Mark Lowcock, the coordinator of the UN’s aid relief operation since 2017 and the UN’s humanitarian agency head, will say this week that “The humanitarian system is set up to give people in need what international agencies and donors think is best, and what we have to offer, rather than giving people what they themselves say they most need.”
“In Chad and Cox’s Bazar [in Bangladesh] and other places too, people in dire humanitarian need are frequently selling aid they have been given, to buy something else they want more – a clear indication that what is being provided does not meet people’s needs and preferences. After the central Sulawesi earthquake in 2018, almost half of displaced households reported shelter as one of their most important and immediate priorities. Yet only a small fraction of people got immediate help with that. Unfortunately, these are not isolated examples. Last year, more than half the people surveyed in Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Chad, Nigeria, Somalia and Uganda said that the aid they received did not cover their most important needs. In Chad, only 12% of people surveyed were positive about the aid they received.”
Lowcock admits the need for agencies to be more sensitive to the views of those in need of aid has been part of the development reform agenda for two decades. But there has been limited “piecemeal” progress owing to the lack of any incentive structure for aid agencies to respond.
“In many places, we have information on what people want and how they want it. The problem is we are not consistently acting on that information. Ultimately, organisations or decision-makers can choose to listen to people and be responsive, or they can choose not to. There are no real consequences for the choice they make. There are weak incentives to push them in the right direction.”
“If we hold such a mirror up to the system, humanitarian agencies collectively will see that we are simply not adequately listening and responding to what people say they want.”
Lowcock explains underfunding is unsustainable unless the causes of humanitarian need – famine, displacement, conflict and climate change – are addressed at the source.
“Today one in 33 people worldwide needs humanitarian assistance or protection – more than at any time since the second world war. Almost 80 million people are displaced by conflict and violence. Wars last twice as long as in the early 1990s.”