Mark Lowcock, Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator (USG/ERC) at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), leads global humanitarian relief efforts for the UN. Mark's optimism has sustained him throughout his 30-year career delivering aid to people suffering from war, poverty and famine.
"One of the things I hold on to is most people on the planet have escaped from those problems, as the generations have passed. And when you're confronting the next bleak, horrible event, holding on to the fact that it's possible to escape…is invaluable.”
Melissa Fleming 00:07
From the United Nations, I'm Melissa Fleming. And this is Awake At Night. Today, my guest is Mark Lowcock, the Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, simply known as UN Relief Chief. For his entire 30-year career Mark has been leading and managing humanitarian responses to crises across the globe. How did you become a humanitarian?
Mark Lowcock 00:47
Okay. Hello, Melissa. It's very, so nice to talk to you. And so I was interested in history and economic history when I was at school, and I went to college, and I studied economics and economic history and development, basically. And also, while I was at college, I had the chance to travel to Africa. And I basically fell in love with Africa, and decided that what I want to do is work in development. Somehow, I landed a job with the what was then called the Overseas Development Administration, the British aid ministry. And of course, they worked on development, but also on humanitarian response.
Melissa Fleming 01:31
Tell me about, you know, how you grew up, because I believe you come from a small town or city in the UK and to go from from that life in England to exploring Africa to trying to help the suffering people of the world. That's quite a journey.
Mark Lowcock 01:48
Yeah, so I was born in London. And then my dad was working for a company who, in the early 1960s, when I have two brothers who are a year and two years younger than me, he was working for a company which got relocated outside the city. So my first memory, in fact, is the, what was a council house, it was a rented property owned by the local authority, where my mom and dad moved to when I was two and a half years old, in, in the East of England. And we live in a town called Bury St Edmonds, which was a an ancient town with a, you know, 1000 year history, in which famous British Queen of the five hundreds called Boadicea was probably involved in the history and there was a monastery there before Henry the Eighth, had them all pulled down and stole all the money from them. And that was the environment we grew up in. And, you know, my parents have both left school as teenagers, my dad was 16. And my mom was 14. And, but they have had a really good education. I mean, they both went to grammar schools, which was a transformational thing in the UK, in the middle of the 20th century, and they attach a lot of importance to the value of education. And so they sent my brothers and me to, you know, very good local school and insisted that we did our homework, and we studied hard. And so one of the consequences of that was that, you know, I became the first person in my family in the, all the generations, we can count who went to college. And that, you know, was an eye opener for me. And while I was in college, I was able to travel during my vacations to Africa, and I fell in love with Africa.
Melissa Fleming 03:39
What about Africa that you fall in love with?
Mark Lowcock 03:41
Well, you know, it's the smell of the rain when it rains. And this the the sight of the stars and the colours and the people and I'm also I'm an extremely skinny person, so I'm not designed for cold weather. So warm weather anywhere is for me as well. So I that's really what interested me in development and humanitarian issues that and a sense that life have changed dramatically over the recent period, very, very recent period in better off countries, and Why couldn't it happen in other countries as well?
Melissa Fleming 04:16
So you saw the disparities?
Mark Lowcock 04:19
Yes, I mean, you can't. This was the early 1980s. First place I went to was Kenya in 1983, travelling around the country bumming around as a student and I spent a couple of months in a school in western Kenya, as a not very good volunteer teacher, and you see how people live but then, you know, in that period, was just a year or so before the famine in Ethiopia struck and you know, there was suffering and misery everywhere, so you couldn't help but notice it and observe that. Other places weren't like that. And surely it doesn't have to be like that here.
Melissa Fleming 04:59
Can you remember, a story from that time something that really just struck you that you can't forget?
Mark Lowcock 05:04
When I started, we're going to Ethiopia in 1985, my first job was working on the famine in Ethiopia. And I remember going up to Wallo, which was on the border between basically up in the area between Tigray and south of there. And of course, what part of what was going on was a Liberation War. And I do remember going to camps of people who didn't have enough to eat and the desolation and the destitution but I also remember meeting a family who, you know, we're in there, obviously, the guy had a position of responsibility, and he had his kids in school. And you could see the contrast there between what it could be like for everybody, and what it was like for most people.
Melissa Fleming 05:51
Just going back to that village in Kenya, where you were a teacher, can you just describe what it was like, how, where you stayed and what your job was? What did you do?
Mark Lowcock 06:01
So it was the middle of nowhere, it's a place called Shamberere. And it's on the road north of Kakamega 20 miles north of Kakamega and then you turn off the asphalt and 10 kilometres down there, there was this place, the closest meaningful bit of infrastructure was a sugar factory, because it's a sugar growing area, but unless you were in the tiny proportion of people who had access to a four wheel drive, everywhere you went, which was essentially nowhere, you walk to the school was supported by the Quakers. And I had friends, mentors, really, older people who were involved in the Quaker movement, and they arranged for me to go and visit the school. And then the teacher said, well, you can hang around for a couple of months, if you'd like, and maybe try and do something useful. And so I had absolutely no skills. But I was interested in, you know, the young people and what was going to happen to them and what their lives were like, and what the teachers were trying to do for them. And it was a stunning place. I mean, it was green and lush and beautiful. And the smells and the sounds and the laughter of the people and the smile of their faces is just very infectious.
Melissa Fleming 07:19
What did your parents think about what you were doing when you were off? witnessing a famine and trying to help people in Ethiopia, for example
Mark Lowcock 07:27
I don't really know at the time what they thought, and they never. Maybe they knew it would not have made any difference. They certainly never advised me to do any different. They were a man. I mean, they they was, I mean, to be honest with you, Melissa, they were so proud to have us going to college. That was such a huge thing. And, you know, I won this place at Oxford University, and they just thought it was the most amazing thing.
Melissa Fleming 07:51
The first child in your family to go to college. And you made it to Oxford.
Mark Lowcock 07:55
Yeah. And then my brother did as well. And they, I think they thought, wow, you know, they thought this is just a fantastic thing. So after that, I think they stopped asking questions, really. But after, you know, the decades passed, and they came to see us in Africa, when we were I got posted to Africa in the 1994 firt, the first place we worked was Malawi, which is a very, very poor country then, and my mom and dad came to see us. I got married a couple of years earlier, and my wife was also working for she got a job with the British development system as well. So we had a joint posting, and they came to see us and I think probably travelling around and seeing what we were doing, then they could see in a way probably they hadn't seen before what, why we were interested in this, and we're trying to do it. And then when you know, they follow. I've had I've been very, very lucky in my career, you know, I've done interesting jobs, and I've had recognition and obviously I have a certain public profile in this job. So my parents have got more and more interested in what we've been doing as time has passed. But what what they thought at the beginning, they were wise enough to keep to themselves I suppose.
Melissa Fleming 09:12
Well, not everybody would aim to be posted in Malawi, for example.
Mark Lowcock 09:18
They never expressed any reservations to us.
Melissa Fleming 09:22
You were I guess I suppose you're, you're lucky that you met a woman who was in the same profession. How did you two meet?
Mark Lowcock 09:31
we actually met as undergraduates in Oxford. And she then went to do a PhD in Boston, which if I'm really honest, that is why I then went to graduate school in Boston. I was chasing this beautiful clever kind woman. I mean, it's a really wonderful school and the time we were there, the economics faculty was stuff full of these great thinkers on development. I also was very thrilled to Just sit at the feet of these great development thinkers and have a chance to understand how people thought about the development process and how you could improve life for the world's most vulnerable people.
