Catherine Bragg, former Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator and Deputy Head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said international humanitarian aid is no longer governed by a monolitic authoritative, formal humanitarian system, but now involves a multitude of actors including regional organizations who are developing their own coordination mechanisms and member states who are developing their own capabilities and structures.
She said one of the most positive developments in humanitarian affairs over the past five years is that middle-income countries have increased their capacity to coordinate and respond to disasters within their jurisdiction.
“I think that what we need to do is to accept that OCHA is not going to be the only coordinating body for international humanitarian affairs in the future,” Ms. Bragg said.
She also said there is no longer one authoritative information source.”You try to have access as much as possible from different information systems,” she said.
But with this expanded system comes challenges in coordinating aid efforts. “How do we make sure that we can still all aim towards the same humanitarian objectives and not trip over each other or [over] the things that coordination is about?” she said. “What I have come to realize is that we need to establish a kind of common norms and standards between the different types of actors when we are parading in the same theater and towards the same humanitarian objectives.”
Ms. Bragg said that different kinds of aid are being instrumentalized and have different objectives, but “we need to have a distinctive form of aid that is purely about saving lives and alleviating acute human suffering. And that distinctive form of aid has to be neutral and non-instrumentalized and as impartial as possible.”
“Now, the fact that we fall short of all of these ideals in a lot of instances does not mean that they don’t matter; it just means, that as all human endeavor, we can’t be perfect. And we should strive to be perfect, and strive for that ideal.”
The interview was conducted by Jérémie Labbé, Senior Policy Analyst, International Peace Institute.
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
Jérémie Labbé: I am here today with Catherine Bragg, former Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator and Deputy Head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. You held this position from late 2007 to early 2013. Catherine, thank you very much for joining us at the Global Observatory today.
Let me ask you first a fairly broad question to start with. What are the three or four most positive changes that you witnessed within the humanitarian system during the five years that you spent in your former position?
Catherine Bragg: I think that’s a very, very good question, and as I leave my former position, I did spend some time thinking about just what have been the changes in the system itself. I think that the first thing I would mention is our collective attempt to be more inclusive over the course of the last five years. For example, by about 2008-09, the number of projects by NGOs in the consolidated appeal surpassed 50%, and I think that was a very good sign. If you recall that in the beginning, 20 years ago when we first started, the numbers of NGO projects were roughly about 10%. So, I think that is a very good trend.
And also, I think that increasingly, member states are getting involved in the humanitarian system as well. A good example is the CERF, the Center Emergency Response Fund, currently is being contributed to by 126 countries out of 193 members of the UN. That’s an exceedingly high level of participation. And we are also seeing more and more member states interested in contributing to pool funds and also contributing to the consolidated appeals as well. So, I think that those are all good signs of inclusivity; we can certainly all do more.
And when I referred to the CERF—I think that probably is our second biggest success in the last period of the five years. The CERF only just started in 2006; shortly thereafter, I was part of the first advisory group of the CERF, and shortly after that, I joined the UN as the deputy in OCHA. And the fact that we are now at 126 countries contributing, and has really become a very well accepted global tool, and have been able to contribute to the response in over a hundred countries—I think these are all very, very good signs.
I noticed your question, though, was referring to good things that happened in the humanitarian system. If your question had been about the good things that happened in humanitarian affairs, I really should mention that I think one of the really positive developments in the last five years is that, increasingly, middle-income countries have increased their capacity in being able to coordinate and respond to disasters within their jurisdiction. And I think that is probably one of the most positive developments overall in the last five years.
JL: You introduced quite a subtle nuance between the humanitarian system and humanitarian affairs. Do you mean here that the humanitarian system represented or coordinated by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is actually not representing all the actors that are involved in the broader undertaking to deliver relief assistance in emergencies?
CB: Let me put it this way—if we look at how the international humanitarian system that started with the General Assembly Resolution 46/182 21 years ago, at that point, conceptualization of countries were generally in two categories: donor countries and recipient countries. And it actually was a real shame, because it did not appreciate that governments and authorities in fact are humanitarian actors. And I think it is something that we increasingly see them as taking a role, not just as hosting countries, but they’re actual active actors themselves. And I think that is a really positive development in that sense.
JL: In the same vein: in recent years, we saw an increasing diversity of relief actors. A number of so-called “emerging actors” are playing an increasing role in relief—not only governments of countries affected by crisis, but also the private sector, the military and the foreign military, grass-roots organizations that have long been kind of ignored by the international humanitarian system. And I know that lately you’ve been thinking about the idea of increasing the interoperability of the humanitarian system with all those other emerging networks or systems that are involved in relief. Can you develop a bit more, this idea of interoperability?
CB: Thanks for asking that question. I don’t take credit for having coined that phrase. Actually, it came to me and to some of my colleagues in using that term when we were more thinking at that point about information management and humanitarian information, and how these days, if you are someone seeking information, you don’t just go to one authoritative information source, you try to have access as much as possible to different information systems. And you appreciate that there’s a lot of effort in developing the common interoperability between systems, so that if you are the person that is seeking information, you can have access to that.
