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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