UN And MSF At Odds Over Future of Humanitarian Work

May 10, 2016 –  Medecins Sans Frontiers’ decision last week to withdraw from the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) taking place later this month highlights the tension between aid organizations and the United Nations over the future of humanitarian work.

In a statement, MSF said the summit threatens “to dissolve humanitarian assistance into wider development, peace-building and political agendas.”

The Nobel-prize winning group, which has lost several staff members and had its hospitals bombed over the past year in conflict zones, added that it failed to see how the WHS would address the urgent needs of people living in conflict in Syria, Yemen, South Sudan and other areas of armed violence.

At the heart of the matter is the UN’s desire to promote resilience in doing humanitarian and development work. While MSF say that humanitarian work should be kept separate from development work, the United Nations increasingly sees the two working in tandem.

Those inside the UN advocating for a joint approach point out that countries that emerge from conflict or other complex emergencies do not have a stronger society or systems when the emergency or conflict is over, and very often have a recurrence within five or ten years. For this reason, the UN and the WHS are asking how can countries that have repeated crisis be put on a sustainable path after a crisis.

With this in mind, there is a push to have humanitarian and development actors work in tandem, unlike the traditional sequential approach where aid workers come in and do their work and once they leave development workers come in and try to rebuild the society.

However, because of the core humanitarian principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence, humanitarian actors avoid working with local governments and once they leave the society is no more robust nor does it have a better emergency response system because aid organizations set up their own parallel systems that bypass the local governments, which should be the first line of response.

Another reason for the push towards resilience is that many crises are slow onset and protracted and it’s not necessarily a humanitarian response first and then a development response. Syria is a case in point where the crises is in its sixth year and it is both a humanitarian crisis – tending to the wounded and feeding the hungry – and a development crisis – establishing schools, devising cash for work programs – and it is also a transnational crisis affecting primarily its neighboring countries but also beyond, as in the case of Europe and the debate over refugees.

One can only admire the great work that MSF does around the globe in responding to emergencies and the great sacrifices it has made in doing so, and it it easy to sympathize with their decision not to attend the WHS.

Yet, an opportunity may have been lost in exploring how best to respond to future emergencies with the decision of MSF not to attend, given its status in the humanitarian world. Natural disasters are increasing and new conflicts continue to emerge and escalate at an alarming rate. Dealing with these crises exogenously is not going to work – outsiders going in and then leaving.

Core humanitarian principles – neutrality, independence, impartiality – need to be respected but they do not preclude the recognition and use of local systems. The question is how can local systems be used by respecting impartiality and neutrality and independence. 

- Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

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Ukraine Rebels Expel UN Aid Agencies

Screenshot 2015-09-24 at 6.37.43 PM
Sept. 24, 2015 –  The top UN humanitarian official on Thursday called on pro-Russia rebels to immediately allow the resumption of United Nations and international NGO aid activities in eastern Ukraine.

All UN agencies operating in Luhansk have been ordered to leave by Sept. 25 and a decision by the rebels on expelling aid agencies from Donetsk remains on hold.

I am alarmed by news that the de facto authorities in eastern Ukraine have ordered UN agencies in Luhansk to end operations and to leave the area by tomorrow,” UN aid chief Stephen O’Brien said in a statement. “Their continued failure in this regard constitutes a blatant violation of International Humanitarian Law.”

He added that agencies are unable to deliver 16,000 tons of aid including anesthesia, insulin and tubercolosis vaccine.

“Patients lives are at risk,” O’Brien said. “Some 150,000 people are not receiving monthly food distributions, 1.3 million people’s access to water is at risk, and more than 30,000 people have not received shelter materials and household items they urgently need.”

Ukraine is currently trying to control a cholera outbreak that paralyzed two children earlier this month.

“I call on the de facto authorities in both Luhansk and Donetsk to ensure the immediate resumption of UN and international NGO activities,” O’Brien’s statement added. “Furthermore, I call on everyone with influence over the de facto authorities to use that influence to ensure the immediate resumption of humanitarian aid by UN agencies and international NGOs, and to win a commitment by the authorities to end interference in the provision of lifesaving assistance.

In addition to UN aid agencies, the rebels have also banned MSF and People in Need, among others, from operating in Luhansk, a city with a population of some 425,000.

