UN Urged to be ‘Standard Bearer’ of Humanitarian Principles

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon signs a visitor's book for the first World Humanitarian Day. The international body should become the "standard bearer" of humanitarian principles, according to a former U.N. official. Photo by: Paulo Filgueiras / UN

The United Nations should leverage its global position and become the “standard bearer” that will ensure knowledge, support and implementation of humanitarian principles, a former official of the international body has suggested.

“The United Nations needs to be that voice that mobilizes longer-term strategic action to address plausible threats and plausible solutions,” Randolph Kent writes in a blog published on Reuters AlertNet on World Humanitarian Day, Aug. 19.

Kent, the director of the London-based policy research initiative Humanitarian Futures Program, adds that the U.N. can better prepare for future humanitarian challenges by taking full advantage of its value-added and comparative advantages.

“The former has to do with its potential capacities for ensuring standards and promoting timely crisis forecasts and analysis, and the latter has clearly to do with its unique global position as well as the vast array of technical expertise upon which it can draw,” Kent explains, adding that the U.N. has yet to show indications that it is prepared to build on these advantages to enhance its capacity to mitigate and address future humanitarian crises that he says are likely to be more interactive and complex than what the world has seen and is seeing at present.

He identifies several ways the U.N. can take on the challenge, including the creation of a “group of wise persons” that can lead the organization in being a standard-bearer of humanitarian principles as well as serving as advocate for long-term crisis preparedness, prevention and response.

“That group could enhance the UN’s comparative advantage as a uniquely global and relatively trusted institution by adding its voice to the needs for more strategic approaches to humanitarian futures,” Kent explains.

Innovation is another avenue that the U.N. can explore, Kent adds. He explains that there are existing technologies that the U.N. can utilize in its crisis response operations, such as satellite remote sensing. The U.N. can also explore the possibility of using telemedicine and various mobile technologies, he says.

A bolder United Nations

Kent also urges the U.N. to be bolder and more speculative in predicting and assessing possible crises. It should also devote more energy and time to anticipating possible crises and threats and exploring how these could affect the international community.

“This means that the United Nations will have to be far more creative and proactive in identifying the myriad factors that need to be monitored as potential threats and opportunities to offset them,” he explains. “No one is asking the United Nations to predict the future, but rather to be more daring and speculative about suggesting what might be.”

Kent laments that the U.N. “continues to be deeply risk averse when it comes to thinking beyond the norm, and shows little inclination to contemplate potential hazards and possible solution.”

He adds: “For an organization where expertise crosses almost every major discipline, it is distressing to see how underutilized such capacities are.”

Kent has held several positions within the U.N., including as resident and humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, humanitarian coordinator in Kosovo and Rwanda, chief of the U.N. emergency unit in Sudan, and chief of emergency prevention and preparedness in Ethiopia.

About the author

  • Ivy mungcal 400x400

    Ivy Mungcal

    As former senior staff writer, Ivy Mungcal contributed to several Devex publications. Her focus is on breaking news, and in particular on global aid reform and trends in the United States, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Before joining Devex in 2009, Ivy produced specialized content for U.S. and U.K.-based business websites.