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Humanitarian Practice in an Age of Impunity - Speech by Rt Hon David Miliband, President & CEO, International Rescue Committee

UN OCHA Humanitarian Coordinators Retreat

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I am here today for a number of reasons. I believe in the UN and think it needs to reform in order to survive – so the agenda being pursued by the Secretary General is important. I am a fan of your Emergency Response Coordinator Mark Lowcock, and admire his expertise, passion, diplomacy and insight. And in the Humanitarian Coordinator community I have met some people of extraordinary quality. Some of them are in this room.

Perhaps most important, the International Rescue Committee, and the people we serve, depend to a significant degree on you. We are lucky enough to work with many of you and your teams around the world. The IRC and other members of the NGO community look to the UN and specifically the Humanitarian Coordinators around the world for leadership in the most difficult humanitarian contexts. The successful leaders amongst you have followers because you inspire, empower, enable – but also because you listen and learn. You realize there is no monopoly on wisdom within the UN and recognise that the practical expertise of civil society organisations like mine can bring enormous benefit to your work. I’ve seen you go the extra mile for beneficiaries, take on UN and other bureaucracies, find ways around recalcitrant governments.

So I owe it to you to come and share ideas and listen to your views.

And since there are government donors in the room, let me take a moment to also thank you. Thank you to your leaders and your staff around the world, but also thank you to your governments, your parliaments, and your citizens for committing precious resources to support the life-saving and life-changing work we do every day.

I am going to make two points today. The second is about what we control: the humanitarian sector, its organising practices, its logic, lodestars and leadership. I will come to that for the majority of my remarks.

The first point is about what is beyond our control, the context in which we operate, the root causes of the humanitarian crises that we exist to address. And in doing so I apologise to those of you who are focused on natural disasters. My focus, leading an organisation focused on people whose lives are shattered by conflict and persecution, is on conflict not disaster. It goes without saying that climate stress fuels both.

I believe this age of global politics is marked by a growing Age of Impunity around the world. By Age of Impunity I mean a time when governments and nonstate actors can commit crimes, including war crimes, and get away with it. Use chemical weapons and kill their own people. Shell a coachload of children and avoid an independent investigation. Commit ethnic cleansing and avoid justice. Besiege communities, break international humanitarian law, and escape accountability. There never was a golden age, but this has elements of a dark age.

Four quick points.

  • There is a growing belief on the part of state and nonstate actors in many places that norms and rules of behavior written down in UN conventions and laws are optional not mandatory, and where they are broken there is no sanction. I don’t believe there was a golden age of liberal internationalism, but we have come a long way since 2005 and the responsibility to protect. The impunity is most striking among the world’s autocracies, which are growing in number, but in a strange way the age of impunity is being enabled from the oldest democracies. We shouldn’t be surprised that the rule of international law is in retreat when democratic recession – the reduction in political freedom – is underway in the majority of countries in the world.
  • The rise of nationalism and nativism challenges the foundations of the multilateral system to establish universal values and then insist on them. The debate about sovereignty that was so distorted in the Brexit debate is a direct challenge to the lessons that the founders of the UN learned from the inter-war period. Nationalism is a zero-sum game, so no wonder it abjures the idea of shared sovereignty. There is no win-win. And the biggest losers are the most vulnerable in the world, for whom the liberal international order offered real if distant relief.
  • The origins of this situation are diffuse, but the assault on globalisation reflects its inequalities and insecurities. Ironically the backlash against the global system is being carried in the name of those concerned about the over-weening power of the global institutions. But the truth about global inequality and insecurity is that it is the product of global institutions that are too weak not too strong. Whether we’re discussing refugees, corporate taxation, climate change, or privacy, global institutions – far from encroaching on state sovereignty – are almost always too weak to adequately address these challenges.
  • Finally, this age of impunity is fueled by a crisis of diplomacy. Contrary to the generalised global trends towards peace and prosperity documented by Steven Pinker, in conflict and fragile states around the world the life chances of civilians caught up in war have declined in the last decade. We’ve seen a growth in the number, length and virulence of wars within states. According to historian David Armitage the number of intrastate ongoing conflicts in the post-Cold War era is ten times the average in the two centuries prior; furthermore, these intrastate conflicts are lasting three times longer today than they did a century ago. The list of these intrastate conflicts where peacemakers have so far failed to stop the killing is long: Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, Myanmar, Afghanistan – the list goes on. And the tools of diplomacy developed for inter-state conflict are too weak to deal with intra-state warfare.

