PRESS CONFERENCE BY UNDER-SECRETARY-GENERAL FOR HUMANITARIAN AFFAIRS

14 April 2008

PRESS CONFERENCE BY UNDER-SECRETARY-GENERAL FOR HUMANITARIAN AFFAIRS

14 April 2008
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

PRESS CONFERENCE BY UNDER-SECRETARY-GENERAL FOR HUMANITARIAN AFFAIRS

Reporting on his recent visit to the Gulf region, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes said today there was a recognition by Governments and humanitarian organizations there of the advantages of working more closely with the international system to meet today’s humanitarian demands, as well as the demands for transparency and accountability. 

Speaking at a Headquarters press conference, Mr. Holmes said he was “reasonably optimistic” that, over time, the discussions he had had in the Gulf region -- aimed at encouraging those Governments to channel more of the assistance they already gave bilaterally through multilateral channels -- would bear fruit.  However, he was not expecting “instant results right now; it’s not that kind of discussion and not that kind of partnership that we are seeking”.

He said his first stop had been Jordan, and he had been planning to go to Iraq to see for himself the humanitarian conditions there, but the fighting had made that impossible.  In Jordan, he had talked to agencies and non-governmental organizations that deal with Iraq from Amman, for the moment.  He then visited four nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council region, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar.

The main point of the visit, in part, was to deliver a keynote speech at the Dubai International Humanitarian and Development Conference, DIHAD Conference, which was in its fifth year, and was going from strength-to-strength in terms of its attendance, he said.  Concerning the other aim of his visit, namely to talk to the Governments and humanitarian organizations of the region about how to work together more systematically in the area of humanitarian aid, it was not a new message, but one which had been taken to the region by his predecessors.

He explained that he was not asking for money for any particular cause or fund, nor had he received any.  Rather, he was trying to create the necessary long-term partnerships.  He had had a series of very constructive discussions, starting in Saudi Arabia with the Ministers of Finance, Foreign Affairs, the King, the custodian of the two Holy Mosques, and the Red Crescent Society, whose President was King Faisal.  He had similarly high-level meetings with other countries of the region.

There was a desirability to work more closely with the United Nations and the international humanitarian system and recognition that, to do that effectively, more coordinated structures on the part of those Governments were required, he said.  Those countries traditionally did not have ministries or departments with fixed budgets to deal with development or humanitarian aid.  But, he thought there was recognition that the time had come for more systematic and coordinated partnerships with the international humanitarian system. 

He had pointed out to them the advantages of working more closely with the international system, as it already had, through existing mechanisms, established needs, priorities and projects that could be funded in a transparent and accountable way, which was advantageous for both sides. 

Particular conflict situations had also been discussed, inside and outside the region, he said, adding that another area of interest had been the global rise in food prices.  That was not simply a temporary blip in prices caused by a crop failure here or there.  The underlying factors included population growth, changing dietary patterns, increasing prosperity, and not least in countries like China and India, the effect of biofuels and the fact that very few countries had large strategic grain reserves.  All of that was contributing to the price rise, the consequences of which were very wide.  The humanitarian system would be affected, since more people were likely to be hungry and there was likely to be increased food insecurity and greater difficulty in meeting those needs.

He cautioned that the world in general needed to be ready to respond to that, including the countries of the Gulf region, particularly if those demands grew, which he feared they might. 

Responding to a question about the intensified fighting in Basra, and how that had affected the humanitarian situation in Iraq and his plans to visit the country, he said that access would have been extremely difficult.  Shops had been closed, the usual water supplies were not moving, hospitals could not be re-supplied and the wounded were having great difficulty reaching the hospitals.  All in all, it was very difficult for United Nations international staff not present on the ground to negotiate the kind of access it needed.  That did raise wider questions about access in Iraq, which would be taken up through the Humanitarian Coordinator there, the Iraqi Government and some of the non-State actors.

As for whether there was a global food emergency at present, as the Secretary-General had suggested this morning, Mr. Holmes said what was clear was that there was a very serious problem –- what he would call a “global food price crisis”.  It was difficult to know what the extent of the problem would be, but it had been necessary to mount an emergency appeal in Afghanistan as early as January, because of what was happening to the price of wheat flour, and everyone was aware of the World Food Programme’s extra appeal for $500 million just to keep existing operations going. 

He noted that there had been riots in Haiti, problems of food ques and some deaths in Egypt, problems in Burkina Faso, Cameroon and elsewhere in Africa, and other countries were closing their borders to exports and imposing tariffs because of concerns about food supply.  So, clearly there was a very serious problem between the balance of supply and the demand for food globally -– essentially, it was a demand crisis that was driving the problem.  Prices had risen radically and rapidly, and maybe the availability of food in some areas had become a problem too, causing traditional exporting countries to close their borders. 

However, he added, at this stage, he could not say how many people would be affected, how many would face food insecurity globally, or how many extra resources would be needed to deal with it.  What was known was that this was a very serious problem requiring immediate answers on the humanitarian side, because “the problems could hit us very quickly and are starting to do so”.  The answers should be long-term, and trade implications should also be looked at.  It was a very serious problem with global ramifications, but it was not prudent to be too alarmist about it –- “we’re not quite there yet”. 

Asked why he thought the Gulf countries preferred not to contribute humanitarian assistance through multilateral channels, he said that was a tradition in that part of the world, reiterating that there was a recognition that, while that had its place, it was not enough to deal with today’s demands.  He had been encouraged by what he had heard.

If the $500 million being requested by the World Food Programme was only to keep up with its prior projects before the global food shortage, how would that help “new suffering”, another correspondent asked.

Mr. Holmes said that that was precisely the issue.  Clearly those resources were needed to keep their existing food plans for 2008 on track, but that did not cover any new needs that might arise from price hikes for countries that did not have any emergency feeding programmes or food aid from the World Food Programme, or if the number of desperately hungry people in a country doubled.  That would be an extra unmet need.  That was why the situation was extremely worrying, but he could not put a figure on how many millions more people might need that aid, or how much that might cost, or what choices might have to be made in the future.

In response to another question, he said, in the Gulf there had been significant interest and concern about the situation in Somalia, but it did not have a higher profile than other conflicts.  As for the image of the United Nations record in the area of humanitarian assistance “collection”, he acknowledged that the United Nations needed to explain a lot better what it did and did not do in that field.  He had encountered a number of myths, which he had tried to dispel, but clearly they existed -- such as the cost of bureaucracy for United Nations operations.  The United Nations had an “image issue” in the Middle East, which it needed to address.

As for whether the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) should be large, he explained that the initial target of $500 million was made up of a loan element of $50 million and $450 million in a grant element.  This year, the $50 million was there, and donor contributions totalled about $420 million, and he had reasonable hopes the target would be met.  So, there had been good progress, as compared to the $380 million in 2007.  CERF had not asked for more and had not discussed that publicly.  The question of doubling in size had not arisen, although it could in the future, if food prices went up, for example.  But, that was not yet necessary and donors were not being asked for more money than the target $450 million.

To questions concerning the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, he said he had discussed that with the leaders he had met, and yes, that situation remained grim.  There had also been a temporary clampdown last week on fuel supplies.  He was continually discussing with the Israeli authorities the possibility of allowing more goods into Gaza, even if they were not going to lift the blockade, altogether.  There had been some marginal improvement.  For example, in March, twice the amount of goods got through, compared to February, although that was still a very low base and he would be pressing for continued improvement. 

As for former United States President Jimmy Carter’s role with Hamas, he said, if that could help, it was very welcome.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.