UN humanitarian chief Lowcock says new approach needed for system 'under strain'

U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock at the U.N. headquarters in New York. Photo by: Amy Lieberman

UNITED NATIONS — Facing a global humanitarian system "under strain," the new United Nations humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told Devex that he wants to get more staff out in the field and reduce an emphasis on work at U.N. headquarter offices.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs faces a record number of protracted crises across the Middle East and Africa, yet is also operating with a growing gap between the tens of billions of dollars it requests each year from member states, and the amount that actually materializes each year. A new, more strategic approach is necessary to meet these challenges, Lowcock says.

“The humanitarian system — and it is my job to coordinate globally — is a system that is effective in reaching tens of millions of people every year and saving millions of lives,” Lowcock said in a sit-down interview with Devex. “But it is also a system that is under strain, as the humanitarian needs are very high and the world expects them to be well met.”  

“The job here is to make the system work as well as it can do and that means OCHA has to be a certain sort of organization. You need to be very field focused, because the changes we're going through involve HQ being smaller and the field being bigger,” he explained.

Lowcock starts at OCHA, casts attention to aid worker security

The new United Nations humanitarian chief began his first official week at work by meeting with staff, and highlighting aid worker security in conflict zones and financing — two pressing humanitarian issues unlikely to subside during his tenure.

U.N. chief António Guterres appointed Lowcock, the former top civil servant at the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, to serve as the emergency relief coordinator and under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs in May. Lowcock, a self-described “practical person,” took on the expansive role in New York with some realistic expectations. 

The work at the U.N. is a bit different from what he was accustomed to in government, Lowcock explained.

“I compare it to being a very senior British civil servant and I obviously have a more outward facing role in this job. I’ve been learning, trying to do that as well as I can. I’ve been learning about the U.N. and I see what I see,” he said.

More than 135 million people are expected to require humanitarian assistance in 2018. OCHA aims to reach about 90 million of these people, supported by a requested budget of about $22.5 billion from country donors.

Some of the 45 million people not benefiting from U.N. services will rely on their governments or NGOs. But this gap will also result in “unnecessary loss of life and a lot of unnecessary avoidable suffering,” Lowcock explained.

“Humanitarian interventions don’t solve those crises, but they do save a lot of lives,” Lowcock said.

In 2017, the U.N. saw record-level funding responses to its humanitarian appeals, but still only received slightly more than half of the $23.1 billion it sought from governments. Cuts to OCHA early last year, resulting in layoffs of 170 people, will play out again this year, likely prompting another layer of concern for OCHA’s 2,000-plus staff as they respond to the crises in places including Yemen, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Somalia, which all faced famine last year. More than 8 million in people in Yemen continue to teeter “a step away from famine,” the U.N. reported in December.

“The unmet needs in many of the crisis the world, that’s we're dealing with. Typically, what's happening is that lifesaving support is being provided reasonably effectively in places like Syria and Yemen,” Lowcock said.

“But what is happening is there's an enormous amount of suffering in humanitarian crises, such as children who can't go to school. A lot of those children haven't been to school in Yemen for years. And there are terrible problems of violence and sexual abuse and exploitation and humanitarian crises as well. It's really hard to protect against this.”

Ripple effects of conflict that do not require life-saving intervention — such as children missing out on years of school in places like Yemen and Syria — will still leave lasting impacts on communities, Lowcock says, as he questioned what will become of these children once they are grown. There should also be a greater emphasis on preventing sexual violence in conflict settings.

“If there were fewer abuses of international humanitarian law, that would be probably the biggest single thing that would help reduce this suffering."

— Mark Lowcock, U.N. humanitarian chief

"We should want to do a better job in protecting people displaced by crises, particularly protecting women and girls from sexual exploitation and abuse. So there's a lot of continuing suffering that if we were better resourced, and in particular, if people involved in conflicts and wars play better by the laws of war,” he said.  “And if there were fewer abuses of international humanitarian law, that would be probably the biggest single thing that would help reduce this suffering."

There’s a need, Lowcock says, to think more carefully about OCHA’s “core functions,” and where resources are best spent.

“We need to be really clear about our core functions and that our core functions are to advocate for people in need, to provide excellent information on what the needs are and how they are being met, to mobilize finance, including through the funds that we manage ourselves and then to be one of the world's leading and most capable developers a policy to improve humanitarian response,” Lowcock said. “We have to do those five core functions as well as we can.”

When asked specifically about any potential impact of cuts to OCHA and the risks of layoffs, Lowcock nodded, but demurred slightly.

"I'm not sure we are going to get a bit smaller ... It's about having smarter processes and systems are more efficient,” he said. “And it's about being really collaborative internally and externally so that we do the best possible job in facilitating and supporting the whole of the humanitarian system."

This also means, in some cases, doing cost-effective preventative work. For example, OCHA is considering the potential future impact of climate change — manifested in an increased likelihood of powerful, or more frequent, hurricanes, in some regions. They have also worked with scientists that have projected an increased risk of earthquakes this year.

“These natural disasters, which are seem to be a growing characteristic of the world are part of the work, as well. We have tried to project how things may evolve into the future what the future needs to be,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is describe the future needs as we develop plans to respond to those needs, which are effective in value and money, and then raise money for those agencies, the World Food Programme, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, so they can save lives and reduce suffering.”

Lowcock, who spent the first few months of his tenure visiting Nigeria, Niger, Yemen, and Bangladesh, will travel to Syria and Somalia in the beginning of this year.

Read more Devex coverage on humanitarian aid.

About the author

  • 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.