Julian Braithwaite

Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN and other international organisations in Geneva

Part of UK in Switzerland

19th October 2015 Geneva, Switzerland

Is the World’s Humanitarian System Broken?

Last week Geneva was overrun by humanitarian NGOs, activists, international organisations, think tankers and government delegations.

The rather utilitarian Centre International de Conférences Genève (CICG) – a cross between the Barbican Centre and the Hall of the Supreme Soviet – was filled with large crowds, colourful presentations, and displays of national music and dance.  They were all there for the “Global Consultation”, the last leg of one of the most ambitious stakeholder management exercises in the history of the United Nations.

Nearly two years of meetings, seminars, sythesis documents, co-chairs summaries, and a report by the Secretary General will all culminate in the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul next May.  The goal is to tackle the challenges facing the world’s humanitarian system.  And while the debate still rages over what the problems and solutions are, one thing everyone can agree on:  it’s very timely.

The humanitarian system was designed after the second world war to deal with emergencies, helping people temporarily displaced by natural disaster and conflict until they could return to their homes.  The classic humanitarian emergency was caused by a typhoon or an earthquake, and the system still deals with these emergencies admirably.  When 10s of 1000s of people are displaced by natural disaster and at risk of starvation, disease and exposure, we take it for granted that the system will react immediately and take responsibility for dealing with the crisis.  It’s a powerful reminder of just how effective that system is.

The problem is that 80% of today’s humanitarian effort now goes on helping people displaced not by disaster but by long-term conflict.  Refugee status was supposed to be temporary.  Today, refugees spend on average not 17 weeks or 17 months, but 17 years as a refugee.  And the problem is getting worse, fast.  Back in 2000 the cost of managing all the world’s humanitarian crises was $2 billion.  Today it is $25 billion.  We are facing our worst humanitarian crisis since the 1940s.

Political leaders have now woken up to the crisis.  Indeed, it has been literally knocking at their door.  First there was the tragedy of hundreds of men, women and children drowning in the Mediterranean as they tried to get to Europe.  Then hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees started arriving in Europe though Turkey and Greece.  This has tested the common Schengen borders and asylum policies that many EU member states share, and called into question their underlying assumptions.

The Istanbul Summit is a huge opportunity to turn this political concern into political agreement on the future of the humanitarian system.  This was never supposed to be a classic UN intergovernmental negotiation, but Istanbul nevertheless needs to become a political moment, an event that brings together the world’s political leaders to endorse a new way of managing the humanitarian system.

This global consultation process has thrown up thousands of ideas.  But last week three in particular were emerging as key to any solution.

First, bringing together our humanitarian and development systems to address the consequences of protracted conflicts.  If our humanitarian engagement is going to last on average 17 years, it needs to be about more than food parcels and tents.  It needs to be about supporting education, social services, economic opportunity, and jobs.  But many of the hosts of the world’s refugee populations – Ethiopia, Cameroon, Lebanon, Jordan – are middle income countries that have been ineligible for much development aid.  That need to change, say many.

Second, attracting new donors.  The current system is almost entirely financed by the same dozen countries.  Yet China, India and others have demonstrated impressive capacity to respond to natural humanitarian disasters in recent years.  Countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and others have given generously to help refugees.  But both these groups are largely outside the current humanitarian system based around agencies like OCHA, UNHCR, WFP.  Many believe that can change while preserving the global humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality.

Third, simplifying what we do.  Standardising the reporting requirements different donors require would save the agencies millions in overheads.  More revolutionary has been the trials that show that using cash rather than aid in kind can lead to enormous improvements in efficiency and allow beneficiaries to take more responsibility for their lives.  The pooling or at least coordination of donor funding would also empower the humanitarian agencies to focus on the most important things.

But one of the most important insights last week was that the humanitarian system isn’t broken; rather, the conflict resolution system is not working as it should.  The result has been the protracted conflicts which have been putting unprecedented strain on the humanitarian system.  In many ways, the system had responded magnificently to challenges it was not designed for.

The task at Istanbul is therefore preserve the system that has served the world so well, while adapting it to a reality in which protracted conflicts are the new norm.

About Julian Braithwaite

Julian Braithwaite was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations and other international organisations in Geneva in April 2015. Julian was born in Rome, and has…

Julian Braithwaite was appointed Her Majesty’s
Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations and other international organisations in Geneva in April 2015.

Julian was born in Rome, and has degrees from Cambridge and Harvard universities, where he studied biochemistry, history and international relations.

He is married to Biljana Braithwaite and they have
two daughters, Anya (born 2000) and Katya (born 2004). He spent much of his career dealing with the crises in the former Yugoslavia and goes to Montenegro every summer.

Julian posts on the United Nations and the issues around globalisation, including human rights, the internet, global health, humanitarian crises and arms control.