Melissa Fleming 10:19
I don't know if most people really know what, what is development? I mean, what in just simple terms, how would you just describe it to people? What, what is this field,
Mark Lowcock 10:31
it's basically about trying to improve everybody's opportunities. If you study history in economic history, as I do, what you observed pretty quickly is that for almost all of human history, 99.99% of people have a life where they're hungry the whole time, they never got an education, they're liable to fall sick at any moment. And they're oppressed. And then suddenly, this amazing miracle occurred, beginning in a small number of countries in the 18th. And then the 19th century where life stopped being like that for people for a small group of people. When, when I was born, you and I probably similar sort of age, we're in our 50s, right when we were born. For most people on the planet, life was still like it was for the huge majority of people for the whole of human history. And one of the extraordinary things has happened over the last 50 years is that the vast majority of people on the planet have moved beyond that, fewer people are hungry. These days, it's not the majority of people who are hungry these days, or who desperately poor, it used to be more than 50% is now about 10%. So that process of economy is developing people generating better incomes, the vast proportion of people going to school, health care improving. So the that used to be when we were living in Malawi, a quarter of kids died before they were five, a quarter, I mean, it's just mind boggling. And now is much much lower than that. So the process of development is about that material improvement in people's lives. But it's also about the gradual accumulation of freedoms. One of the other things that characterised life for everybody on the planet, up until a very recent period was oppression, and being subject to violence, and, you know, usually being being attacked, and being vulnerable to anyone who happened to be powerful in your vicinity, whether it's, you know, the little local rural bigwig who happened to control the land in your village, or whether it was, you know, some monarch, somewhere who could order you about and tell you what to do. And development is, for me is also about the process of the accumulation of freedoms. For a very high proportion of the people on the planet these days, there are a lot more freedoms than they used to be. But there's a tiny proportion of the people. And those are the people who we concentrate our efforts on in humanitarian settings, who haven't enjoyed that journey that most people on the planet have enjoyed. Because they don't know where they're going to get the next meal. And they are vulnerable to men with guns of all different sorts. And they do worry about whether their kids will go to school, and they worry about whether their daughters are going to be enslaved and raped. And they have all of the anxieties and struggles in life that used to be the standard life experience for 99.99% of the population on the planet. And development is the process of escaping that. For me anyway, having having done this kind of work for a very long time. And one of the things I hold on to is, well, actually most people on the planet have escaped from those problems, as the generations have passed and history is passed. And, you know, when you're confronting the next bleak, horrible event, holding on to the fact that it's possible to escape i think is invaluable for your mental health. Really.
Melissa Fleming 14:21
I think most people need to hear that. I think, you know, most of people probably think the world is going backwards now and you're telling us a different story. But
Mark Lowcock 14:30
people have a very, understandably, people have very short time horizons.
Melissa Fleming 14:35
So let's talk about that percentage of the population. You're very much concerned about now who don't have those chances who haven't had a chance to evolve who are caught up in war zones or in famines. And so what is keeping you Awake At Night these days Mark?
Mark Lowcock 14:53
I think it's really that the problems are getting worse and the causes of the problems are getting worse. So there's basically three big things which drive these problems, conflict, climate change and pandemics. And all of those things have causes. And if you think about the causes, none of them are getting better. So, I, after this extraordinary period, really between the 1960s and the 2000s, when there was huge progress for most people on the planet, we've stagnated as a planet, we've stagnated. And, you know, we have, we see global geopolitical tensions, which makes it harder to deal with conflicts, we see a world are unable to get itself off its obsession with the carbon economy. Let's be honest, the carbon economy is one of the things that fueled industrialization and enormous progress. But now we know it has some side effects. And we have the technology to find different energy sources, and we're not doing them. And we have basically got a set of systems at the moment that don't pay enough attention to people at the bottom of the pile. So I worry about that. I must admit, I do worry about that. And then the other thing is, one thing I always try to do is at least try to find some space to have some kind of conversation with, with ordinary people caught up in these circumstances and try to get everybody else out of the way and sit down with a translator, a colleague, normally just try to ask people, what their experiences and how they see life and what the issues are and what they want. It's the people you meet and the things that they say to you that sticks in your mind. And you think about later, the first trip I did in this job, I went to Niger, and I never been to Niger before we went down to defer, which is in southern Asia and met a group of women and their kids who had run across the border from Nigeria to escape from Boko Haram basically, and they were living. I say living I mean, surviving basically, under plastic sheets with a few sticks by the side of the road. I do remember a conversation with this woman called Ashaitou who had who was there with her five kids, her husband wasn't there anymore. He basically got caught up in what was going on in northern Nigeria and hadn't escaped. And she told me this story about essentially how she was terrified every night about whether the bandits would come across the border and grab her daughters and basically take them back, turn them into sexual slaves. And so every night this poor woman left her grotty sheet of plastic and took the kids into the bush, further further away into the bush, running the risk of snake bites and all the rest of it because she thought that that would make them a little bit safer than they would have been, you know, they would otherwise have been. I remember another another encounter, I remember very, very vividly. I never been to Kakuma in northern Kenya, where there are lots of now South Sudanese refugees, and I think you were with us.