The United Nations estimates that the 17-month conflict in Ukraine has killed almost 8,000 people, most of them civilians.

- Denis Fitzgerald
@denisfitz

  

 

Tough Task Awaits New UN OCHA Chief Stephen O’Brien

Ban Ki-moon greets new UN emergency relief coordinator Stephen O'Brien

Ban Ki-moon greets new UN emergency relief coordinator Stephen O’Brien

May 31, 2015 – The new head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Stephen O’Brien, who takes over from Valerie Amos on Monday as the world’s top aid official, will have to immediately tackle a funding crisis, work more with local actors, and strengthen OCHA’s role in conflict and complex situations, such as in Syria and Somalia, says Shannon Scribner of Oxfam’s humanitarian policy team.

OCHA has received less than 25 percent of the almost $20 billion it appealed for at the start of the year to assist 114 million people affected by disaster and conflict, and new crises continue to emerge such as the earthquake in Nepal and the deteriorating situation in Yemen as well as a growing crisis in Burundi.

“Stephen O’Brien is stepping into a situation where the UN system is overwhelmed. So that would be the first business, how is he going to address this overwhelmed system where the UN is responding to four L3 emergencies in Central African Republic, Iraq, South Sudan and Syria and they don’t have enough funding to do that,” said Scribner in an interview with UN Tribune. “Oxfam would make two recommendations. The first would be recommending mandatory assessments for UN member states for humanitarian assistance. This would be similar to what they do in UN peacekeeping where they have assessed contributions.”

Scribner added that this is something that O’Brien could work on with the new high-level panel on humanitarian financing that was appointed by Ban Ki-moon last week. The UN currently relies on voluntary contributions for relief funding.

“The other thing that Oxfam is going to start emphasizing and Stephen O’Brien should be looking at this, as well as International NGOs like Oxfam, is we need to do more direct funding to local actors,” she said.

“The assistance we give is often too little and it’s often too late but we have local actors, such as local NGO’s and civil-society and, where appropriate, governments. From 2007-2013, only 2.4 percent of annual humanitarian assistance went directly to local actors and that just doesn’t make sense,” Scribner said. “They’re the first responders on the ground and they’re often the ones who are put in harm’s way. If you look at the number of aid workers that have been killed, the majority are local aid workers so we need to do a better job as a humanitarian community – international NGOs, UN OCHA and donors – to give more direct assistance to local actors.”

As an example of how neglect of local NGOs affects an emergency response, she said that meetings of the humanitarian cluster groups in Haiti during the 2010 earthquake were held in French or English even though most of the first responders spoke Creole “so that wasn’t helpful.”

Scribner added that local actors are not really considered true partners in the humanitarian response but rather as sub-contractors to implement programs that have already been designed. She said they need to be seen “as true partners where they are designing the interventions with us and they’re implementing the interventions.”

Finally, she said that the UN has do a better job in complex and conflict situations and need to appoint envoys who know the region or country and even better, know the local language, and where the UN has already has a mandate, it must ensure that protecting civilians is part of that mandate and its neutrality is unquestioned.

As an example, Scribner cited the UN’s support for the Africa Union mission in Somalia where the emphasis is on protecting government institutions.

“If they have a political mandate, then they’re going to be seen as political and they’re going to be seen as allying with one side. Their mandate should really be about giving assistance to people in need and making sure NGO’s have access, and protecting aid workers,” she said. “We have seen an increase in the number of aid workers that have been attacked and killed. In 2001 there was about 90 violent attacks on aid workers and in 2013, there was 460 such incidents and 80 percent of fatalities since 2001 have been local aid workers. If the UN can really show such leadership in those areas it will really help on the ground – they do play a very tricky and difficult role in these complex crises.”

Scribner said that the liaison role OCHA plays is key for humanitarian efforts in conflict situations but that it hasn’t always been up to the task and this will need to be on O’Brien’s list of pressing priorities. “NGO’s like Oxfam rely on OCHA to play the main liaison role in conflict settings and that’s really important for the independence and neutrality of NGO’s. I think Syria’s an example where we needed UN OCHA to really step up and play that role and they just don’t have the presence on the ground and the International NGOs are left to to kind of fill that role in terms of access and that liaison role. That is something he will have to grapple with, especially in these complex emergencies that are continuing to grow.”

- Denis Fitzgerald

On Twitter @denisfitz 

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