Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien tells of the immense challenges of the job

For the past two years, Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien has led the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), travelling to crises around the world and advocating for millions of people affected by conflict and natural disasters. As he prepares to wrap up his assignment at the end of this month, Mr. O’Brien reflects on his experiences and shares his thoughts on what needs to be done to reduce global humanitarian suffering.

Stephen O’Brien visits a former site for internally displaced persons near Kalemie, DRC that was burned down in early July 2017. Credit: Ivo Brandau/UNOCHA

When you look back at the past two years, what is the one encounter that will stay with you the most, that encapsulates what the job’s been about for you?

Stephen O’Brien: In Yemen, when I visited a school that was occupied by internally displaced persons (IDPs) — there are millions in Yemen because of the terrible conflict — there was a girl called [Mariam], who was looking after seven of her siblings in the absence of any parents and they were struggling to get food. They had at last become registered, so they were getting supplies from the very brave aid workers, from the UN and other NGO partners. But it was not possible as yet to give them schooling. They brought home to me more than anything else, that they should not be victims in other people’s wars, and also that the international community was doing an amazing job in giving them the lifesaving [assistance] as well as the protection they needed.

Where do you think you have been most effective in the job, and what has been your biggest frustration?

Stephen O’Brien meets with children in Kasai, DRC, July 2017. Credit: Ivo Brandau/UNOCHA

Stephen O’Brien: I look at the extraordinary work of all of these humanitarian workers around the world in these very tough spots in the two years that I’ve been in the post, and I’ve been really inspired by the courage, persistence and determination of these people who want to make sure that the people affected by the crisis, through no fault of their own, are given the lifesaving [aid] and protection that they need.

While that has been rewarding, the job itself is extraordinarily challenging because the rise in humanitarian needs around the world has been exponential, and notwithstanding that we have managed to secure record amounts of funding in that period, the gap has grown wider. The frustration is that we are simply not able to raise our ability to respond at the same pace that the needs are arising.

Stephen O’Brien meets with people affected by the conflict in Homs, Syria, during a mission in August 2015. Credit: OCHA/Emmanuel Bargues

Your time in office has been dominated by some of the worst conflicts and humanitarian crises of the modern era. Is there any more that the UN could be doing in Syria, or is it really all up to the Security Council to act, as you’ve often said in your briefings?

Stephen O’Brien: One of the great privileges that the Emergency Relief Coordinator has is that here in New York you get to speak to the Security Council on a fairly regular basis about the challenges that are arising as a result of conflict and other disasters and emergencies. It has been very clear to me that it is a duty, an obligation and, indeed, expected by General Assembly resolution 46/182, that I raise very difficult issues and often speak truth to power.

It can be a little uncomfortable, it can be challenging, but it is very important that the facts are before all of the Member States, here at the United Nations, the highest body in the world, which has the capacity, diplomatically and politically, to find a resolution and to prevent conflicts that result in producing humanitarian needs.

That’s the issue about conflict. It’s man-made, and, therefore, it’s capable of being unmade by man and the humanitarian suffering that is brought about by it can be reduced and eliminated over time.

Is the problem that you can only do as much as the Security Council allows, in a way?

Stephen O’Brien: I don’t think the Security Council is the complete constraint. I do think it is a very, very important part of the peace and security make-up, but the General Assembly, which includes all the 193 recognized Member States of the UN and some very important observers as well, engage in passing resolutions, which are intended to bind the world.

It really matters to all of us here, and certainly has mattered to me, that we do our very best to live out the values that are encapsulated in the Charter of the United Nations and in the Universal of Declaration of Human Rights, which are our founding documents that have stood the test of time for 72 years.

O’Brien visits Aden in Yemen in March 2017. Credit: OCHA

What will you miss most about being the UN’s Relief Chief?

Stephen O’Brien: What I will miss most is working with extraordinary people doing an extraordinary job. I mean that both within my own team in OCHA here and across about 40 countries. These are extraordinarily dedicated, skilled, committed and very brave people who are often serving in what we call non-family duty stations.

I shall be extremely sorry to miss the inspiring context, [working with] the people we have here at the UN and our partners in the international NGOs and the many local people we work with to get that last mile. I will also miss the relationships and the professional approach with Member States and their representatives here, in Geneva and across the world, because it’s only by harnessing all these energies that we can make that difference and we can try and make the world a better place.

Looking back, is there anything that you would have done differently, any crisis that you might have handled in a different way?

Stephen O’Brien: We can always, with the benefit of hindsight, think of ways to improve. We can see by the massive and widening gap there is between the needs and the resources. The inefficiency of our response is something that hurts and is clearly part of our inability to be fully accountable to affected people. So in looking back, I wish I’d found a better way to raise more resources.

What advice do you have for your successor?

Stephen O’Brien: Above all, go out and meet the people to whom we are ultimately accountable, the people who need us most.

As I have sought to do, make sure all you do is rooted in the principles of international humanitarian law, human rights law and refugee law.

Make sure that we call people to account so that there is a better deterrent to those causing humanitarian suffering today.

Stephen O’Brien visits an IDP site in Baghdad, Iraq during his first mission in June 2015. Credit: Sarmad Al-Safy/UNAMI

What is the key message you relayed for your last World Humanitarian Day?

Stephen O’Brien: We should make sure to put a real focus on how humanitarian aid workers around the world are #NotATarget. This was articulated at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. The protection of aid workers is paramount. People put themselves at great risk to reach people in need in some of the most dangerous environments in protracted crises around the world. World Humanitarian Day is an opportunity for us to focus on protecting these humanitarian aid workers.

Isn’t the problem for the UN that there’s little more that we can do than try to persuade perpetrators of violence and war, and power-hungry politicians, to change their ways?

Stephen O’Brien: It’s all about persuasion, and we should never be deterred. Yes, there will be knock backs, more disputes, more terrible violence but we must be clear that it is worth the effort every day to save lives and protect the people, particularly in conflict.

We have the capacity to make a difference. It requires political will and relationships with players [everywhere] to acquire access to reach the people in need. The UN is very well placed to make sure we do this at the scale that the world needs and to bring it all together with that sense of courage and conviction.

Stephen O’Brien briefs the media in Juba after a mission to South Sudan in August 2016. Credit: UNOCHA.

We must make sure that the perpetrators of violence are held accountable for their actions. This is why it is important that we adhere to the international norms, laws and principles that we’ve all agreed to, and do our best to bring forward the evidence and to make sure that people are held to account.

You said there is never enough funding. How do we stop a sense of hopelessness, even cynicism, from creeping in and overwhelming us on the humanitarian front?

Stephen O’Brien: We can never cease to seek to persuade people that this is a fantastic investment. We know that if you leave humanitarian need or poverty unaddressed, it has the potential to be exploited by those of malign intent. If we do not address it today, the higher cost in the future will simply be borne by future generations. It is in all of our mutual interest in the cause of peace and community but also in the value of doing the right thing by our fellow human beings.

Note: The original version of this interview by the UN News Centre can be found here.

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