The way the United Nations responds to natural and man-made emergencies has improved greatly in recent years, says the world body’s outgoing humanitarian chief, while acknowledging that efforts to alleviate the plight of those affected by crises can be improved further.
“I think the response is a lot better than it was 10 years ago or 20 years ago. We’re better coordinated, we’re better organized, we’re more professional, we’re rapid, we’re more predictable, and we have better funding,” John Holmes told the UN News Centre in an interview.
The career British diplomat has served as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator for the past three-and-a-half years. During this time, the UN was called on to respond to many devastating disasters, including Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar in 2008, the earthquake in Haiti in January this year and most recently the floods in Pakistan.
Ensuring the timely and effective delivery of humanitarian assistance is not an easy task, he noted, given the need to coordinate the efforts of a diverse array of actors, including governments, UN agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other partners.
“There are a very large number of organizations engaged in this. So if it’s going to be effective, it’s got to be coordinated,” said Mr. Holmes.
“I cannot tell them what to do. I can only persuade them that this is the direction we need to move in, that we all need to work together, that we need to avoid gaps and we need to avoid duplications. That is happening.”
The delivery of assistance has also improved in recent years, he noted, with the establishment of the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), which was launched in 2006 to help speed up relief operations for humanitarian emergencies and make funds available quickly after a disaster, when people are most at risk.
At the same time, Mr. Holmes, who will be leaving the UN at the end of this month, admitted that there is still room for improvement in how the world body responds to disasters and other emergencies.
“The response is never perfect,” he stated. “Disasters are by definition chaotic, disorderly events on which we are trying to impose a degree of order. That search is going to go on, and the main point is that we’ve improved and we’ll go on improving.”
Mr. Holmes, who will be succeeded by another United Kingdom national, Valerie Amos, added that among the most challenging aspects of his post is dealing with governments who regard the UN’s humanitarian activities with suspicion.
“Instead of facilitating what you’re doing and giving you every possible help, there’s somehow an impression at times that they’re putting spokes in the wheel or that they sometimes regard you as having some other kind of agenda or prying too much in their affairs. That’s frustrating and it’s difficult to deal with.”
While it is important to respect the sovereignty of States, Mr. Holmes emphasized that the goal is to reach people in need.
“We have a moral humanitarian imperative to try and get to these places to help people so we have to find the right balance to speak out, to say things that governments sometimes don’t want to hear but while working with them and respecting their sovereignty to the full.”