The UNDP's take on the humanitarian-development nexus and #WHS16

Izumi Nakamitsu, assistant secretary-general and assistant UNDP administrator. Photo by: Rick Bajornas / United Nations

Questions about how best to shrink the gap between humanitarian relief and development are nothing new.

Twenty years ago, when Izumi Nakamitsu, who is now the director of the United Nations Development Program’s Crisis Response Unit still worked at the U.N. refugee agency, people were asking the same question. Nakamitsu credits her old boss, U.N. High Commissioner Sadako Ogata, with first bringing up the issue of the gap between relief and development in the mid-1990s.

“Twenty years later I came back to this issue, and that means you guys still have not solved it,” Nakamitsu said.

Later this month the UNDP will join other organizations, donors, and government representatives at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. Nakamitsu spoke with Devex about why she is more optimistic that now, 20 years later, the international community might be closer to solutions for a long-acknowledged problem.

Here are the highlights of our conversation with Nakamitsu, edited for clarity and condensed:

I understand you're leading UNDP's internal preparations for the World Humanitarian Summit. Can you tell me about your role and how UNDP is engaging in this process?*

I think this time, hopefully, we are onto something, because the whole discussion, the nature of the discussion, has changed. Twenty years ago we were talking about, “this is what the humanitarians do, and this is what development [organizations] do, and let’s try to make these interventions more seamless.” This time we are talking about something completely different. We are talking about changing the business model itself. It is a hugely welcome development that one of the themes in this whole thing is actually changing the paradigm from delivering aid to reducing humanitarian need itself. We need to work jointly to tackle the underlying causes that are driving humanitarian need itself … The current business model isn’t working, so we have to have something else.

Sometimes it is about trying to naturalize the refugee population, and that has happened in some of the African countries. In some instances, like in Turkey and Jordan now, it is actually about opening up the labor market, so that the refugees themselves can go out and work, rather than being dependent on humanitarian assistance. There are limitations. This whole model will probably work in a fast-growing economy, but it will be very difficult if it’s happening in the contexts of difficult economic environment. We have to bring in a lot of economic incentive, additional development investment. There are interesting examples, between the U.N. and the World Bank. If some of the World Bank loan facilities can be blended with [official development assistance] money, that would underwrite the interest, then that loan would become very, very soft and help the government implement some of those policy changes. It’s a very new approach and the product of these agencies coming together and brainstorming.

You said you’re more optimistic that this problem that’s been acknowledged for 20 years might find some resolution at the World Humanitarian Summit this time. How do you think about the promise of some of those more innovative solutions that you’re describing, compared with the very basic, underlying drivers of these issues, and what we might see as less willingness to tackle those? Is it enough to be innovative and to look to new models without also talking in a fundamental way about preventing conflict in the first place, directing billions more dollars to humanitarian assistance, and doing something real about climate change? How do those two pieces fit together?

To me these are the two sides of the same coin. I haven’t mentioned the “grand bargain.” As part of the WHS process, 15 top donors and 15 top U.N. agencies are at the moment negotiating concrete commitments. I’m co-leading with the government of Denmark the commitment area 10, which is called humanitarian-development nexus. In that commitment, I am really insisting that we put in the commitment to actually invest more in prevention. We are wasting a lot of money, because every time something happens, it becomes a huge shock and a crisis, then we have to respond by millions more. The problem is that prevention is a difficult one to prove, in terms of a real impact.

Every time these sorts of meetings happen I feel a little bit they are lip service paid to the importance of prevention. Even conflict prevention in the U.N. community, it’s always on the agenda, but we haven’t actually seen a dollar figure investment. That balance needs to shift.

I’m always sort of perplexed that it seems to be the responsibility of the humanitarian and development communities to come up with these innovative solutions and solve all of these complex problems in coordination with each other, and there’s often less conversation about how those conditions were created in the first place.

I think one of the biggest achievements of Mrs. Ogata was really to shed light on the importance of political responsibility. She was quoted a number of times as saying, ‘we the humanitarians are used as alibi.’ I think that is one of the biggest issues. I hope that the summit will serve as a very important opportunity to make sure that the world leaders really understand. Then again, Syria continues. Unless we fix the politics, we can’t really fix the problem.

I would also add, as a former humanitarian, there is also a very important thing I observe from a bit of a distance, and that is an erosion of the humanitarian norms … In the past hundred years or so we collectively made enormous achievements in terms of developing and making progress on humanitarian norms … We are beginning to see that the norm is not respected anymore, and that is a major concern … I really hope that Istanbul will also be an occasion to reaffirm what we have achieved. But again, this has something to do with an intergovernmental atmosphere. Somehow member states don’t seem to be willing to make advances.

Do you anticipate, or would you hope that that distinction between humanitarian and development organizations will gradually become less stark?

I think it’s important to keep that distinction. Peacekeepers usually don’t like humanitarians, because humanitarians usually refuse to be fully integrated into peacekeeping structures. I used to tell my colleagues who are peacekeepers, look, you have to understand, humanitarian organizations are very often our last resort. Consider them as the insurance scheme. There are many instances where peace and security entities, or even development organizations would not be able to function, and in those circumstances it’s the humanitarian agencies that have to stay and try to do their best to do lifesaving assistance.

For them to be able to function as that insurance they have to have that humanitarian principle in the space. So I’m quite supportive of respecting the humanitarian space, and for that reason I think it’s important to have the humanitarian label. I have enormous admiration, for example, for [the International Committee of the Red Cross]. If there is one organization that knows so much about war and conflict and warring parties and the structures of those warring factions and even the personalities of the warlords, it’s ICRC, because they’re always there. They don’t share that information, because they are pure in terms of impartiality, but I respect that.

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.

*Update, May 10, 2016: This article has been updated to clarify Nakamitsu’s role in the World Humanitarian Summit.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.