Interview with Stephen O’Brien by Africa Renewal’s Franck Kuwonu
Stephen O’Brien is the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator. In May 2016 in Istanbul, Turkey, he oversaw the first-ever global humanitarian summit where representatives of 173 countries as well as NGOs, the private sector and civil society, met to chart a new path for global humanitarian assistance.
Question: What is your overall assessment of the humanitarian summit? Did the UN achieve its goals?
Answer: It really was a gathering with high energy and it exceeded all expectations; it delivered concrete outcomes. I am delighted that it has enabled us to secure the political will to move forward.
Q: Ahead of the summit you said the world’s humanitarian needs were too big and needed to be lessened. How big are these needs and to what extent were they addressed at the summit?
A: Every humanitarian need is defined by every single human being in need. In total there are about 100 million to 135 million people in the world today who are in need. That number would be the population of about the 11th- or 12th-largest country in the world, which is Japan. These people have no flag, they have no state. They have little money. They are in the most vulnerable and challenging of circumstances. So it is really important to have in mind that the growth of those in need cannot be met by the amount of resources available now. That gap has to be addressed. Either we reduce the needs or we increase the amount of available resources or we do both.
Q: Which option is more likely?
A: We should aim to do both because even if we reduce the number of conflicts in the world, there will still be increases in humanitarian needs. I’m referring to Syria or Iraq or Yemen or South Sudan today. Eighty percent of the world’s humanitarian needs are caused by man-made conflicts. So the more we can stop or resolve conflicts the better.
Q: One way to lessen the humanitarian burden, it’s often suggested, is to prevent conflicts before they arise or to quickly resolve them once they happen. The summit recognized that political will is key to effectively preventing and ending conflicts. Is political will alone enough?
A: The most difficult thing in any meeting is to generate will. But unlike most summits, where one is seeking to generate money, this summit was designed to generate the political will to take forward the agenda for humanity set out in the UN Secretary-General’s report in advance of the summit. So we have a real plan to meet the needs of the most vulnerable people.
Q: At the summit, there was also talk about ensuring greater respect for human rights and humanitarian law. One critical question is: How could greater respect for human rights and humanitarian law impact the humanitarian situation?
A: You have to start somewhere, and one of the main things you start with is will. We know that often these laws are violated with impunity. We need to make sure that impunity is stopped. And to do that we need the will of those who have signed up to those obligations to make sure that these violations are exposed and, where appropriate, punished.
Q: Now that the summit is over, what has really changed for a refugee in a Syrian camp in Asia or somewhere in Europe, or in South Sudan, Mali, Niger or Chad?
First of all, you will recognize that the world came together to put humanitarian affairs front and centre of attention. Second, you will recognize that really specific things can happen at a summit, such as making sure that we have the commitment and the funds for education and emergency.
Often it is the children of displaced people who get no education. We also saw a charter for those living with disabilities adopted to make sure that they also have humanitarian assistance that is highly responsive to their needs. So these are some of the concrete items, which came out. These are important interventions for anyone currently in need of humanitarian assistance. Note that, post-summit, there is a commitment to make the necessary changes to meet needs that are not currently being met.
Q: How soon would those commitments materialize into concrete action?
A: I am hoping that in the next few weeks or months, we will have champions to lead the charge to make the changes necessary to deliver better on our commitments to humanitarian action. We should expect to see a real shift in the quality and the quantity of the humanitarian aid that we are able to give. We will be able to work much better together along with our development partners and with the whole of what is now being called an ecosystem – beyond the UN family, including others who make significant contributions to humanitarian actions.
Q: The UN Secretary-General said he was disappointed Western leaders failed to show up. Yet most of their countries are major financial contributors to humanitarian responses. Did their absence affect the outcome of the summit?
A: I don’t think it did, because we had 173 countries out of the 193 UN-recognized countries that attended. Fifty-five heads of state and government attended. We were very pleased that Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, representing the G7 countries, was able to attend and to make a very significant contribution. Indeed, she articulated much of the thinking that has led Germany to be so generous in taking in so many refugees in recent times.
Q: Delivering timely assistance to populations in need requires money, yet funding requests are rarely met in full. How is it that in the face of human suffering it appears there is not enough generosity to save lives?
A: I genuinely believe that the world’s citizens believe in giving humanitarian support to those gravely in need, wherever they are, whoever they are and however their need has arisen. But, of course, even with the increased generosity of the world in support of humanitarian action, we find that the gap has grown wider because the needs are getting much more exponential.
Whilst the world is generous, its generosity is not sufficient to meet the needs, so we need to be very careful to do what we can to close that gap. Which is why reducing the demand is as important as trying to raise the resources available.
Q: The summit appears to have agreed on a “Grand Bargain.” What does that mean, and how will it work?
A: That is primarily a sort of informal conversation that took place among a number of donors, representatives of those who were interested, the United Nations family of humanitarian providers, and other agencies or entities such as the International Committee of the Red Cross. In exchange for greater efficiency, effectiveness and transparency with available resources, we should expect multi-year financing.
Q: According to the Secretary-General, the summit was a turning point, not an end point. What are the next milestones?
A: As we were making preparations for the summit and bringing people together, with 9,000 registrants, I said that it would be a departure point—a turning point. It turned out to be more than that; it turned out to be an accelerator of ambition and determination to deliver better for the people of the world who have needs and for those who are able to deliver for those needs.
And so the Ssecretary-General was of course right. It is a turning point. It has helped sharpen not only our attention and the awareness of these needs but also our ability and our moral imperative to seek to meet those needs. And that’s why, as we move forward, we will need to measure very carefully all those who make commitments to action to deliver on the agenda for humanity, which is set out in the Secretary-General’s report. [IDN-InDepthNews – 22 August 2016]
Note: This interview appeared in the August-November 2016 edition of Africa Renewal and is being published by arrangement with them.
Photo: Stephen O’Brien, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator. Credit: Africa Renewal/Paddy Ilos
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