Interview with John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator

John Holmes, USG for Humanitarian Affairs and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator

31 August 2010 – British diplomat John Holmes took on the job of the top UN humanitarian official in 2007. Since then he has led UN efforts to mobilize and coordinate relief activities during emergencies such as Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar (May 2008), the Gaza conflict (January 2009) and the Haiti earthquake (January 2010), as well as ongoing crises in other hotspots. Earlier this month, the outgoing UN official travelled to Pakistan with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to see first hand the devastation wrought by the worst flooding in the country’s living memory.

UN News Centre: Can you describe what you saw in Pakistan?

John Holmes: What we saw with the Secretary-General was just a huge area that was flooded. I’ve seen floods before and you’ve seen floods on television before so you know what a flood looks like but it’s just the sheer amount of territory flooded, the amount of crops involved and the amount of people displaced from their homes… the factories, the railway lines, the roads, the bridges, everything affected by flood water as far as the eye can see. And we only saw a tiny proportion of the country affected. Almost the whole length of the country is affected by these floods.

So thThe response is never perfect. Disasters are by definition chaotic, disorderly events on which we are trying to impose a degree of’s the one thing about these floods in Pakistan is the sheer scale of them. And I think even now we have not really understood how big it is because it’s still spreading. So it’s that scale and magnitude that will stay with me and I think affected the Secretary-General very much too.

UN News Centre: You’ve been to several post-disaster situations during your tenure, how does Pakistan compare with others?

John Holmes: Well, a disaster is a disaster. So you tend to see similar scenes in a sense, so there’s nothing very different from the point of view of what you’re seeing. As I say, it’s the sheer numbers of people affected which are more than the tsunami and the Pakistan earthquake and the Haiti earthquake and a couple of other disasters combined. That’s what’s so difficult to grasp. Sometimes when we talk about 15 million people affected, the number is too big, you can’t really visualize it.

What you have to visualize is 15 million individual tragedies of people who have spent a lifetime building up a farm or a business or a home and all of a sudden it’s gone, it’s disappeared under six feet of water. You’ve no idea what will be there when you go back, if anything. That’s a totally turns-your-world-upside-down sort of feeling, and that’s what people who are displaced feel. And people take a long time to recover from that, not just in terms of the food and water but in terms of the psychological effects of it. We probably underestimate that in a lot of things we do.

UN News Centre: How does the humanitarian community deal with the fatigue that sets among the media and donors soon after a major crisis?

John Holmes: People talk a lot about fatigue. I think it can be there, but we need to get across to people that these are not the same people again. These are different people living through these individual tragedies that I’ve been talking about. Then, I think you can generate the kind of response we need to see from the governments, on whom we rely a lot, but also from the public.

People have made a lot of the difference between the response to this crisis and the response to the Haiti earthquake, as if that’s explained by fatigue or by something about Pakistan. I honestly don’t believe that’s true. I think it is much more to do with the nature of an earthquake, which is a very sudden, dramatic event where 200,000 people have been killed in an instant… you have bodies on the streets and you have dramatic pictures of collapsed buildings and rescues. That has a much more immediate emotional impact on a television viewer or the public than floods which build up over time, stretch slowly, don’t kill quite so many people, thankfully.

I think that’s the big difference, not some phenomenon of fatigue. Maybe the fact that it’s been happening in what is the holiday season in some Western countries, that may have had an effect on the coverage and the response too but I think the main point is the difference between an instant disaster like the Haiti earthquake or the tsunami and the slowly developing disaster like the floods.

UN News Centre: What are some of the lessons learned in terms of how the UN conducts its humanitarian affairs after having dealt with crises such as Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, the Haiti earthquake and now the Pakistan floods?

John Holmes: We’ve been engaged in a process of continuous improvement of the response to these disasters, whether they are man-made disasters or natural disasters, for a number of years now. I think the response is a lot better than it was 10 years ago or 20 years ago. We’re better coordinated, we’re better organized, we’re more professional, we’re rapid, we’re more predictable, and we have better funding.

For all these reasons, I think the response is improving all the time and I think the UN plays a very key role in that. There are a very large number of organizations engaged in this. So if it’s going to be effective, it’s got to be coordinated. That’s the job that I and my predecessors have been trying to do. I cannot tell them what to do. I can only persuade them that this is the direction we need to move in, that we all need to work together, that we need to avoid gaps and we need to avoid duplications. That is happening.

