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New UN humanitarian chief faces herculean task

18 May 20170 comments

With 65 million people displaced globally and an unprecedented four simultaneous famines declared the UN’s new chief of humanitarian operations arguably has the toughest job on the planet.

Add to that dwindling UN finances and the byzantine machinations of UN politics and you’d forgive former British bureaucrat and now UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock for thinking twice about accepting the role.

But the former chief of Britain’s overseas aid agency, the Department for International Development (DFID), is at least in technical terms, the most qualified person ever appointed to the post.

He holds accountancy qualifications and has worked for the UK government’s aid machinery since 1985, including postings in Zimbabwe and Kenya.

As well as challenges in the humanitarian landscape, Lowcock will have to deal with internal issues including the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ (OCHA) financial and structural troubles following donor cutbacks and critical reviews.

Lowcock’s role includes managing 2,000 OCHA staff and providing leadership to the broader humanitarian community as “Emergency Relief Coordinator”, a role bestowed by the UN, but carrying little hard authority.

He will also probably have to steer emergency aid reforms floated at the World Humanitarian Summit.

Lowcock takes over as famine threatens Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and northeast Nigeria, humanitarian principles are being trashed in Syria, and the Trump administration plans huge cuts to its support for UN agencies.

Taking over from Stephen O’Brien, Lowcock is the latest in a series of Britons appointed to the position but the first to be a bureaucrat and not a politician.

Although an experienced administrator, Lowcock lacks proven political experience for the arena of the Security Council, where charisma and clout are needed to advocate for humanitarian causes, some observers have said.

Ben Ramalingam, leader of the Disasters and Development group at the UK university think tank, the Institute of Development Studies, told the humanitarian journal IRIN that Lowcock was a “great choice”, pointing to his technical and financial background.

But Mr Ramalingam said Lowcock would be most tested by the charged political landscape and “re-casting the role of OCHA for a changing world”.

Another observer pointed out that UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres had appointed few women to the critical senior positions in the areas of political, peace and security, nor had there been visible progress in breaking the lock the Security Council’s five permanent members hold on them.

Following the UK’s cross-party commitment to spending 0.7 per cent of gross national income on development, the UK’s DFID grew rapidly under Lowcock to be the third-largest donor country in world, after the US and Germany.

Britain has earned praise from watchdogs and analysts for aspects of its development and humanitarian aid funding, include championing open data and financial transparency, legally “untying” it’s spending from UK companies and contractors, and championing new approaches such as cash-based aid and collective efforts, including pooled funds.

Lowcock has frequently appeared before parliamentary committees, explaining and defending the work of his department.

In recent years DFID has faced a number of scandals, most recently including unethical behaviour by one of DFID’s biggest for-profit contractors, Adam Smith International, and a botched airport project at the far-flung British outpost of St Helena.


Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist