INTERVIEW: “At the end of the day, every life saved is an achievement in itself.” – UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien

Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien speaks to the UN News Centre. UN Photo/Mark Garten

18 August 2015 – Stephen O'Brien has hit the ground running since taking up his post a couple of months ago as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator, having seen first-hand the devastation wrought by ongoing conflicts in South Sudan, Iraq, Yemen and Syria.

The British national with more than 20 years of experience in international development and public health understands the many complexities of humanitarian assistance, which range from ensuring food, shelter and safe drinking water to appreciating the psychological trauma experienced by those affected and the importance of providing hope.


There can be no higher purpose than trying to be part of the broad team saving lives and giving people a chance to have more dignity...

In a recent interview with the UN News Centre, Mr. O’Brien, who heads the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), discusses the vital aspects of humanitarian work, some of today’s most urgent crises, and the challenges and importance of donor participation. The interview, conducted prior to Mr. O’Brien’s recent visits to Yemen and Syria, has been edited for length and clarity.

UN News Centre:  Why would you accept this kind of work?

Stephen O'Brien: There can be no higher purpose than trying to be part of the broad team saving lives and giving people a chance to have more dignity, more opportunity. Ultimately, the UN is the world’s biggest organization carrying those aspirations in the most consensual way. In a sense, the work represents for me a combination of so many of my rather blended experiences. I’ve been a professional lawyer and an industrialist, a politician and a minister, and a representative of my prime minister in various parts of the developing world. And so, it not only carries a lot of logic, I am genuinely enthusiastic about working with a lot of brilliant people doing amazing things. Despite the enormous demand on the humanitarian system to deliver life-saving humanitarian support, this is something really worth doing.

UN News Centre: This isn’t your first exposure to humanitarian work. Can you expand on your background in this area?                          

Stephen O'Brien: In parallel with my professional life, I’ve always, from the time I was a university student, been very interested in how one participates in the development of countries whose history put them at a different starting point than ours in the traditional Western, Northern world. I have been engaged in the development agenda, and in particular, focussed on public health and the great battle against malaria – the world’s greatest killer disease – which is totally treatable and avoidable.

Stephen O'Brien talks about the complex, demanding and urgent task of delivering humanitarian aid worldwide. Credit: United Nations

On the back of that experience, I have worked with many brilliant people globally. First, as a parliamentarian in the United Kingdom, I had a platform where I could champion the issue, be an advocate. Later, my role grew internationally and I became a global advocate for the Roll Back Malaria project. It was absolutely clear to me that the opportunities public health give you was a good example of where humanitarian work can reach out to those who are most vulnerable, most in need, and make a massive difference.

UN News Centre:  What are your impressions of what you’ve seen and what you’ve done so far in your current role?

Stephen O'Brien: The world, through the United Nations and all the Member States, carries a massive will, a determination to meet human need when it arises. You can see it in natural disasters, very often turning into protracted crises, how the world comes together, including numerous stakeholders – be they philanthropists, the private sector as well as all of the UN agencies, international NGOs [non-governmental organizations], national NGOs and local governments. The scale of the UN’s ability to meet those humanitarian needs is absolutely vital. The challenge with conflicts, with parties in dispute, is having the access. That is clearly where the difficulty lies.

So what are my first impressions? Within OCHA, as Under-Secretary-General and in my other role as Emergency Relief Coordinator, the main leadership functions are divided between New York and Geneva, although we have about 4,000 people around the world. Ultimately, it is our job to help coordinate and procure resources – and to make sure we are doing this through with the most optimum effect. We try to save 80 million lives a year and need to raise about $20 billion to do it. So you can see the scale of what has to be done is absolutely vast and made more complicated by the fact that so much of it is within conflict.

I can say that I have met only really dedicated, skilled, deeply experienced, committed people doing a lot of brilliant work. The question is: how do we marshal those resources and get the optimum effect to meet the exponential rise in demand for humanitarian need, whether it is shelter or food, clean drinking water, basic health provision or education. These are the main things that we focus on. We’ve got a good base on which to build but there is so much more to be done.       

UN News Centre:  Tell us about what you’ve done in the job so far. For example, have you travelled to the field and met with interlocutors?

Stephen O'Brien: I certainly have. You have to meet and deal with a wide range of people, including the very generous donors – either more traditional ones or the new partnerships we are creating in many parts of the world. These are the people who are determined. They want to commit resources to deliver on the UN’s strategic approach to saving lives and finding ways to give those lives greater dignity, greater opportunity. We help sustain the work by building in resilience. We build in the ability for people to take on responsibilities for survival and growth in their own lives.

We try to save 80 million lives a year and need to raise about $20 billion to do it. So you can see the scale of what has to be done is absolutely vast...