Melissa Fleming 18:23
I was on that trip with you.
Mark Lowcock 18:25
Melissa, I don't know if you remember. But we sat down in a, basically a warehouse to talk to a family who just walked from Juba. And there was a woman with her kids. She had two 15 year old twin boys. Beautiful, beautiful children. And they had walked with no shoes from Juba.
Melissa Fleming 18:57
I remember very well, they asked the they just looked up and said, All I want is some shoes, some shoes.
Mark Lowcock 19:04
Yeah. And they were very traumatised this family, the mother told the story. And this is one of the reasons why I'm a little bit ambivalent about these experiences, the kids started to cry and you could see the trauma wretched in there. across all of it. They were trying to escape from of course, you and they're getting good help and professional support from UNHCR, but it's very, you know, we have to be really careful with how we talk to people and do the best we can to support and help them
Melissa Fleming 19:41
You well know what happens to refugees when they arrive in refugee camps that the average stay of a refugee in protracted situations can be up to 20 years. I mean. So when you think about those twin boys, what do you think about their future Are you optimistic at all?
Mark Lowcock 20:00
Not that long ago when we thought we really made a lot of progress. And what has been dispiriting about the last 10 or 15 years is some of that has been reversed. But I think you have to hold on to the possibility that you can regain that progress. It looks bleak at the moment, let's be realistic, but there have been bleak periods before. And I think it's not impossible to get back onto a more positive trajectory
Melissa Fleming 20:30
You seem to be ever an optimistic even I mean, all of this is now compounded by the arrival of COVID-19. And with it has become a lot of backward movements in many areas, inequality and poverty and hunger, you still remain optimistic?
Mark Lowcock 20:53
Well, I think we're in a bleak period. I do. And minimising the damage is part of the mindset we need at the moment. humanitarian agencies, you know, for the responses I coordinate we reach 100 million people every year, when we certainly saved millions of lives a year. And even if things are very difficult, they'd be even worse without us. So you have to hang on to that too. But I think unless you, I don't know how other people do it. Maybe other people find some other ways to cope with all the misery. But for me holding on to the hope that it doesn't always have to be like this. And for lots of people on the planet is better than it used to be. That is an important thing I hold on to. Humanitarian action remains very popular. I don't think people, people in better off countries don't want to live in a world where they have to watch famines on their TV screens. And even in the midst of all these problems we're talking about, we have been raising record levels of money.
Melissa Fleming 22:01
The virus has hit the rich countries as well, and has also caused economic shocks. Are you concerned that this is going to have consequences that even if they do see famine on their TV screens it, they're more moved by the suffering of their own people and things have become much more inward, inward looking,
Mark Lowcock 22:24
I think we'll have to see how it plays out. I mean, I think the rich countries have been right to focus 99% of their efforts on their domestic environment, and their own citizens and so on. I mean, that's what every government is, firstly, responsible for. But it but it is also in their interest to focus 1% of the effort on problems that maybe were in other places, but which will come back to bite them if they don't. And I think when you have that conversation with decision makers, people get that.
Melissa Fleming 22:55
If you're kind of meeting somebody, casually, and they had know nothing about the UN and this whole business that you're in development, you know, then they say, so what do you do? What would you say? How would you describe your work?
