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Q&A: "What&#39s Important Is the Need, Not the Politics"

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.

John Holmes Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

John Holmes Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

OCHA chief John Holmes says that at least 27 million people in 30 countries are currently suffering amid political and environmental crises. However, his agency is facing a funding gap of 2.5 billion dollars, and even those donors who pledge funds, often fail to deliver them.

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&#39 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&#39re 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&#39 funding of crises is not very even.

Today we&#39ve been talking about Chad, which gets a lot less attention than Darfur while by indicators it&#39s closely connected to Darfur.

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&#39s 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&#39t 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&#39s less reliance on the international community, and more natural resilience of the communities themselves. That&#39s 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&#39s 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&#39s 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&#39ve 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&#39t 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&#39s 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&#39ve 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&#39s 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&#39re part of the U.N., we&#39re part of the Secretariat, but because we operate in the humanitarian field, we&#39d 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&#39s important is the people&#39s need and not the politics.

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