Humanitarian work typically takes place in conflict zones, or following natural disasters, or in remote areas where food is scarce and the need for immediate assistance is high. Grain sacks are hauled and distributed, life-saving vaccinations are given, and temporary shelters are found.
But critical humanitarian work of a different kind is also carried out far away from the “frontlines”, in cities such as New York and Geneva, where vital policy decisions come together in meeting rooms and corridors, or in an office on the end of a telephone.
Few know this better than Ivan Lupis. Until earlier this year, he served simultaneously as the desk officer for Myanmar and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Each country was, and still is, on the receiving end of international sanctions, and thus at odds with other UN Member States, which meant Ivan and his colleagues faced additional challenges in ensuring that humanitarian assistance reaches those in need.
“It’s about walking a tightrope between all these competing interests,” Ivan says, explaining that Member States, advocacy groups and the UN itself often have different expectations about what the UN can or should do in providing aid to such nations.
This was especially true in May last year, when Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar with such catastrophic effect that the death toll from the disaster is today estimated at nearly 150,000.
In the immediate aftermath, as it became clear that the magnitude of the disaster exceeded the capacity of the Government to respond, some countries, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and pressure groups said that the authorities were not doing enough to facilitate relief efforts, and criticized the way that the UN was initially handling its response.
But Ivan notes that for many pressure groups, their focus is almost exclusively on political issues; at OCHA, the primary concern must always be humanitarian.
“We’ve always tried very hard – especially in Myanmar – to keep the political and the humanitarian efforts of the UN separate... Politicizing a humanitarian response in such a complex environment such as Myanmar doesn’t help the situation.”
As with any other major emergency, OCHA’s response mechanisms had swiftly swung into place after the cyclone struck, with logisticians and other staff coordinating the overall relief efforts of the UN and its partners.
But this time, with international tensions on the rise amid suggestions that the outside world should intervene and take over the relief response, Ivan and his colleagues in New York and Geneva had to call on their negotiating and consensus-building skills as well as they hit the phones and held meeting after meeting.
“I think the majority of my time was spent on doing the behind-the-scenes advocacy and policy-shaping work and negotiating with key advocacy groups, Member States and other UN agencies,” he recalls, noting the delicacy of much of the discussions.
John Holmes, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, and then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Myanmar to negotiate immediate access for international aid.
One of the other results of those trips was the formation of the Tripartite Core Group, which brought together the UN, the Government of Myanmar and the Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN) to spearhead the coordination of relief efforts in Myanmar’s delta region.
“This is probably too early to tell, but it worked very well, and there are hopes in the region and within the UN that it could become a prototype or model for other disasters,” Ivan says, praising Myanmar’s neighbours for the bridging role they played.
Ivan says he enjoys the political aspects of his work as he can draw from his own experiences in the field in the Balkans and elsewhere, working for the UN as well as Human Rights Watch, the International Crisis Group and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
“Having a wide breadth of experience in politically sensitive emergencies has really helped me shape my thinking… Myanmar is perhaps the most fascinating portfolio I’ve ever had in my career, with many levels of political complexities and nuances impacting your work and decision-making.”
As the technical side of the humanitarian response to emergencies and crises becomes ever more systematized, Ivan says there will be an even greater need for humanitarian workers who have experience or knowledge in other fields, such as human rights and political affairs, to bring to policy-making.
“We need people with good political radar, who know how to frame certain strategies, how to frame certain messages, how to feel the political temperature at Headquarters, and in the field, and have a good barometric reading of when to say the right thing, and when to press the right buttons.”