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At ‘crossroads,’ humanitarian system must engage earlier, more systematically – UN deputy chief

Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson.
Jean-Marc Ferré (file)
Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson.

At ‘crossroads,’ humanitarian system must engage earlier, more systematically – UN deputy chief

With needs rising faster than the world’s capacity to meet them, humanitarian actors must grapple with the challenge of working in partnership to ensure people’s needs are met as quickly and efficiently as possible, the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said today, opening the Third Annual Global Humanitarian Policy Forum in Geneva.

“Working together remains a key challenge, a central task and a humanitarian imperative,” he told the Forum, convened by Policy Analysis and Innovation Section of the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), stressing the importance of inter-operability, “we can no longer afford to operate separately or in parallel with one another in silos, we have to work horizontally.”

Mr. Eliasson, speaking during a public, high-level Symposium discussing the concept of humanitarian interoperability, pointed to the current year as “a loud warning signal” the international community ought to heed, with humanitarian crises, protracted conflicts and natural disasters “seriously testing the limits and response capacities of individuals, organisations, governments and the United Nations” and three times as many people now in need of humanitarian assistance compared to 10 years ago.

“Over the past ten years, the amount requested through humanitarian appeals has risen nearly 600 per cent—from $3 billion at the start of 2004 to $17.9 billion today,” he noted, pointing out the increasing difficulties faced when trying to raise funds. An acute lack of finances led to suspension by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) of its support to 1.7 million Syrian refugees and with winter approaching the situation there was becoming even more critical.

It was time to recognize the fact that the UN and its partners in the Inter-Agency Standing Committee were just some of those involved in crisis response, and it was vital to stay aware that each partner – whether a business, a local authority or a military – brought its own individual strengths and comparative advantages to the table.

“Looking back to the Philippines’ most recent natural disaster, for example, how can the UN best support the Government when it gathers its resources to respond to a devastating typhoon?” he asked.

“How can we today work with mobile phone and Internet companies in West Africa to help stop the spread of Ebola? How can we harness the power of community groups, the media, international and national NGOs [non-governmental organizations] in Iraq, so that displaced people and host communities get the help including information, they so desperately need?”

While recalling progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), on tackling sovereign debt, and on establishing international humanitarian and human rights law frameworks, the “toxic interplay” of various global trends and shocks led to significant uncertainty and serious questions about the future and painted a “sombre picture.”

Humanitarian assistance efforts and staff deployments needed to be more focused and coordinated and better organization was needed within the humanitarian community, and with colleagues working development and human rights.

He also highlighted the need for better preparedness, with better anticipation of risks and strengthening of the resilience of people and communities, as well as an increased focus on addressing the underlying causes of crises.

“Humanitarian aid cannot be used to fill the development funding gap or be a substitute for political solutions that are so desperately needed,” he said, stressing that humanitarian organizations still need to work more closely with development partners.

“We are at a crossroads. The trajectory is unsustainable,” he stated. “We must change the way we work and chart the road ahead.”