So much for what is beyond our control. The age of impunity, the crisis of diplomacy, the rise of nationalism and nativism, and the backlash against global institutions are all putting extra pressure on us. But our continued inability to overcome the status quo within our own systems adds to that pressure.

And here’s my point: let’s fix what’s within our control, or we will be consumed by that which is beyond our control. Our greatest vulnerability is not that the powerful forces of skepticism want to attack our mission and our work, but that there is material for them to do so. The donors in this room owe it to their citizens to use their aid budgets wisely and we – as the UN and humanitarian implementers – owe it to them to ensure the programs we deliver with those funds are effective, efficient, based on real evidence, and are actually changing outcomes around the world.

Example 1. Where we need to be long-term, we are short-term, most notably when it comes to funding. 90% of people who will receive humanitarian assistance this year live in countries that have been in crisis for more than five years. Last year 19 of the 21 Humanitarian Response Plans were for humanitarian crises that have been running for five years or more. Three of those countries – the DRC, Sudan and Somalia – have had humanitarian plans and appeals each year for at least 18 years. And yet despite the long-term nature of these crises, my organisation currently runs a portfolio of 457 grants with an average length of just 15 months, creating uncertainty, inefficiency, and an inability to invest in the long-term responses that can truly transform these crises. Unfortunately, UN agencies as donors are the worst offenders in this regard. Our awards from UN agencies average just 335 days, less than half the length of the average DFID grant we receive. This short-term funding and planning creates huge inefficiencies, but also undermines prospects for long-term outcomes.

Example 2. Where we need the accountability of outcome targets, the humanitarian response over-indexes on input or output data. Take education for example. Targets are set in most cases in terms of quantity – dollars raised, children reached - rather than quality, like literacy and numeracy improvements. Funders and implementers can claim to have “reached” X million children—but in too many cases we do not know what “reaching” these children means and whether they’re learning—we have no data. The result is that we and other implementers are incentivised to deviate from what we know and have proven to be best practices for improving literacy and numeracy in order to satisfy UN and donor requirements that may achieve high numbers but have little impact.

Example 3. Where we know that women and girls are not just the majority of our beneficiaries, but the most vulnerable among them, the accountability gap is growing not shrinking. Despite rhetoric on the “centrality of protection” and the need to invest in preventing and responding to GBV, we see very little progress. In 2016 just 0.6 per cent of humanitarian funding went to GBV programs according to upcoming research from the IRC and the Equality Institute. Across responses we need to prioritise protection through response plans and appeals and adhere to the GBV Accountability Framework through the Real Time Accountability Partnership.

But we also know from experience that if we are to reduce inequalities for women and girls in our programming, we need to reduce inequalities in our own organisations. The IRC has developed an internal scorecard with organisation-wide gender equality metrics that tackle power imbalances, sexual misconduct, and abuse head on. We all need to up our game.

Example 4. Where there are demands for localisation and compliance there is little recognition of the tension between the two. I understand why donors in this room see virtue in localisation – the sub-granting to local community-based organisations. I understand too why they emphasise the importance of compliance. But what I cannot accept is the same donor refusing to recognise the tension between the two. International NGOs like mine who are staffed by local people do not deserve to pitted as the enemy of localism.

Example 5. Where we say that we aim to be the voice of the voiceless, we are too often constrained in what we are willing to say. We all say humanitarian aid is neutral, independent, impartial and humane. But we all have to deal with host and donor governments. And that means making choices about how and when to speak out. We face this as the largest refugee resettlement agency in the US, whose administration has reduced the number of refugees by three quarters.

We all operate with the consent of the host governments. That gives them power. But we cannot allow the power to speak to drain away from us. We sympathise with the difficulty of speaking truth to power when you are dependent on government funding and have to steer a careful course when it comes to criticising the policies of those governments who allow the UN to operate. But when I spoke at the special session of the UNSC on the killing of aid workers and civilians I deliberately called on the UN to step up as well as members of the security council. I am not asking you to be PNG’d. That is not a mark of success. But the fear of being PNG’d should not create a new kind of gag rule.

