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Five priorities as the new Emergency Relief Coordinator steps into his role

Written by Sorcha O'Callaghan

Hero image description: Martin Griffiths Image credit:UN Photo/ Srdjan Slavkovic Image license:CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Martin Griffiths has just taken over the reins as the UN’s next humanitarian chief. As both the Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC), he has a remarkably tough in-tray.

The converging effects of conflict, climate change and Covid-19 mean that a record 237 million people need assistance; 34 million of whom are at risk of starvation. Tigray is the latest example of difficulties in humanitarian access, delivery and diplomacy in contexts characterised by armed actors flouting their responsibilities to civilians. Despite escalating needs, humanitarian funding has flatlined over the past years, due most recently to aid cuts and the economic fall-out of the pandemic.

Griffiths brings tremendous expertise to the role. A respected humanitarian, during his long career he has acted as the UN Special Envoy to Yemen, held senior roles in some of the sector’s main agencies and co-founded the protection-focused Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.

But with so many intractable challenges, what should he prioritise? The ultimate test will be the difference he makes to the lives of people living in crisis. But he will also be judged on whether he can deploy his diplomatic skills to ensure current efforts to reform the system actually result in change.

Focus on conflict

Griffith’s profile means that he has both the platform and credibility to improve humanitarian responses to protracted conflict. With internationalised armed conflict hitting new highs, the ERC and Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ (OCHA) role in engaging conflict parties and member states to help safeguard civilians in conflict is critical. Yet Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) research indicates that many stakeholders believe that OCHA has deprioritised protection and diplomacy over the past decade.

As OCHA chief, Griffiths can take immediate steps to redress this decline. He should elevate protection and humanitarian diplomacy as corporate priorities for OCHA, clearly communicating to all staff that these are integral to OCHA’s coordination, advocacy and access roles. A senior staff member should be tasked with championing the rebuilding of internal capacity on protection and diplomacy. Griffiths should also ensure that Humanitarian Coordinators prioritise engaging conflict parties and third-party states on protection and, crucially, that they are given the practical support (specialised staff, guidance and resources) and political backing to tackle these sensitive issues.

Work collectively, but make sure the vulnerable are prioritised

Covid-19 has made it impossible to ignore the multi-dimensional, transboundary and systemic nature of crises. It has confirmed the need for humanitarians to work more collectively with development and peacebuilding actors to ensure more effective preparedness as well as longer-term approaches. The inequalities laid bare by the pandemic, the inequities in vaccine access and the deprioritisation of other humanitarian concerns in the face of the pandemic have also reinforced the critical need to ensure that the most vulnerable people and contexts are not neglected.

Important steps have been taken to understand risks and act before a crisis happens, but current anticipatory action pilots need to be scaled-up dramatically over the ERC’s tenure. Griffiths will have to advocate for a significant increase in anticipatory financing in contexts at highest risk of natural hazard events, and to ensure that anticipatory action is applied in conflict-affected contexts.

There is increasing acceptance of the need for synergies between humanitarian, development and peace action and the relevance of social protection in crisis-affected contexts. Yet, HPG research on Ebola highlights the remaining challenges associated with effective leadership and coordination in multidimensional crises and how the priorities of people in crisis are often trumped by international interests.

Development actors, and in particular, multilateral development banks, have become increasingly active in crisis contexts. The new ERC will need to be a vocal advocate for the most vulnerable to ensure that funding from these actors is supporting those most acutely affected by crises, and that their operational and coordination approaches are appropriate to humanitarian settings.

Prioritise national and local responders

Much of the activism and the demand for ‘localising’ humanitarian action rightly focuses on the ethics of a system driven, dominated and led by international actors and interests. The Covid-19 pandemic has also highlighted the pivotal role of states and national and local civil society actors in responding to systemic crises, and the requirement to invest much more in nationally-led crisis management and response. But the system failed to shift dramatically.

The need to localise humanitarian action became an established norm over the course of Mark Lowcock’s tenure. Over the next four years, Griffiths will need to ensure it becomes standard practice.

As fundraiser in-chief for the humanitarian system, Griffiths can play an important role in championing direct, predictable and quality funding for national and local actors, particularly through OCHA’s Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) and other country-based pooled funds that already provide some support.

But it is not just about funding. it is also about national actors having opportunities to lead and affect decision-making. One of the criticisms of Griffiths’ appointment was that it consolidates further the monopoly by a small international club of permanent members of the UN Security Council over leadership of international institutions. Griffiths can begin to address this imbalance by appointing people with diverse experience, backgrounds and nationalities to his senior team, and through ensuring that humanitarian country teams and other country-level coordination and decision-making fora enable the meaningful participation of national actors.

Don’t put people last

HPG’s work shows that five years after commitments were made to put ‘people at the centre’ of humanitarian action, the assistance given to people in crisis is not what they want or need. Despite the ambitions, in practice there has been a consistent lack of political interest in accountability and the incentives to make it happen.

Griffiths should drive forward his predecessor’s belated efforts to strengthen accountability to people in crisis. The lack of progress on this agenda suggests that aid agencies need to be compelled, rather than encouraged, to prioritise people’s needs, and so this aspect of the proposal to link accountability to funding (PDF) has some merit.

However, this top-down approach to accountability needs to be accompanied by efforts to go beyond a projectised approach to understand more holistically the priorities of affected communities, and adapt approaches based on their feedback so that this, rather than agencies’ mandates, drives decision-making.

Make the Grand Bargain 2.0 work

Valid questions are being asked whether the Grand Bargain reform process is sufficiently ambitious to challenge the vested interests of the world’s most powerful humanitarian actors, and whether alternative or emerging models of humanitarian action offer greater potential.

However, as humanitarian chief, Griffiths must work with the current humanitarian system to strengthen effectiveness. While the first Grand Bargain was a useful vehicle for change and made some important progress, it was hindered by an unwieldy number of unclear commitments, an overly technical process and insufficient political support. The new streamlined and high-level Grand Bargain 2.0, which focuses specifically on quality funding, localisation and accountability, has the potential to go further.

The barriers to change are political, not just technical. Aid agencies have proven time and again their unwillingness to reform when this may result in them having less funding and power. Jan Egeland, the ‘Eminent Person’ for the Grand Bargain 2.0, is a respected humanitarian diplomat who can unlock opposition, but he will need political support if the Grand Bargain is to catalyse substantial change. The new ERC should use his influence and legitimacy among senior humanitarian leaders to support the Grand Bargain’s ambition of a more effective, localised and accountable system.