It’s been hugely important to meet those who help us with the resources and, above all, to meet the affected people. So far, I have managed to go to Iraq, to the Kurdistan region, and into Lebanon. And I’ve been to South Sudan. I was able to see there, the outstanding work of the UN. It was absolutely clear that the UN has saved many thousands of lives because it works alongside numerous partners – both in the charitable sector, particularly the local NGOs, as well as international NGOs – who come together for this very important work.

I will be visiting other countries very shortly. We have a number of really big humanitarian crises around the world, namely Syria, Iraq, South Sudan and Yemen. Also we have the Central African Republic. We have the continuing care and vigilance that we need to maintain with the West Africa Ebola outbreak. We have a continuing crisis across many parts of the Sahel in North and West Africa. Additionally, there is the continuing need to move from the immediate emergency response phase, as in the Philippines, Haiti or, most recently, in Nepal. Looking to the reconstruction phase, we have to work as we transition more into a development role, which is taken on by other parts of the UN system.

So yes, it’s been a pretty busy time because in addition to all that, I have to be here in New York where I have an administrative, management, leadership responsibility; and in Geneva, where we have many of the OCHA team doing strong work; and equally, in the capitals of the world, where we have to forge relationships in partnership with many donor agencies who make sure that we do good work. Additionally, the World Humanitarian Summit is due to take place next year.             

UN News Centre:  You’ve been air-bound for the past eight or nine weeks. How much time have you been at Headquarters as opposed to being out in the field? 

Stephen O'Brien: I haven’t actually counted, but it must be about 14 or 15 days. It’s been a pretty intense immersion. Of course, the work has got to be done but most importantly it’s getting the chance to meet all of the people who are contributing within what is a remarkable team approach. Humanitarian work is extremely complex, very demanding and urgent at all times – and is normally in the context of an emergency. You need people with great experience who know what to do each time. As best we can, we need to make sure that we have the right people in place. The difficulty is that you cannot be sure where some of the emergencies are going to arise.

Humanitarian work is extremely complex, very demanding and urgent at all times – and is normally in the context of an emergency.

Equally, a lot of situations, particularly in conflict, are turning out to be protracted crises. So then, it isn’t so much about knowing where it is, it’s about knowing how to maintain the necessary resourcing to sustain the activities to satisfactorily and efficiently meet the humanitarian need. It is a huge challenge, but one that we have try to continue to meet on a daily basis. 

UN News Centre:  On a more personal note, how important is it to go to the field and see first-hand the most urgent needs?

Stephen O'Brien: There is no substitute for seeing it yourself… As global citizens, we are all sensitized – particularly working under international humanitarian law and the principles that govern it – to make sure that we focus on where the needs and vulnerabilities are, no matter how they arise or who they are. We have to try and be able to meet them. But equally, it is important for the credibility of those under a UN mandate to give a voice to the voiceless, to put rights up front. Those of us advocating for people in need must be credible. We have to see it for ourselves, and meet the people who may be even part of the protagonists in conflict.

For instance, I was in Unity state in South Sudan and was able to meet some individuals coming through the swamps. People don’t realize [that, though] a landlocked country, a lot of South Sudan is covered in water for much of the time – not deep but very marshy. Because of the nature of seasonal challenges, it puts you at massive risk of malaria infection. Safe travel is difficult when you are fleeing. As I said to the Security Council the other day, many of the millions living in South Sudan have an extraordinarily stark choice: either flee or be killed. 

You really feel it when talking to the people on the ground, mainly women and children. Women in particular take the responsibility to try to find food, shelter and clean drinking water and safeguard their children. They undergo absolutely atrocious experiences while they are fleeing places of danger – as armies or militias run amok across the bush. They are chased through swamps and often used as weapons of war. 

Of course that gives rise to massive humanitarian need where, in particular, generous host communities take them in – even before the UN or NGOs can get there with their camps or more engineered approaches. The host communities will give these very vulnerable people shelter. They will often use next year’s seeds to help feed them, so you end up with an even greater humanitarian need. This is why it is so important to recognize that there is a role for the world at large to be able to respond to crises and to make sure that we really do take responsibility for people in need.

UN News Centre: Can you give us a run-down of the main humanitarian crises at present, starting with Yemen?

Stephen O'Brien:  Yemen is a nation that has had security challenges for quite some time. While the country’s profile is coming up, it needs to be much higher on people’s agenda. It has taken time to recognize the extent of what is going on there and the humanitarian needs that must be filled. Today, 80 per cent of Yemen’s population, just over 21 million people, are in some form of humanitarian need. This has happened with a resurgence of violence and war and entails whether they have shelter, clean drinking water and enough food to eat. There are also very serious shortages of medical supplies… Traditionally, Yemen has had about 80 per cent of its supplies imported – including fuel, which has not been able to get in for a while. Fuel is needed for daily life… it is essential to run the mills, to grind the corn for cereals and to run pumping mills for water.