We also have the Central Emergency Response Fund, which gives us the sort of funding which is very rapid and very predictable, and very good at catalyzing the response in the very early stages, and also at making sure that there are not neglected disasters around the world which otherwise can be a problem.

The response is never perfect. Disasters are by definition chaotic, disorderly events on which we are trying to impose a degree of order. That search is going to go on, and the main point is that we’ve improved and we’ll go on improving.

UN News Centre: What are the more frustrating aspects of the job?

John Holmes: Sometimes the most challenging parts are trying to help people in a particular country and having to deal with a government which regards your activities with suspicion, or with even more than suspicion. So instead of facilitating what you’re doing and giving you every possible help, there’s somehow an impression at times that they’re putting spokes in the wheel or that they sometimes regard you as having some other kind of agenda or prying too much in their affairs. That’s frustrating and it’s difficult to deal with.

It’s their country, it’s their sovereignty, and we full respect that. On the other hand, we have a moral humanitarian imperative to try and get to these places to help people so we have to find the right balance to speak out, to say things that governments sometimes don’t want to hear but while working with them and respecting their sovereignty to the full. Those are some of the most difficult challenges I’ve faced in my time.

UN News Centre: What has been the most challenging crisis for you to deal with?

John Holmes: That’s a big question. The trouble is that they’re all different. I mean they have similar aspects, and the needs are very often similar… the basics of food and water and shelter and medical care are common to most crises. But otherwise they’re all different.

I think that the most difficult ones in some ways are not the natural disasters but the conflict situations where you have an extra complication of either the government or illegal armed groups of different kinds who are not necessarily very sympathetic to what we’re trying to do. The problems in Sri Lanka, for example, were not enormous in humanitarian terms – you’re talking about 300,000 people compared to 14 million for the Pakistan floods – but it was a very complicated and sensitive political environment, where the Government had suspicions about some of the humanitarian organizations being too sympathetic with the LTTE [Tamil rebels] or whatever.

UN News Centre: Looking back on the past three and a half years, what has been the most rewarding moment for you?

UN Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes (right) speaking with IDPs in Vavuniya, Sri Lanka, on 27 April 2009

John Holmes: Well, one moment I do recall is after Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, when if you remember there was a lot of difficulty actually persuading the Government to allow humanitarian workers from outside in to help the people who have been affected by the cyclone [140,000 were killed and 2.5 million affected]. And I went there once and then I went there again, and the Secretary-General came out and we talked to the Government at great length about why we needed to have these people in there, why they need to allow outside help in. Eventually, the head of the Government, General Than Swe, did agree to that. That was a moment of satisfaction… that at least we made that breakthrough so people would be able to get in to help.

But of course, that’s swamped by many other problems and you move on immediately. There’s no time to sit back and enjoy any moment because the next challenge is always just around the corner.

UN News Centre: Do you have any advice for your successor?

John Holmes: My advice is to build up your physical stamina, the strength of your stomach, for all the travelling because there’s an awful lot of travelling… and your mental resilience. I sometimes compare it to being a doctor. If you identify too much with any one of your patients, that’s an understandable human reaction but that will prevent you from helping other people in a professional way. So you have to look at it very professionally, you have to have the emotional engagement but at the same time the detachment to try to do it in a professional way.

UN News Centre: What impact has travelling to the front lines of humanitarian crises and meeting with survivors and aid workers had on you personally?

John Holmes: I think you see the worst of people and you see the best of people. You see the amazing resilience of people to survive an experience like a disaster. You also see the response of people who give huge amounts of themselves and their lives to go and help.

I suppose what it’s done for me is make those disasters which I’ve seen on television and read about like everybody else come to life in a very, very vivid way. And as a lifetime diplomat dealing with issues at a rather detached level, seeing the consequences of conflict or the consequences of disasters or the consequences of neglect is very striking and obviously gives you a very different perspective.

UN News Centre: Do you think your former experience as a diplomat served you well in your assignment with the UN?

John Holmes: I think it did in the sense that, of course humanitarian work is a totally non-political activity – that’s the whole point that we’re not responding to a political agenda or following any political imperatives of anybody else. At the same time, and particularly in conflict situations – and about 70 per cent of what we do relates to conflict situations – the politics are extremely important, extremely sensitive, extremely delicate. Therefore, the ability to know something about the forces involved, have the diplomatic skills to walk those tightropes without falling off either side, I think is very important and I think has been extremely useful.

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