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Stephen O'Brien, then UK Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for International Development, meets with people displaced by conflict in northern Uganda. Stephen O'Brien, then UK Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for International Development, meets with people displaced by conflict in northern Uganda. Photo credit: Laura McCleary / Department for International Development

Dear Mr O’Brien: a letter of advice to the UN’s new Emergency Relief Coordinator

by Christina Bennett
26 May 2015

In this blog series, key humanitarian thinkers offer their words of wisdom to Stephen O’Brien, as he prepares to step into his new role as the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator on 1 June 2015.

In the first instalment, Christina Bennett, Research Fellow with ODI’s Humanitarian Policy Group, outlines five things Mr O’Brien should keep in mind as he begins to tackle a daunting set of challenges. Read the second blog by Joel R. Charny.


On 1 June, Stephen O’Brien takes up his new job as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. This is arguably the most influential role in humanitarian response at a time when the humanitarian system has never been more dynamic or diverse. Dynamic, as it is now a global enterprise of more than $22 billion, employing 150,000 staff working to help 75 million people across 34 countries. Diverse, as members of the “humanitarian community” currently include: Buddhist Tzu Chi volunteers in the Philippines, Ukraine’s richest oligarch, the Firestone tire company in Liberia and Mexican bond traders.

So what would I tell Mr. O’Brien as he steps into this difficult and dynamic new role?

  1. Deliver the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) – Stephen O’Brien must seize the best opportunity in a generation to inspire an exasperated and inert sector. To do this, he needs to get the WHS Secretariat to sharpen the results of its global crowd-sourcing into clear, specific propositions and communicate its intentions quickly. Mr. O’Brien will also need to step into the lead role of champion and campaigner both to deliver an A-list cast of participants at the meeting itself and to passionately advocate for the Summit’s outcomes, long after proceedings come to a close in Istanbul next May.
  2. Shake up the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) – A forum for UN agencies to co-ordinate humanitarian assistance with each other and partners, the IASC was an important innovation in its heyday, but has outlived its relevance and usefulness. Many evaluations point to flaws in its membership, leadership and working methods. If humanitarian action is to be a truly global enterprise, all coordination and policy setting must reflect a global profile, incorporate global values and promote a more distributed way of working.In the short term, Mr O’Brien must reinstate the commitment to collective leadership by the current IASC and address the significant trust deficit that divides some of its core members. In the medium term, this means returning to first principles (do we need a global coordination and policy setting mechanism, and if so, what should it look like?) and designing a solution that makes sense for the aspirations and functions it should fulfil.
  3. Improve political accountability – finally – Mr. O’Brien will have both the mandate and platform to articulate and amplify the sense of collective outrage at the indifference and impunity with which some governments treat civilians in today’s crises. To challenge countless violations of International Humanitarian Law with the full weight of the international system, he must work with both UN and member state colleagues. Regardless of whether they specialise in politics, peacekeeping, development or human rights, they all have a role to play.Mr O’Brien must also demonstrate both conviction and courage by exploring the far-reaching reforms that will help hold parties to conflict accountable for the political solutions such crises so desperately need. Humanitarians should no longer be left to pick up the pieces after political solutions fail to materialise.
  4. Demand more of Development – In today’s crises, humanitarian assistance is punching above its weight.Short term by design, humanitarian action has expanded into long-term recovery and service provision in too many crisis settings: DRC, South Sudan, Somalia, to name a few. Lacking funding, capacity or tools, these interventions are little more than stop-gap solutions. And major barriers to scaling up development assistance and funding persist.

    Mr. O’Brien must re-engage the development sector, including developing countries, donor governments, development agencies and NGOs. He needs to reassert the strengths and limits of humanitarian activities and funds, recognise the importance of relief-development connections and identify concrete ways in which development staff and funds might work earlier and to scale in crises.

  5. Streamline OCHA – As Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, Mr. O’Brien will preside over an organisation of committed, talented and energetic people who crave clear vision, inspired leadership and consistent management in what are difficult and demanding jobs.Coordinating the humanitarian sector has become a much larger proposition from when the Department of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA’s predecessor, was formed in 1992 with a small staff and an annual budget of close to $18 million. Now with 2,100 staff in 50 countries and a budget of $323 million, the organisation has become bloated and unfocused, ever-expanding to meet a longer list of demands, and often driven to distraction by individual agendas and pursuits.

    Refocusing OCHA requires realigning its activities around both the spirit and the letter of its remit — operational coordination, policy development, advocacy, information management and financing — and restoring a sense of common purpose, collegiality and organisational discipline from among senior leadership and managers.

When he starts his new job next Monday, Stephen O’Brien will find his inbox is overflowing: a near-genocide in the Central African Republic, multiple earthquakes in Nepal, civil wars in South Sudan, Syria and Yemen to name a few. And certainly, the true test of the new ERC’s mettle will come down to how effectively he can ensure relief and safety for those living in crisis, and how passionately and decisively he will advocate for their needs, wants and aspirations.

But part of the litmus test for how Mr. O’Brien will perform in his new job will be about getting his own house in order – OCHA, the ‘System’ and the Summit, and making the fundamental changes it will take to set a new tone and the right course for the next generation of humanitarian action.


Christina Bennett is a Research Fellow at the Overseas Development Institute’s Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG). Prior to joining HPG, Christina was the Chief of Policy Analysis and Innovation at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

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