While the warring is going on, we are doing our very best to negotiate the access required for the United Nations to impartially get into Yemen to provide supplies through the local NGOs, supply chains and brave volunteers. We are also conferring with the commercial shipping inspection regime and trying to raise funds for those who run programmes, and, above all, the commodities. It’s a very tough, ongoing situation. Working with a host of people, we are doing our best to make sure that we can meet those needs. I cannot give you any kind of satisfactory answer that all of those needs are being met… they are not, as of today.

UN News Centre: What are the challenges in Iraq and what is OCHA doing to respond?

Stephen O'Brien:  I was in both Bagdad and Erbil. I went to a new extended camp on the outskirts of Bagdad where 20 days before, the women and children that I met had been running in from Ramadi. Trying hard to flee, they had been stuck on the Bzebiz Bridge. One woman had her children and her terribly ill, disabled husband. When I met him, he was being kept in a separate tent in the refugee camp. They had managed to escape from Ramadi as ISIS [also known as ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant)] fighters had come and homes had been burnt. Prior to that, they had fled another town. Part of their extended family was living in a village on the outskirts of Ramadi.

... the UN must meet vulnerability and need wherever it is found, however it arises, under whoever’s influence.

The camp itself, which was provided through the UN agencies under OCHA’s coordination, was well built. It gave people shelter, clean drinking water and regular supplies of food. There were even some hook-ups providing one or two of them with air coolers that just make the 40 degrees and higher heat tolerable. Of course everybody there was desperate to go back home but they had no homes to go back to – they had been burnt. Their uncertainty was compounded by the fact that many of the people who had run in from Ramadi hadn’t necessarily left poverty. They had actually left what might be described as a middle class existence. Having had many of the things that all of us are generally used to, they were also going through a big psychological adjustment of having lost everything.

Their humanitarian needs were no different, no better, no worse than the terrible needs of anybody in a humanitarian crisis. But, in their own minds, they were suffering from the contrast of what they had had and the terrible uncertainty that it all looked as though there was no hope for the future. Those of us engaged in providing humanitarian needs are trying to give not just the ability to survive, but some form of tangible hope. To mothers who ought to be able to look after their children and to young people who want to know that there is a world in which they can participate and influence. So these are really important aspects of humanitarian work.

UN News Centre: And in South Sudan?

Stephen O'Brien:  In a previous role I had seen so much hope in the people as they became the youngest country on the planet – and that was only back in 2011. When I met with President Salva Kiir, I told him that I was there when that hope had come about and how it was dashed today with the continuing warring between his forces, the rebel forces and other militia in the fray. There are great insecurities in the nation that has yet to build any capacity and has known only ongoing dispute for three or even more decades. And so with the seasonal water levels rising across swampy marshland – which characterises up to 40 per cent of the whole of South Sudan – the humanitarian needs of people fleeing violence in all directions is phenomenal. There are camps that have to be set up to protect civilians against one side while camps or host communities are looking after those fleeing from the other side… We are seeking to raise resources and goods to ensure that the needs of the South Sudanese can be addressed.

We must do everything we can to give them protection, to give them the fundamental rights they should enjoy as human beings. Above all, they must have shelter, food, clean drinking water and the ability to get medical attention.

UN News Centre: Can you speak about the importance of dealing with the people who have the resources, the funds, to get the necessary things to those in need?

Stephen O'Brien:  The pool of people who want to ensure their resources are made available to meet humanitarian needs has grown, and needs to grow more. We are all much more conscious of what it is to be a global citizen. Even though some tend to see things in silos, I think most people would acknowledge the importance of security, the future of our planet, humanitarian needs, and, above all, the ability of economies to be self-sustaining.

As part of being global citizens, we have an obligation to try to make available to everyone across the world the opportunity to participate, to be engaged in their own politics and feel that their voice is being heard. This should not be restricted to those, by sheer luck, born in countries with democratic and secure systems. We have to recognize that it is driven fundamentally by the values of humanity. Donors in the richer countries want to know where their hard-earned income is going. It is important that we demonstrate how if one invests in humanitarian work here, it equals a result there, and to demonstrate that fantastic humanitarian results are being achieved… We do this through our advocacy, our witness, the partnerships that we create, both on the ground and amongst all the areas where emergencies arise – be they natural or in conflict settings.

This is, however, much more complex in conflict settings. As so many are protracted, sustainability becomes even more difficult. We have to build trust, confidence and accuracy of the data. My office, in particular, has a great responsibility to make sure that we have the very best factual information. A lot of our authority comes from the fact that we quickly present the facts with authority, so people know exactly what they are dealing with. When we try to raise and match the resources to meet the needs, we can use the pipeline effect to illustrate that if they put money in, it will achieve a result without getting diverted or at too great a cost, which gives people the confidence.

