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UN Reform in the Humanitarian Sector

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:00


Adele Harmer - Research Fellow, HPG/ODI

Randolph Kent - Centre for Defence Studies, King's College, London


Tony Baldry MP - Chair, International Development Committee, House of Commons

1. The second meeting in the series was held on Thursday 6 May 2004. Tony Baldry MP, Chair of the International Development Select Committee in the House of Commons chaired the meeting. The two speakers were Randolph Kent, Centre for Defence Studies, King's College London, and Adele Harmer, Research Fellow at ODI.

2. Adele Harmer spoke first, to a presentation. She noted that the international humanitarian system was distinguished by complex governance, both legal and institutional. In effect, it was not one system, but many. There had been a marked increase in spending, with the level reaching $5.5billion in 2001. There was a high degree of concentration of donors, with the US providing 20-25% of the total.  

3. The reason why reform of the humanitarian system was on the agenda lay in concerns about poor performance, including on the ground, but also inadequate strategic planning and weak capacity to coordinate in the UN system. This had led to a lack of trust in the system and increased ear-marking and direct intervention by bilateral donors.

4. A series of reform initiatives could be identified. Current initiatives included the "Good Humanitarian Donorship Initiative", discussion about the reform of the Inter Agency Standing Committee, work through the UN Development Group and the Executive Committee on Humanitarian Affairs on Transitional and Post-Conflict Situations and a body of work on humanitarian partnership aimed at broadening the donor base.

5. For the future, Adele Harmer identified humanitarian dialogue with the G77, the further development of "integrated missions", security in operational responses, and new developmental forms of engagement in conflict situations and protracted crises. Underlying discussion about many of these was the international security agenda associated with the war on terror.

6. Randolph Kent spoke mainly about the conflict between the regulatory and operational roles of the UN humanitarian system. He began by describing the effect of the competitive aid environment in which UN humanitarian agencies had to work. There were many actors involved in humanitarian work, including the private sector and the military as well as NGOs and a number of UN agencies. The UN was often seen as "just another actor" and this was very undermining of its authority. The emphasis in the UN on operational activities had led it to compete for funding in the aid market and inevitably to mission creep. Donor influence often encouraged this, for example by insisting on UN presence in every emergency.

7. There was of course a good deal of self-regulation in the humanitarian sector, for example through the Sphere Project and the Humanitarian Accountability Project, but the overall impact was limited. Randolph Kent argued that the humanitarian system needed an overall regulator, an authoritative advocate, and a body paying attention to the core causes of vulnerability, for example global warming or poverty.

8. He was sensitive to the criticism of his position that a focus on "standard bearing" rather than operational work would leave the UN merely as a talking shop and would further undermine its position. However, he did not accept the criticism. His view was that a focus on the over-arching advocacy and the deeper causes of poverty and vulnerability would lead the UN into a deeper engagement with operational work.

9. In conclusion, Randolph Kent summarised his recommendations: there should be an over-arching review of humanitarian work by the UN, through a review of General Assembly Resolution 46/182 and the role of the Inter Agency Standing Committee; more funding should be provided for the standard bearing roles, including advocacy; there should be substantial changes in administrative practices, including hiring (for example to provide more local knowledge through longer assignments); there should be more conditionality on humanitarian activity by NGOs; and, above all, governments should promote the legitimacy and accountability of the UN system.

10. Opening the discussion, Tony Baldry said that he felt the performance of the humanitarian system was perhaps less important as an issue than weaknesses and shortcomings on the political side. In the crisis countries he had visited with the Select Committee, the main constraint was not humanitarian competence, but the management of political crisis. This view was questioned, however. It was certainly true that there was a political shortfall (as the previous week's meeting had demonstrated); however, the two speakers had demonstrated that there were very real shortcomings in the humanitarian system. This was something that ought to keep policy makers awake.

11. Other points made in the discussion included:

·         The question of how to drive regulatory change was again discussed, with the proposal that this be through financial allocation noted. A strong parallel was noted between the UN reform discussion and the parallel discussion about achieving change in national budgetary and political systems, for example through the use of budget support.

·         Some important points were made about the need to provide the UN with greater flexibility. Afghanistan was cited as a case where UN coordination was working reasonably well, but it was noted that, in Iraq, the UN had been ready to intervene many months before it was finally allowed into the country. The case of food aid to Afghanistan was cited, where cash would have been a more appropriate input.

·         There was some discussion of what was meant by the regulatory function of the UN. Randolph Kent clarified that perhaps 'moral authority' would be a better term, implying the capacity to adjudicate on emergencies and bring together the necessary response. 


This meeting, the second in the UN reform: Why? What? How? series, saw Adele Harmer and Randolf Kent discuss reform of the UN humanitarian system. There have been questions surrounding perceived failiures in international humanitarian response and out of this some have begun to suggest there is a need for reform within the UN. Adele Harmer and Randolf Kent addressed this issue outlining where and how they saw the agenda being taken forward.

Committee Room 11