DfID's Lowcock welcomed as new OCHA head, but faces challenges

Devex
May 26, 2017

Mark Lowcock, the new United Nations humanitarian chief, will have his work cut out for him when he soon takes the reigns of a shrinking U.N. Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs. As the agency contracts, the world continues to experience what the U.N. calls the largest protracted humanitarian crises not seen since World War Two.

But present and past OCHA staffers, as well as humanitarian experts who work with OCHA, are cautiously welcoming Lowcock’s entry to the U.N. system, aware of the tough conditions the career British civil servant will likely encounter when he assumes the post by September.  

“We are confident that Mark is a good choice, but that being said, there is a question over whether he will he able to succeed, perhaps where we have seen OCHA struggle with having the political attention of the member states,” said Jamie Munn, director of the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Geneva office. “And when it comes time for pledging of financial support for emergencies, to bring together states in a way they can look at the needs on the ground, irrespective of the political consequences for assisting.”

Budget cuts and new identity

Earlier this month, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres appointed Lowcock to a dual role — under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and U.N. emergency relief coordinator. The selection came as OCHA faces continued cuts and internal reforms. After OCHA’s budget grew steadily in the 2000s and peaked at $334 million in 2015 — making up 1.5 percent of the global humanitarian requirements — it then dipped to $260 million this year.

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An estimated 92.8 million people in 33 countries require more than $22 billion of humanitarian assistance this year, including multiple food insecurity and forced displacement and refugee crises. Yet OCHA’s budget is expected to decrease an additional 20 percent next year, internal sources say. In 2016, the United States was its largest single contributor, making up 18 percent of its budget, followed by the United Kingdom, Sweden, the European Union and Germany. Unfavorable exchange rates, combined with a lack of substantial increases from OCHA’s donor base, has contributed to these cuts.

The bulk of upcoming budget cuts will be managed by current Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O’Brien, but by the time Lowcock takes the helm in late August or September this year, the organization will look very different, explained Rashid Khalikov, assistant secretary-general for humanitarian partnerships at OCHA.

“We increased [the budget] dramatically at the response of several crises, and we were using the savings but we’ve reached the point where we can’t use savings anymore, because then they’re not savings,” he told Devex on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum regional Middle East North Africa meeting. “Donors were very generous, they were unprecedented in their generosity but I don’t think we can raise more money from donors now.”

He added that OCHA has struggled to attract the kind of humanitarian image of its agency cohorts.

“Those who are providing assistance, health, and food, and nutrition, and shelter, they’re much better off than we are,” he said.

OCHA, unlike other U.N. agencies such as UNICEF and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, lacks a clearly decipherable, targeted mission, such as being focused on the needs of children or refugees. It also increasingly does not serve as a focal, coordinating point for humanitarian NGOs working in crisis and conflict zones — its original purpose — says Patricia McIllreavy, vice president for InterAction’s humanitarian policy and practice.

The agency is in the midst of implementing internal reforms, as part of upholding commitments made at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit. These changes will result in strengthening of protection of internally displaced persons and host communities and the expansion of the Central Emergency Response Fund to $1 billion by 2018. The budget cuts could also mean a return back to the agency’s core tenants, and less focus on innovation.

Some change would be welcome, McIllreavy says.

“Does OCHA need to change? Yes, it does, and they are aware of that themselves, which is why [Stephen] O’Brien launched a review of OCHA over a year ago,” she explained.

“My hope is OCHA goes back to basics — many of us who have field experience in the 90s, 2000s, and later, we remember a different OCHA, a more nimble OCHA, one more principled and driving for coordination and collective results. I think over the past few years, in part in response to the demands on OCHA, they have grown and it is hard to stay nimble when you are that big.”

Patricia McIlreavy is the vice president of the humanitarian policy and practice at InterAction.

Read the full article at Devex.com.