And we’re creating more partnerships. As the overarching global body, the UN must meet vulnerability and need wherever it is found, however it arises, under whoever’s influence. As humanitarian law requires, we must act impartially, first depending on the facts. Secondly, we must be trusted to operate independently. We can only do that by making sure that we don’t allow ourselves to be influenced in one way or another while meeting everybody’s needs. That’s how we raise the resources in the most sustainable way. Trusted relationships – with governments, donors, philanthropists, NGOs and the private sector – are very important amongst the UN agencies.  There are huge numbers of stakeholder constituencies with whom we have to forge and develop relationships.

UN News Centre: Tell us about the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul next year and what you hope to see come out of it.

Stephen O'Brien:  The Summit will be held from 23 to 24 May 2016 in Istanbul… it is a tremendous opportunity to re-inspire a whole new generation to be engaged both through the UN and the entire humanitarian family in tremendous work. Once the idea first came along, a very inclusive consultation process was put in place by the UN. As part of the OCHA team, the World Humanitarian Summit secretariat just concluded eight regional consultations, bringing together the best ideas to culminate in a synthesis report, which will also have the benefit of some thematic meetings that have been taking place. The synthesis report will then bring everything together, adding value by giving a certain consistency and logic, but also showing where innovation and well-proven techniques have phenomenal humanitarian impact. That will crescendo in October at a Geneva event, where we will bring everyone together to ensure we have a tremendous toolkit. We will then add what will emerge from that event with other work that we are doing on the Secretary-General’s report, which by very early next year, we will share with all the stakeholders – the Member States, donors, affected peoples, NGOs and all the other people who are very much engaged.

With so many uncertainties and challenges, there are massive humanitarian needs. The demands seem to be outstripping our ability to meet them. It will be up to the Member States and all who are engaged to find the path from Istanbul once we identify what we are able to do, declare the political will to do it and then have everybody join in to move forward. I think, because of the inclusive process and rigorous examination to identify some emerging themes, it will be a tremendous opportunity to see, for example, how you tie the almost episodic emergency work of humanitarian response into a more sustained developmental agenda within the affected areas.

UN News Centre: What can the recipient of UN aid on the ground in some war-torn country expect to receive, and how can they benefit from next year’s Summit?

Stephen O'Brien:  We must be very careful not to presume we know the answer every time. It is important to marshal the resources, to make sure that we can deliver for nominal humanitarian impact. But first, we should be listening more closely and empowering the affected peoples to have a much greater say in the partnership, both from the broad international humanitarian community – the UN agencies in particular, because they can do these things at great scale but alongside the international and the national NGOs – but equally from their own governments. They should be able to expect their own governments to support them when emergencies arise. It’s always a little easier to imagine this in relation to natural disasters. When talking about conflict, it is more complicated because governments are often focused purely on security rather than the provision of basic services for people.

What is to stop us these days from trying to make sure, for example, that people in affected areas have mobile phones, safe in hand, powered by solar with a dedicated satellite? When the floods and the earthquakes happen, they will be in a position to call for help, which is better than all of us fighting to get assistance in and then discovering that we had not necessarily brought the right help. We need to empower the people. Most importantly, we must let those in need know that we are all on their side, making sure not to leave anyone behind. That is a central theme in everything the Secretary-General and the United Nations are pursuing. It is imperative to make clear that there is massive political will of the world’s people wanting to know that we give our best humanitarian assistance, for the impact to be immediate and that it gives people a chance to survive and live productive and dignified lives.

UN News Centre: When you finish your term as the head of OCHA, what are your main hopes for achievement?

Stephen O'Brien:  I am an optimist.  I believe in humanitarian work, to meet needs as they arise and to make sure that as we look back we will not have been found wanting. That, as part of the global team, we seek to deliver humanitarian assistance to meet the fundamental basic needs of saving lives and of making sure that those lives can live without vulnerability.  The impact of this should give the affected people dignity, opportunities to grow resilience to avoid a repeat cycle of fear and security for families, communities and lives. Not to be found wanting because the UN, its family of UN agencies and its partnerships with the donors – be them philanthropists, governments or foundations – are making sure that along with the private sector, we have built up a series of partnerships that together, through coordination – to avoid duplication and ensure that we hit the targeted destiny – will purchase results that yield confidence and future sustainability.

I hope that, above all, we can look back at any period – I or anybody who’s been engaged in this work – and say they were not found wanting. They did all that they could and produced the best they could at the time. At the end of the day, every life saved is an achievement in itself. That takes a huge number of people working together and the political will and determination of the world.


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