2 October 2017 (United Nations) – The number of those needing humanitarian assistance is at its highest since the end of the Second World War – some 145 million people. Several protracted crises in Africa and the Middle East are deteriorating and climate-induced emergencies, sometimes combined with violent conflict, continue to wreak havoc on vulnerable communities. Amid all this, United Nations-coordinated response plans remain severely underfunded.

It is against this backdrop that Mark Lowcock began his tenure as the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. The British national brings to the position more than 30 years of experience leading and managing responses to humanitarian crises across the globe.

In his new role, Mr. Lowcock serves as the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), oversees efforts to bring together humanitarian actors to ensure a coherent response to emergencies. He has hit the ground running, traveling to the Lake Chad Region just days into the job, attending his very first UN General Assembly high-level session, and now preparing to see first-hand the plight of the half a million Rohingya refugees who have fled Myanmar and sought safety in Bangladesh.

Mr. Lowcock spoke to UN News about why he accepted the post of the UN humanitarian chief, his first weeks on the job, and what he hopes to accomplish during his tenure.

UN News: What is your overall assessment of the current humanitarian situation around the globe?

Mark Lowcock: There’s never been a larger need of humanitarian assistance in the world – 145 million people right now. We are, through the appeals we are in the UN running this year, trying to reach 100 million of those people. What I can tell you is the global humanitarian system is an effective system. Every year we reach tens of millions of people and we save millions of lives, but we don’t have all the resources we need and we’re facing some big challenges. So, the system needs to step up a bit more, and we need to get a bit more support for our work. […]

UN News: Let’s talk about Myanmar. Daily reports indicate that the humanitarian situation of the Rohingya people, who have now fled into Bangladesh, remains dire. Is there an end in sight? And also, there are accusations of the UN not doing enough. Do they have any merit, and what needs to be done?

Mark Lowcock: Well the origins of the Myanmar crisis lie in Myanmar, and the solutions lie in Myanmar. But one thing we must do is make sure those 480,000 people who have fled, terrified for their lives, into Bangladesh are well looked after there. My very first weekend at this job in the beginning of September, we saw the flow starting to happen and that weekend, from the Central Emergency Response Fund, I allocated money to help the agencies scale up their response. […]

Women displaced by drought waiting to meet António Guterres during his visit to Baidoa, Somalia, where the focus was on famine and cholera. Photo: Laura Gelbert / UN News

UN News: What do you see as the biggest challenges ahead in your new role?

Mark Lowcock: Well there are three, big areas where I hope, when, however many years from now, I look back on the time I spent here and what we’ve been able to do, which we’ve made some progress on. The first relates to the way combatants, belligerents behave in conflict. Because the single biggest challenge we face relates to atrocities, conducted in conflict, and the enormous human suffering that they cause for unfortunately millions of people at the moment. So if we could make some progress on that, that will reduce a lot of suffering and that’s a good way of spending some time.

Secondly, we need to extend the number of countries who cope better with protracted food crises. You know famines used to be ubiquitous, very common across the whole world. Now there are small numbers of countries which are at risk from time to time of famines. What we need to do is get that number down, essentially to zero, in the period ahead and that is a completely achievable objective. I told you that my first job was working on the famine in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s. Because Ethiopia’s developed and has good safety net systems, they deal with even worse droughts now than happened in ‘84, ‘85, better than they were able to. And there’s no reason why other countries can’t be supported to make similar progress.

Then the third big challenge I would like to help with is building a better business model, operating system, for dealing with refugees and displaced people. [UN High Commissioner for Refugees] Filippo Grandi has been doing amazing work helping the world develop a better system for that problem, and I would like to contribute to that work. I’m not saying that we at OCHA are going to be providing the solution to all those problems; we are a service. Our job is to support, facilitate, listen, help other parts of the international humanitarian response system. But I’m a person who’s motivated by solutions and outcomes, so I’m hoping that what we do in OCHA will help all the other agencies make progress on those outcomes. [more]

INTERVIEW: Global humanitarian needs have never been higher, says UN official

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