And that really is, in the same vein, that I am using the same word. I don’t think I’m the first one to come to realize in today’s context that we can’t think about a monolithic, authoritative, formal humanitarian system anymore. And, despite the fact that in the last little while, our strategy has been to bring more actors into the tent, so to speak, there is a limit to how much you can persuade everybody that there’s really is only one way of thinking, one way of expressing your values, and so I think what you are referring to, in terms of the multiplicity of actors, is a demonstration that, in today’s context, there will be a lot of actors who are multiple mandated, and some of them would have common humanitarian objectives when compared to the system that we have come to know since the General Assembly resolution 46/182.
So, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking in this kind of context: how do we make sure that we can still all aim towards the same humanitarian objectives and not trip over each other or [over] the things that coordination is about. And to me, what I have come to realize is that we need to establish a kind of common norms and standards between the different types of actors when we are operating in the same theater and towards the same humanitarian objectives.
I actually find it very comforting that we in fact have examples of that. For example, it has taken us a good part of a decade before the multilateral humanitarian system became comfortable working with NATO, which is a military organization, but also has humanitarian ambition as well. And it has taken us over a decade before we can get to that point, where we now know how we can operate in the same theater, and the last successful example was in Libya, where humanitarians worked in the same theater as NATO, and we have strategies of deconflictions, so that we don’t get in each other’s way, so that we facilitate each other’s work as opposed to getting in each other’s way. I think we need to get to that point with all of the different groups of actors. It may take a while, but I think we need to think about what are the common norms and standards and protocols that we need to have in place in order to do that.
And if I may also expand a little bit on what I was thinking in terms of from an OCHA point of view about coordinating all of this. That’s when it kind of struck me that we cannot think of OCHA as the traffic cops standing in an intersection, where you have an increasing volume of traffic coming at the policeman. That is not OCHA anymore, if OCHA ever was in that kind of role. I think that what we need to do is to accept that OCHA is not going to be the only coordinating body for international humanitarian affairs in the future. There are going to be regional organizations who are developing their own coordination mechanisms of regional players, and the authorities of member states are also developing their own coordination mechanisms and capabilities and structures. So, I think the time has passed to think of OCHA as the coordinating body for the international humanitarian system.
JL: And how are humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, and—maybe even more difficult to achieve—independence and neutrality, fitting into this picture? And more precisely, how do you see those humanitarian principles in relation to the tendency of the United Nations system to increasingly integrate its different activities, which tend to, in some places like in Somalia, for instance, to subsume— or, at least humanitarian actors worry that it subsumes—humanitarian activities to broader political objectives of peace, stability, statebuilding?
CB: Well, let me start with the second part of your question first, about the humanitarian principles in a situation of integrated missions or multiple mandates and objectives. I think there’s always a misconception that somehow agencies within the UN system cannot be neutral and cannot be independent just because we have the Security Council. In fact, when I review all of the Security Council resolutions, I don’t see any Security Council resolutions that are, in fact, direct humanitarian operations.
The only ones that touch on operations deal with sanctions, and even in sanctions resolutions, generally there is a caveat for humanitarian action to be exempt. So, I think it is a misconception that somehow just because the UN, at the political level, has the Security Council, that somehow UN agencies cannot be neutral and independent.
I think neutrality and independence is a matter of self-identification, is how we want to conduct our business, what we think we are. And I would say that all of the UN entities, when they are engaged in humanitarian work, strive to be neutral and independent and impartial. Of course, the objective is a humanitarian objective towards the principle of humanity.
The reason why I say that is that I don’t think UN agencies in fact take sides. And people, generally, when I say that, they throw back at me and say, “Well look at WHO, their modus operandi is to work with governments, how can you say they are neutral?” Well, I would to reply by saying that being a humanitarian means you are willing to work with anybody, including governments. There is nothing that says that just because you are working with a government means you are not neutral; it’s whether your humanitarian objective would be hindered by the way you actually carry out your humanitarian work.
Now, I want to turn to the first part of your question, which is, how do we see humanitarian principles fitting in the brave new world of multiple actors, and a lot of them have very, very different values? I really believe that we need to have a distinctive form of aid that is purely about saving lives and alleviating acute human suffering. I think that the many, many forms of aid, we know… a lot of aid is instrumentalized, they are for different objectives. If we want to make sure that people who are caught up in humanitarian crises, being able to access the help that they need, we need to have a distinctive form of aid. And that distinctive form of aid has to be neutral and non-instrumentalized and as impartial as possible.
Now, the fact that we fall short of all of these ideals in a lot of instances does not mean that they don’t matter; it just means, that as all human endeavor, we can’t be perfect. And we should strive to be perfect, and strive for that ideal. But at the same time, I think that just to say that if you look across humanitarian action, can we all say that we are all pure in adherence to the humanitarian principles? No, I don’t think so, but at the same time, that’s what human endeavor is. We do make the calculus on a day-to-day basis as to what compromises we have to make in order to get to the objective that we need to get to. And as long as for me the objective is a humanitarian objective, I think that is the important part.
In terms of the other actors who hold other values—I would have no difficulty in saying that if we want to maximize the chance of someone being caught in a crisis, have the best chance of being able to access aid, we need to have actors who are not purely humanitarian. We need to have actors as long as they have a humanitarian objective in what they do.
JL: Catherine, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us, and I wish you all the best with your future endeavor.