- Development & Aid
- Economy & Trade
- Human Rights
- Global Governance
- Civil Society
Tuesday, January 25, 2022
Interview with John Holmes, U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator
UNITED NATIONS, Jul 24 2007 (IPS) - When conflicts and natural disasters flare up around the world, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) plays a critical role in delivering relief through a wide and complex array of U.N. agencies and non-governmental aid groups.
IPS correspondent Nergui Manalsuren spoke with Holmes at U.N. headquarters in New York. Excerpts of the interview follow.
IPS: You have said that the media has a role to play in donors' decision-making, with some crisis-affected regions far more prominent than others, creating a so-called "CNN effect." Does OCHA have a strategy to boost awareness of more hidden crises, such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo?
JH: Well, obviously we do see as one of our roles to make sure that media and the public in general is aware of crises which are, as you said, not necessarily on the headlines of CNN. I take it as part of my role to make sure that we're giving equal air time, equal funding, and equal attention to these neglected or forgotten crisis.
For example, in the Central African Republic, a country which most people have never even heard of, there is a very serious humanitarian problem, so we need to draw attention to it. And we have the Central Emergency Response Fund, which has a particular window in it to address under-funded crisis so that we could make up for the fact that donors' funding of crises is not very even.
IPS: Ahunna Eziakonwa, the OCHA chief in charge of the coordination and response division, said recently that while relief is important because it saves lives, it is also important to increase the resilience of the population, especially farmers, to environmental shocks because some of these disasters are predictable. She talked about a continental-wide pastoralist policy in Africa. What are your thoughts on this?
JH: I think this is a general point, that is, what we want to do apart from what we are doing now. We want to give relief, responding to a crisis after it's happened, but especially with climate change, the number of natural disasters you can see happening is about to increase.
So the first agenda, called disaster risk reduction, does things like making sure that buildings are earthquake-proof, making sure that people don't build in flood plains, reducing environmental damage for example to hillsides, making sure that beaches are protected from tsunamis. The thing that is important is to reduce the vulnerability of people in front of natural disasters before they happen, when you know that it is going to happen.
The common goal is to try to build national capacity and to build local capacity to respond and deal with those things, so that there's less reliance on the international community, and more natural resilience of the communities themselves. That's something I think the U.N. system and we in general have been stressing more and more as time goes on.
IPS: In the Consolidated & Flash Appeals 2007 financial statement, some organisations are over-funded, while OCHA, for example, gets just 12 percent of its budget from the U.N. Is this is a fair system?
JH: Well, it is a slightly different issue. In Consolidated & Flash Appeals, it is not about one organisation gets more money than another, or an NGO gets more money than another agency. It is more between crises, and that's what we look at in particular.
There is another issue between sectors. For example, the food sector, which is basic after all, tends to be well funded, and another sector which is also basic to human needs like the health sector tends to be badly funded. It is hard to understand why that should be, so we try to draw their attention to that, saying that food is not the only thing that you can finance, there is health, and also some other issues that are less obviously central. For example, water and sanitation, and education does not get funds as it should, education in crisis I mean. I think part of it to some extent is that the lack of coordination between donors about what they are funding leaves some imbalances that we try to correct.
IPS: You and OCHA have warned of increasing attacks on aid workers in Darfur, which are jeopardising relief operations there. Is this a worrisome trend you also see happening elsewhere?
JH: Yes, it is. It's been happening in Chad, putting guns to the heads of the aid workers, stealing their cars, radios and money. It is mainly banditry rather than political, but still it is very frightening if you happen to be involved. And it obviously jeopardises these relief operations because their organisations are no longer safe to operate.
In Sri Lanka, I think you've seen 17 Sri Lankan workers from a French-based charity who were killed in a single incident – cold-blooded. Two Red Cross workers shot in Sri Lanka, again very recently, we don't know by whom. So the dangers appear to be increasing, and what that means is that people we try to help may have less help in the future because [aid workers] will be less prepared to go there.
A very good example of the problems we face is in Iraq. There is a big humanitarian problem because of war and violence. It is virtually impossible for international humanitarian staff to operate because it is too dangerous. So these are worrying trends that are trends in wrong direction.
IPS: In the Occupied Palestinian Territories, OCHA and the U.N. are generally perceived as even-handed. How would you answer criticism from some humanitarian NGOs that OCHA has sided too much with the Transitional Federal Government in Somalia? Or with the Ugandan government in the forcible disarmament of the Karamojong pastoralists?
JH: I think that there are areas where we have a problem in terms of perception. I think this is not so much because of OCHA itself, rather the U.N. in general is perceived as not neutral, not impartial. Iraq is one example because of the particular history of the U.N. in Iraq, which means that anybody who's going there with the U.N. label, far from being protected by it, is a target because of it.
The criticism that you cite from others that we are sometimes too close to a government, I would not accept. For example, with the Transitional Federal Government in Somalia, we have been talking to them but we are not particularly close to them. In fact, I had some difficult conversations with them because we are pushing them very hard to improve humanitarian access, to improve the security and conditions where humanitarian workers can operate.
In the case of Uganda, in the Karamojong, again, the conversations I've had at least with the Ugandan government about Karamojong have been very much in the context of saying that we accept that you have the right to disarm Karamojong's people who are carrying arms illegally. But we have problems about the way you do it, which is not necessarily conforming with international standards.
We're part of the U.N., we're part of the Secretariat, but because we operate in the humanitarian field, we'd talk to anybody, we would talk to governments and we will also talk to their opposition. If we need to talk to, for example, Hamas to achieve access for humanitarian goods, we would talk to Hamas. We would talk to anybody to help people during their need – what's important is the people's need and not the politics.
IPS is an international communication institution with a global news agency at its core,
raising the voices of the South
and civil society on issues of development, globalisation, human rights and the environment
Copyright © 2022 IPS-Inter Press Service. All rights reserved. - Terms & Conditions
You have the Power to Make a Difference
Would you consider a $20.00 contribution today that will help to keep the IPS news wire active? Your contribution will make a huge difference.