Opinion: 3 ways to tackle our toughest humanitarian challenges

Refugees gather monthly rations at a food distribution site in the Imvepi camp in northern Uganda, where the country hosts many South Sudanese who have fled their country. Photo by: UNMISS / CC BY-NC-ND

Based on a speech by Mark Lowcock, emergency relief coordinator at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, Oct. 30.

The global humanitarian system remains a positive example of how we can, and do, work together to save lives and make the world a better and safer place. But in the face of immense and complex global challenges, we know that we cannot be complacent.

Right now, about 1 person in 57 across the planet is caught up in a major humanitarian crisis. Their suffering is often extreme and brutal, especially where conflict, terrorism, or both, are at the root of the problem.

“When a crisis hits, most people seek shelter and assistance in their home countries. Two-thirds of the world’s displaced people are ‘internally displaced.’”

Across the humanitarian and development communities, we are all too aware of how prolonged conflict, compounded with climate change and endemic vulnerability, are driving human suffering. Conflict, persecution, and violence have forced almost 70 million people — the greatest number since record keeping on this started — to flee their homes during the current decade. And last year alone, just over 30 million people were internally displaced by conflicts and natural disasters.

As a result, hunger is back to 2010 levels, with more than 820 million people across the world now food insecure.

This year, we called for $25 billion for United Nations-coordinated response plans to help the most vulnerable 98 million of 135 million people in need. But this figure does not only reflect rising need, it also reflects the fact that humanitarian assistance is more comprehensive than it used to be. It now goes beyond shelter, food, and water, to protection and psychosocial support, emergency education, and health care. In short, doing a better job of meeting people’s needs adds to the bill.

Despite the enormous demands placed on the international humanitarian system, it has never been more effective. Each month, international humanitarian agencies, including U.N. agencies, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies family, and hundreds of national and international NGOs, are providing life-saving help to more than 8 million Yemenis and more than 5 million Syrians inside their countries. We have reached nearly 5 million South Sudanese this year, and 6 million people in the Lake Chad Basin.

We are better and quicker at identifying different groups’ specific needs. Response plans are more innovative, better executed, and better coordinated.

Despite continuing funding gaps, humanitarian action has never been better funded. U.N. appeals alone raised a record $14 billion last year, up from $4 billion in 2005.

But the humanitarian sector is far from complacent and we recognize that we can, and must, be better.

Given the scale and complexity of the current humanitarian system, getting the best from everyone has never been more important — or more challenging. U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs works to coordinate preparedness and response in as inclusive, facilitative, and supportive a way as possible.

Here are some thoughts on how we can do better on three major challenges: combatants increasingly ignore the laws of war; the need for a more predictable and proactive system for financing humanitarian action; and how to deliver durable solutions for the huge numbers of people displaced inside their own countries by conflict and other crises.

First, we must address that the biggest driver of humanitarian need is the behavior of combatants in conflict.

We must make sure that combatants, both state forces and non-state armed groups, know their obligations under international law. Many states and humanitarian organizations routinely train military groups, and we must continue to build on these efforts. ICRC’s study “The Roots of Restraint in War” provides excellent evidence-based recommendations on the most effective approaches to this.

We need to show combatants that adherence to international humanitarian law is not only their legal duty but is also in their strategic interests.

Evidence shows that ensuring that international humanitarian law norms are integrated into military practice and doctrine, as well as into internal codes of conduct, can have a self-disciplining effect.

And we need to see greater integration of the protection of civilians into policy frameworks, and to spread existing good practices, such as limiting the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, action plans to end the recruitment of children, and arms export controls based on the risk of serious violations of international humanitarian law.

Second, the humanitarian community needs to shift from a reactive to a proactive approach to financing.

The humanitarian financing system is still designed to wait for disasters to strike before mobilizing resources. A better system would hinge on finance and implementation plans that are negotiated and agreed to in advance and then triggered automatically when disaster strikes — or even earlier — financial plans to prevent crises from taking hold where the impact is predictable.

“Given the scale and complexity of the current humanitarian system, getting the best from everyone has never been more important — or more challenging.”

Examples of this approach are growing. They include the insurance policies that small islands have taken out against major natural disasters or that African States have bought against drought, as well as the contingency financing products now offered by the development banks to more of their borrowers. There is also scope for more use of other risk-sharing mechanisms with the private sector.

Many organizations, including U.N. agencies, NGOs and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement are starting to adopt these innovative approaches. One exciting new initiative is the Famine Action Mechanism, launched by the U.N. and the World Bank at the UN General Assembly in September, to predict and prevent famines. Amazon, Google, and Microsoft are among the many partners involved. The mechanism, once implemented, should not only save lives and reduce suffering, but could cut response costs by at least 30 percent, according to World Bank estimates.

Third, we need to invest in more durable solutions for internally displaced people.

When a crisis hits, most people seek shelter and assistance in their home countries. Two-thirds of the world’s displaced people are “internally displaced,” and many stay in temporary settings for 20 years or longer. They often become invisible citizens, unable to return home, but lacking the support to permanently settle.

These displaced people need opportunities to earn a living — by accessing land to farm, by finding a job, or by starting a business. They need access to basic services such as health care. And most importantly, we need to ensure that the children among them receive an education.

Internal displacement is, of course, primarily a development and political challenge. Working toward sustainable solutions requires close coordination among humanitarian and development agencies. Too often this has been hampered by artificial divides. Momentum is building to address this and foster greater join-up, both for the internally displaced and all vulnerable people in need, and OCHA is committed to playing its part.

We clearly have our work cut out for us. As the emergency relief coordinator who is motivated by finding solutions to complex problems, I will do all I can to help drive change at every opportunity.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Mark Lowcock

    In May 2017, Mark Lowcock of the United Kingdom was appointed as the under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and emergency relief coordinator. With over 30 years of humanitarian and development experience, Mr. Lowcock serves as the chief coordinator of the world’s humanitarian response in times of urgent crisis. In his most recent position, as permanent secretary for the Department for International Development, Mr. Lowcock led the United Kingdom’s humanitarian response to conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Libya as well as to natural disasters in the Philippines and Nepal.