10th April 2017 Geneva, Switzerland
Imagine A World Without Humanitarian Agencies
It been nearly half a century since John Lennon released the song that was to become the most successful of his solo career. His vision of a world without borders, countries, religion or conflict looks utopian to say the least from the perspective of 2017. But there is an area where the common humanity that he appealed to plays an indispensable role today in protecting the lives of literally millions of people.
Many of the world’s humanitarian agencies are based in Geneva. The UN Refugee Agency is the largest, but the Swiss city is also home to the International Committee of the Red Cross and its sister organisation, IFRC, the International Federation. The World Health Organisation has a role in the humanitarian crises caused by disease outbreaks, such as Ebola. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs provides leadership to ensure all work together in emergencies, and the International Organisation for Migration plays a critical role to support those displaced by emergencies. Elsewhere in the UN system there is the World Food Programme and UNICEF for children. They are at the heart of a global network of humanitarian aid agencies, the UK’s DFID being one of the most prominent, and thousands of international and national NGOs that often have essential roles.
These UN humanitarian agencies are often criticised. With oversight committees made up of 190 plus members of the United Nations, that’s hardly surprising. Sometimes the criticism is legitimate: ineffective programmes, poor cost control, an unwillingness to reform. But sometimes it is just another form of lobbying, by countries seeking to get more attention for their priorities.
Yet despite this criticism the need for these agencies has grown not diminished.
If you’ll excuse me paraphrasing John Lennon, imagine a world in which there were no humanitarian agencies. Today there are more refugees and displaced people than at any time since the Second World War. While there has only been one certified famine globally since 2000, four may be declared in 2017 alone. In Yemen, North East Nigeria, South Sudan and Somalia, drought and conflict are pushing families to the brink of starvation. In Somalia more than six million people have no reliable access to food. In South Sudan, more than half the population is in desperate need. The destruction wrought in Syria is entirely man-made but it is no less devastating for that, with no end in sight after six years of vicious conflict.
Without the international humanitarian system, with the UN agencies and national agencies like DFID at its heart, many of these people in these regions would die and many more would be forced to migrate. Before the UN agencies existed much of the world was governed by colonialism. But the alternative to today’s humanitarian system would be worse than colonialism. We would see the spread of anarchy and suffering, which in today’s globalised world would leave few countries unaffected.
That is why the UK is committed to strengthening – and reforming – the international humanitarian system to cope with the ever greater demands placed upon it. We want to help it focus on better managing the risk of disasters and finding lasting solutions to long-term crises. Protecting people in crises including by upholding humanitarian norms and principles. Strengthening the UK’s own capability to respond to global disasters. Investing in systems that increase countries’ resilience and preparedness to respond themselves to these crises.
In terms of protracted crises, the UK is already working with the UN to pioneer new approaches, including supporting countries that host long-term refugees to help them generate livelihoods for those refugees and invest in their future, and the future of their children. The UK is using its position as one of the world’s leading aid donors to challenge, change and reform the wider global aid system, building on the commitments made at the World Humanitarian Summit last year.
The international humanitarian system is one of the great legacies of humanity’s revulsion to the devastation caused by the Second World War. But it is now facing its greatest challenge since the 1940s. The UK is committed – politically and financially – to helping it succeed.