Mark Lowcock 23:10
Well, I said, I work for the UN, because everyone knows the UN and and then I say, you know, my job is to try to get help to people caught up in disasters or wars or famines. And I mean, everybody's interested in that. Everybody. I mean, that 90% of people who you you meet in those circumstances, did not have a lot of understanding of it. But But I did, but I've never met a person who isn't interested in it. And pretty quickly you then get on to talking about the football or, you know, your kids or something. And
Melissa Fleming 23:54
this is what binds us all too no matter where you are even football. I understand. You're quite a fan.
Mark Lowcock 24:01
I am. Yeah, I do like football. And,
Melissa Fleming 24:04
and you can reveal what team is.
Mark Lowcock 24:07
I mean, my dad and grandfather took me when I was seven years old to watch Everton but we lived a long way away. So when I was a kid, I used to go and watch Ipswich which is a soccer team in the East of England too in the 1970s. When I grew up, were doing quite well. The last I lived in Africa a lot the 1990s when we came back for several years, I took my eldest son we got a season ticket for Fulham, which is a slightly unfashionable West London soccer club. Having said all of which I'm really a Manchester United fan. And the reason for that is because when I was growing up, George Best who's the first football icon. A genius as a footballer and a flawed human being, was, you know, that one footballer, everybody had heard of So I'm really a Manchester United fan.
Melissa Fleming 25:04
Must have been a bit tough these days when you had a pause during lockdowns, and
Mark Lowcock 25:11
I've really struggled with lockdown. I mean, for one thing, you know, I travel a lot. And I haven't been able to do that at all, actually having a breather from that there's been some advantages to that. But you know, I spent the first six months of the year here and so I didn't see my kids for six months, and I really found that super difficult.
Melissa Fleming 25:35
You have three, three children, three sons.
Mark Lowcock 25:38
Yeah, so I have, you know, I'd be married next year is our 30th wedding anniversary. the cleverest thing I ever did was marry this beautiful, kind, brilliant woman. Children wisely inherited all their best traits from her. So our eldest son, Dominic is a he's a doctor now. He's 24 years old. And he's just in his first year actually, as a very junior doctor. He admitted the first COVID patient into his hospital. And then his brother is 22 years old. He is very autistic. So he's a very, he lives in a wonderful house where people look after him on the south coast of England and in lots of ways he's been the centre of our family, as people who have disabled kids will understand and particularly probably people who have autistic family members. And he's very well looked after by a group of people who are being a carer is a really admirable thing to be and then we have a daughter who's 20 years old and who is, you know, wisely inherited her mother's brains. So she is currently a student in Oxford. And as I said, the thing that I haven't liked about a lockdown is not seeing them as much as I like to.
Melissa Fleming 27:11
Last question, do you have any regrets Mark?
Mark Lowcock 27:17
Well, of course, I've made a million mistakes and embarrassed myself countless times. And I'm not going to tell you about any of them.
Melissa Fleming 27:24
Oh, come on.
Mark Lowcock 27:26
And But no, I've been incredibly lucky. And I think one thing you do have to do in life is always look forward to the future, and you should never be satisfied. You shouldn't look back too much. You should be, yeah you should look into the future
Melissa Fleming 27:44
feeling grateful but never satisfied.
Mark Lowcock 27:47
Melissa Fleming 27:50
Very good, Mark. It's been really great talking to you and learning about your life. And thank you so much for doing this interview for Awake At Night here in New York in our studio at UN headquarters.
Mark Lowcock 28:02
Thank you, Melissa.
Melissa Fleming 28:09
Thank you for listening to Awake At Night. We'll be back soon with more incredible and inspiring stories from people working to do some good in this world at a time of this devastating pandemic. To find out more about the series and the extraordinary people featured do visit un.org-awake-at-night. On Twitter, we're @UN. I'm @melissafleming and you can follow mark on @unreliefchief. Subscribe to Awake At Night wherever you get your podcasts and please take time to review us. It does make a difference. Thanks to my colleagues at the UN and to my producers Bethany Bell and the team at Chalk and Blade Laura Sheeter, Fatuma Khaireh and Alex Portfelix. The original music for this podcast was written and performed by Nadine Shah, and produced by Ben Hillier. The sound design and additional music was by Pascal Wyse