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UN General Assembly UN General Assembly Photo credit: Patrick Gruban

Welcome to the toughest job in international civil service: new UN humanitarian chief will face historic challenges

by Joel R. Charny
27 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 second instalment, Joel R. Charny, InterAction’s vice president for humanitarian policy and practice, outlines five key reforms Mr. O'Brien should consider. You can read the first blog by Christina Bennett here.


The position of Under-Secretary-General is one of the most powerful and coveted appointments in the entire UN system–a job to which many aspire, but few ever receive.

On June 1st Stephen O’Brien, a British MP and former UK special representative for the Sahel, will take the reins as the new UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. Yet, in a time of historic global crisis, if O’Brien is to succeed he must resist any temptation to bask in the prestige of the position and dive immediately into the work.

The role of Emergency Relief Coordinator is no sinecure. Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, the under-secretary has to mobilize responses to multiple large-scale emergencies; beg suspicious states for access; cajole donors for funds; convince mandate-obsessed UN entities to work together; and be the public face of global humanitarian response — all with fewer resources than any of the actors the relief coordinator must successfully influence.

O’Brien will be assuming these responsibilities at an especially difficult time. The strains on the humanitarian system are immense: Syria, Iraq, Ebola, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Ukraine, Nigeria, Nepal, and Yemen are only the more well-known crises demanding attention. Forced displacement is greater than at any time since World War II. States and non-state actors cause extensive suffering by flouting their obligations under international humanitarian law and human rights law. The damage and frequency of natural disasters are increasing as the result of climate change. The credibility of the humanitarian system is eroding due to a collective failure to prevent and respond effectively to the challenges.

As he takes up the job O’Brien will have the luxury — however brief — of reflecting on the big picture and the priorities for his tenure. Here are some key reforms he should consider:

  1. Focus on results: The second phase of humanitarian reform — the “transformative agenda” — has emphasized coordination for collective results. But in its implementation coordination has become an end in itself. As Emergency Relief Coordinator he should stress people’s access to impartial life-saving supplies and services. This will demand greater ability to maintain proximity to affected people and more creative and direct funding for rapid, flexible response.
  2. Diversify the system: The most effective responses involve diverse actors working together, building on their individual strengths. Yet humanitarian response too often fails to respect and support the roles of local civil society, local and national governments, diaspora groups, and regional bodies. O’Brien will need to demonstrate his commitment to involve humanitarian actors in all their diversity, tapping into the full range of knowledge and expertise to shape response and policy.
  3. Challenge narrow mandates and push for collective results: Acting for the good of the collective requires an immense shift. With no line authority over any operational agency O’Brien will need all his diplomatic skill to push the UN and NGOs to transcend institutional self-interest in order to achieve system-wide effectiveness. The independent Whole-of-System Protection Review, due to deliver its recommendations by the end of May, will offer an immediate opportunity to make meaningful institutional and policy changes in pursuit of system-wide protective impact.
  4. Be a tireless, public advocate for people in crises: Private lobbying and diplomacy are central to the Emergency Relief Coordinator role, but alleviating human suffering also demands a groundswell of public awareness and engagement. This means frequent, high-profile reminders of what it takes to act in the best interests of vulnerable people. O’Brien will be ideally situated to mobilize worldwide solidarity for those surviving and recovering from conflict and disaster.
  5. Stand strong in the face of pressure on humanitarian principles: As Emergency Relief Coordinator O’Brien will be the standard-bearer for principled humanitarian action on the part of UN entities and NGOs. Effective responses to human suffering demand consistent pursuit of impartial, neutral, and independent humanitarianism in both public and private domains.

The position of UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs can be as rewarding as it is daunting. The world situation today is discouraging, but the character of humanitarianism is to keep acting to make a difference in the spirit of his predecessors.

Welcome to the toughest job in the international civil service, Mr. O’Brien.


Joel R. Charny is the vice president for humanitarian policy and practice at InterAction, the largest U.S. alliance of nongovernmental organizations working on humanitarian assistance and global poverty issues.

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