Interview: Preparation and prevention key for humanitarian action in 2013

24 December, 2012
3 Oct 2012: OCHA Operations Director John Ging with displaced children in Kitsumbiro, North Kivu. Credit: OCHA/Imane Cherif
3 Oct 2012: OCHA Operations Director John Ging with displaced children in Kitsumbiro, North Kivu. Credit: OCHA/Imane Cherif

In 2012, UN agencies and humanitarian partners helped millions of people affected by natural disasters, food insecurity, conflicts and displacement across the globe. As the year draws to an end, OCHA’s Operations Director John Ging talks about some of the major challenges aid organizations faced in 2012. He also highlights ways to improve humanitarian response in 2013.  

Q: What are some of current crises OCHA is addressing?
 
The current situation is that we have a multiple number of crises arising from climactic change in places like the Sahel and the Horn of Africa regions. And then you have flooding in places like the Philippines and the Americas. There are also so many other countries where there are conflicts—in Sudan and South Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan and Yemen. In the Middle East, of course, Syria is the most visible now, but we shouldn’t forget places in Africa like the Central African Republic, Chad and so on. We have so many countries around the world where conflict is raging and again, an increasing number of people are dying on a daily basis.
 
Q: How is OCHA responding to the crises? 
 
Well, OCHA’s job is to coordinate the humanitarian response, and the first thing in coordination is to articulate the need, to communicate the plight of the people. We have just launched the global appeals asking for $8.5 billion for 2013. This is a call for help for 51 million people world-wide who need assistance. There are over 16 countries affected here, and the aid effort involves 520 aid agencies. So, we are at OCHA communicating the scale, the scope and the breadth of the need, hoping that there will be a generous response because the consequence of failure is that tens of thousands of people will lose their lives and millions will be languishing in humanitarian despair.
 
Q: How successful were you in your appeal or in trying to coordinate efforts to help people in 2012?
 
In 2012, we had a global appeal of $5.3 billion and that is 60 per cent funded. We worked very hard with a donor community which is incredibly committed despite facing a global financial crisis. The challenge that they face to continue to give the aid, the money that they give, has reflected a tremendous commitment on their part. But we have not succeeded and I have to be frank about that. We have not succeeded in broadening the donor base to the extent that we need to, and that’s why there’s such a significant shortfall. 
 
Q: What do you envisage for 2013 in terms of donor funding?
 
Well, we need more money. That’s the situation. And we’re also very clear that we have to get new donors into this endeavour. We’re not going to get the additional monies that we need from the donors that we currently have who are maxed out in many instances.  Now, even if we do still get increases from some of them, and we’re hugely grateful for that, the gap between what they have and are capable of giving and what is needed is too great to be bridged by this small group. One of our big focuses for 2013 will be on how to broaden the base of donor support.
 
Q: Turning to Syria, the humanitarian situation there appears to be deteriorating based on the latest reports. What is OCHA doing about this? 
 
Well, the humanitarian community in Syria is struggling. The needs continue to grow. It has now gone from 2.5 million people in need to over 4 million in the last couple of months. The refugee numbers have doubled. We are now well over 500,000 refugees in the neighbouring countries, and sadly the situation continues to deteriorate. The number of displaced people within Syria has gone from 1.2 million to 2 million. Again, this is just a reflection of the scale of the problem that people are facing in inside Syria. Those that have fled conflict areas have left behind their lives and their livelihoods, and again, this is putting a huge burden on the communities in Syria who are supporting them. Humanitarian agencies are trying to do their best but it’s becoming more and more difficult even to do the very basic things to help people to survive. And sadly, people are losing hope because they just see more violence on the horizon. They just see a further deterioration in the situation.
 
Q: What is the impact on neighbouring countries hosting Syrian refugees?
 
These countries—Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt— have generously opened their borders despite all of the challenges that they are facing. They are a model for humanity and commitment because it is costing them hugely to allow these people to stay in their countries. But they have given the imperative. They have prioritized giving people safe refuge and then dealing with the consequences. What we are focused on is mobilizing financial support for these refugees because if we don’t, then they became an even bigger burden on these countries. But the burden sharing internationally is not there. They are not getting the support that they deserve from the rest of the international community who are only being asked to give funding support, not being asked to host refugees.
 
Q: The humanitarian challenges in the Sahel are enormous—drought, food insecurity, conflict and displacement—how can the situation be improved? 
 
The biggest challenge across the Sahel is food insecurity arising from the drought that affects eight countries. So there is a huge effort under way, not just in terms of a humanitarian response but also development and building resilience in these communities through better water management, irrigation, crop selection, animal husbandry; all of these add up to communities being able to cope better. There is very good cooperation between national governments and the international organizations. We agree on the priorities and we are making progress on tackling the problems. The conflict in Mali and the spilling out of refugees into the neighbouring countries has added to the challenge. There are over 200,000 internally displaced within Mali and this is posing an additional challenge for a country that was already caught up in a food crisis. And we mustn’t forget that the Sahel is also affected by transnational crime, criminality, weapons and human trafficking. There are a whole range of issues that are undermining the development and the stability of the region, and we also have to point to these issues as well.
 
Q: Do you see anything improving in 2013?
 
We hope! We hope that there will be a better mobilization of interventions to prevent rather than having to respond. In too many places we find ourselves involved in humanitarian response that could have been prevented. So there has to be more focus on development and helping people to cope, survive and build their lives and their livelihoods, rather than allowing them to become so fragile that any shock causes them to become dependent on aid.