Interview with Valerie Amos, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator

Valerie Amos, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. UN Photo/Evan Schneider

28 March 2013 – In September 2010, Valerie Amos took up her post at the helm of the UN Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which is responsible for bringing together humanitarian actors to ensure a coherent response to emergencies. From deploying rapid-response teams and working with partners to assess needs, take action, secure funds, and facilitate civil-military coordination, OCHA plays a key role in crisis situations worldwide.

As Emergency Relief Coordinator, Ms. Amos, a former member of the British Cabinet and Leader of the House of Lords, serves as a focal point and voice for humanitarian emergencies. She oversees more than 2,000 staff working in over 50 country, regional and headquarters locations, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

Ms. Amos recently sat down with the UN News Centre following a visit to Turkey, where she visited with some of the more than 1 million refugees who have fled the ongoing conflict in Syria and are residing in neighbouring countries.  

UN News Centre: You’ve made several trips to Syria and the neighbouring countries that are hosting Syrian refugees. Can you describe what you’ve seen?

Valerie Amos: Well the situation is getting worse all the time. I was last in Syria in January. There’s just constant shelling and I think that people are seeing what that is delivering through their television screens, through what we’rePeople feel very strongly that the international community has abandoned them, that we are not doing as much as we can to bring an end to the [Syria] crisis. seeing on the news programmes. But how to describe when you speak to someone who is affected inside the country or to a refugee… the fear in their voice, the anger… People feel very strongly that the international community has abandoned them, that we are not doing as much as we can to bring an end to the crisis. They can’t quite believe it’s been two years. I talked to people in neighbouring countries. I’ve just been in Turkey. I was there last week, and people thought they were leaving for a few months and that they would be back home by now. So the despair…

I worry because I think that the capacity that we have to meet those growing needs is not nearly enough. And of course it’s a difficult environment to work in. The security situation is very bad… just the day-to-day things that our staff have to do on the ground. Not only are they dealing with that insecurity – there was a bomb yesterday in Damascus; everyone, I’m very pleased to say, is safe – but they’re dealing with that on a daily basis. We’re trying to get convoys, supplies to very difficult to reach places. We can’t necessarily get through. We had the reports of the chemical attacks. We tried to get a convoy to Aleppo with medical supplies. It got hijacked. So I’ve got people, and there are people from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, from other UN agencies, who are doing the best that they can. The Syrian people themselves are dealing with this on a daily basis, fearful for their lives, for the lives of their children, their communities. We, as an international community, have got to do more.

UN News Centre: What are the most critical needs right now?

Valerie Amos visits a family displaced by floods in Pakistan, during her first field mission as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs in September 2010. Photo: Truls Brekke/FAO

Valerie Amos: Medical support is right at the top of the agenda. Syria is a country that used to produce its own medicines. Now it can’t. I was hearing just earlier this week in my conversations with the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] that we’ve now reached a tipping point, so that more people are dying in Syria not as a direct result of the conflict but because the whole medical infrastructure has broken down. So people are appearing to die of natural causes but they would not have died a year ago, 18 months ago, when the medical sector was still functioning.

I worry about the children. I worry about the women who are being sexually abused and traumatized. We’re hearing reports of men being abused and traumatized in detention centres. We’re now speaking of over a million refugees. So we have needs in terms of food, shelter, the impact on neighbouring countries as well.

UN News Centre: In January donors pledged over $1.5 billion for the Syria humanitarian response. How do you go about getting them to fulfil those pledges as soon as possible?

Valerie Amos: Well, that’s my current challenge. That was at the end of January. It’s now seven weeks since that conference. And I know that countries have to go through their processes. Some countries have to go through parliaments. Other countries are making decisions about exactly where they want that money to go. But in the meantime, the World Food Programme – trying to deliver food stocks; UNHCR – trying to help refugees; UNICEF – trying to help children; UNRWA – the urgent work that they are doing with the Palestinian refugees; they’re all running out of money. So I need the donors who made those pledges – and it was great to see the international community come together in the way that they did – to please turn those pledges now into real money in the bank so that we can continue the work that we’re doing.

UN News Centre: What is the current situation in the Sahel region, which was a big focus last year?

Valerie Amos speaks to the UN News Centre on recent visits to Syria and Mali and about providing humanitarian assistance in crises around the world. UNTV

Valerie Amos: On one level, we did really well in the Sahel last year. We were all so worried that we were facing such a difficult situation with food insecurity as well as malnutrition that we were heading to a similar situation as the one we had seen the year before in the Horn of Africa, where we actually saw famine in Somalia. We didn’t get to that position, partly because of the governments themselves who, because of early warning, put in place strategies to deal with that, and the support they got from the international community, including the UN organizations. I think we’re all very pleased that we did not reach that very difficult situation.