We cannot control everything about the environments we operate in, nor can we control the dangerous winds of local politics that question the validity of our work. But where we can fix problems, we must. Where we can improve effectiveness, we are obligated. Where we can reform the system, we can’t be afraid. This starts with fixing our own systems – on gender and safeguarding, on multi-year response plans, on diversity in humanitarian country teams, and on making the most of new UN reforms.

First, OCHA needs to lead by example. OCHA has taken the first step with the New Way of Working, but too often this has been limited to a conversation about UN coordination and UN planning. OCHA should be the example and set the bar for all UN agencies on UN practice. This year, OCHA should release multiyear awards from the country-based pooled funds and CERF. Beyond the demonstration effect of changing OCHA’s own practice, OCHA can also provide the transparency and accountability to spur other UN Agencies – and bilateral donors – to do more. As the administrator of the UN financial tracking system (UNFTS), OCHA can and should require inputs into FTS to reveal duration (not just amount) of donor awards, and the flow through of funding to frontline partners.

Second, if we really want to bridge the humanitarian-development divide, then we need to create accountability metrics, targets for outcomes for populations in crisis, that become a daily force in the lives of all those working in humanitarian and development systems.

We know two things:

  • First, we are off track to meet the SDGs because of the situation in conflict and fragile states. The ODI study the IRC published last year documented how 80 per cent of fragile or conflict states are off track when it comes to SDGs.
  • Second, the targets in the SDGs comprehensively and systematically fail to target populations caught up in crisis. Refugees are actually left out of country-level statistics. And in the key SDG areas of health, education, women’s equality and livelihoods there are no targets for displaced and crisis-affected populations.

I also know this: Reform starts with knowing what you want to achieve. Then you need intelligent metrics for success. And lacking a definition of these, we will not succeed. Instead of discussing floor targets, we should institute them. We tried to build floor targets into the Global Compact for Refugees, but were rebuffed by sherpas who feared real accountability would disrupt sensitive negotiations. But the truth is, we don’t need 193 member states to agree on floor targets. Humanitarian Coordinators (HCs) have power here too if they demand and plan towards these targets. OCHA and HCs should use their power as the holder of Humanitarian Response Plans (HRPs) to define common indicators to be used in all HRPs. These indicators should be aligned with the SDGs, and like the SDGs, have clear targets that we can all be held accountable for.

Third, we need to speak more loudly together about what is going wrong in the countries where we work when it is going wrong. This is vital in the new governance arrangements. Resident Coordinators (RCs) double hatted as HCs need to ensure that humanitarian concerns are not marginalised when it comes to relations with host governments. The truth is you have more weight than you realise. And we are all strongest when we speak in a unified voice and we should be more willing to use that voice – we fail our beneficiaries and the people in need when we don’t use our voice.

Fourth, we need to get serious about reforming outdated systems and structures that are literally costing lives, and achieve that reform by genuinely focusing on beneficiaries. Let me give an example of how human-centered design could revolutionise our systems.

As many of you know 50 million children under the age of 5 are acutely malnourished, 80% of them don’t get the help that they need. There are different protocols for the treatment of severe and moderate acute malnutrition and two different UN agencies responsible for administering those protocols. In addition, we expect parents of acutely malnourished children to take their children for treatment to health centers, in defiance of the situation on the ground where war and poverty make such journeys incredibly hazardous. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that there’s an answer to this. IRC has piloted a combined protocol for moderate and severe acute malnutrition and developed the tools to deliver this through community health workers in the communities where we work. WHO, WFP, and UNICEF have all expressed interest and garnered support for this program which we think can save literally millions of lives.

Now we need to implement it on a mass scale quickly; when we do that, we’ll know that we’re really living up to our mandate. We want to do this with you. Reform is difficult and scary, but it’s only possible if we overcome our inertia and move together. If we are unable or unwilling to make these simple changes to improve the lives of the 51 million children suffering from acute malnutrition around the world, then what would it take for us to act?

Yesterday you debated the agenda for reform by 2030. I am starting from where we are, and what we control, rather than where we would like to be, and what is beyond our control. We are allies in this, but we need to get onto reform footing, to defend the work that we think is important, but more important to advance the interests of people who we serve.

About the IRC

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 29 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future and strengthen their communities. Learn more at www.rescue-uk.org and follow the IRC on Twitter & Facebook.