as the multilateral identity crisis comes to a head.
Devex caught up with International Committee of the Red Cross President Peter Maurer about the West's backlash to refugees, the U.S. election results, rising threats to humanitarian workers and where the sector is headed.
But Guterres' proposed focus on conflict prevention also requires a long-overdue mindset shift among development and humanitarian organizations, he added. While conflict prevention has long been seen as a bridge between the often siloed work of humanitarians and development practitioners, Maurer said this bridge, as well as these distinctions, are simply inventions holding back the sector from simply “meeting the needs of people.”
“If your entry point is basic human needs and needs of people, then you can build some long-term perspective into short-term humanitarian assistance,” he said, pointing to recent collaboration between the ICRC and the World Bank on famine prevention and mitigation in East Africa, as well as ICRC's livelihoods work with victims of the Yemeni civil war.
“I think the whole nonsense of the 'development humanitarian divide' comes from an international system to which we are outsiders. It’s all an invention of bureaucracies which have been constituted as humanitarian or development bureaucracies,” he said, pointing again to the U.N.'s structure, which he said has overstayed its welcome.
“If we were to redesign the U.N. based on today, based on current human needs,” he said, “it would look much, much different.”
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