But we still have a situation this year where nearly 10 million people are still at risk because even in a year with good rains, this is a very vulnerable region. And all of that has been made worse by the situation in Mali. We had a coup last year. We had the extremists settling in the north. The French action since January has really helped to stabilize the situation. But how going forward do we really make people in the north feel that they are a continuing part of Mali. So the reconciliation discussions have to start. And how we, as an international community, are able to get them the help that they need, how we can deal with the ongoing insecurity because people fear that many of the groups have just disappeared into communities and will re-emerge once the French withdraw.

The role of the UN going forward – what kind of support will the UN give in terms of state-building, elections, humanitarian support, development support, all of these discussions are happening right now. And in the meantime, you have continued displacement inside the country, you still have a refugee outflow, and of course you still have neighbouring countries that are affected by what is happening in Mali.

UN News Centre: In addition to Syria and the Sahel, what are some of the most pressing crises that you are dealing with now?

On a visit to Mali in August 2012, Valerie Amos meets displaced women at a camp in Mopti. Credit: OCHA

Valerie Amos: Well I worry about Yemen, which is not on the top of anybody’s agenda and where we have a major crisis across the country – in the north, in the centre, and in the south. I worry a lot about the Central African Republic. I also worry about ongoing tensions between Sudan and South Sudan which is having an impact on those two countries. But even within Sudan itself, the situation in Darfur which has remained stubbornly difficult for so many years. And of course, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Afghanistan… we have a long list of countries that we’re dealing with.

UN News Centre: How do you tackle donor fatigue when there are so many situations worldwide competing for attention and resources?

Valerie Amos: Donor fatigue and people fatigue too. I think the way that we have to deal with it… yes, there are a lot of crises, but at the same time, each of these crises is about people. It’s about the people who are affected, it’s about the children, it’s about the families, and part of the job that I have to do is to make that real for the world. To make it clear that it’s not just about numbers. It’s not just about the millions, the thousands. It’s about every single person. That’s how you have to do it and you have to continue to make the case. Do the best that you can.

UN News Centre: You’ve been in your post for a few years now. What has been your biggest challenge?

Valerie Amos: There are lots of challenges and there are lots of frustrations in this job. But there are also a lot of opportunities. If I had to talk about challenges, I would say that there are three really big challenges. One is how do you make our system, our humanitarian response system, as effective as possible. How do we collectively do the best we can to reach the people who need the help. Secondly, the point about advocacy, which we’ve already discussed – how do I make sure that the people that we are there to help and support, that their voice is heard and that their voice is heard in a way that touches the hearts of the people across the world so that we can raise the money that we need to raise to give people that support. I think that is a major challenge.

The third major challenge is how do we make sure as crises are more complex, as there is more politics, if you like, in those crises, as we see in Syria right now, as we see in Mali right now, how can we make sure the work that we are doing on the humanitarian side – work which is about humanity, which is about impartiality, which is really about how do you reach the people in the greatest need – how do we make sure that that work is kept separate from those broader political agendas. And that’s harder and harder year each year.

Syrian families speak about the trauma of being displaced (January 2013). UNTV

UN News Centre: You’ve travelled to several countries since assuming your post. Is there a situation, a story or an image that has stayed with you?

Valerie Amos: There are a lot but if I only had to choose one, I would choose a child that I saw with her mother. They were in a camp in Ethiopia. They were very short of food, and her mother was feeding her with one of those enriched products that the WFP have, Plumpy’nut, UNICEF use it too, which really helps to build the children back when they’ve really been malnourished. She was really thin, she had a very big head, she was very frail. And her mother was feeding her but stopped because she was talking to me. And she grabbed her mother’s hand and basically brought the spoon back to her mouth. She wanted to live. She wanted to have the food that would help her to live. That is an image that always stays with me.

UN News Centre: You have a gruelling travel schedule and deal with difficult situations all the time. What is needed for this job in terms of physical and mental stamina?

Valerie Amos: Oh, a lot. I travel on average two weeks out of three. It’s very physically demanding but it’s also I think emotionally demanding because you do see terrible things but basically the people keep you going. I mean, I should eat a lot more healthily than I do. I should exercise more than I do. I tend to focus on the job at hand rather than on myself and I think the thing that does keep me going is that I know that in the work that I do and in the people that I work with, that we can really make change happen and that’s what I focus on.

UN Humanitarian Appeals 2013