The CSS Blog Network

Can Secretary-General Seal His Legacy at Humanitarian Summit?

Portrait of the UN Secretary-Generals past and present, courtesy Eneas De Troya/flickr

This article was originally published by IPI Global Observatory on 22 March 2016.

Last month, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released a long-awaited report, One Humanity: Shared Responsibility, outlining his vision for reforming the global humanitarian system. Riding a wave of successful negotiations on climate change and the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Secretary-General is seeking to end his final term by laying the groundwork for what he calls “a new paradigm” for the international aid system. During his tenure, the UN has witnessed large-scale suffering in Syria, climate-related natural disasters, and a massive exodus of refugees to Europe. With the humanitarian system buckling under extraordinary pressure—including 60 million people forcibly displaced and requiring an estimated $20 billion USD to feed and care for them—the timing could not be better.

UN secretaries-general from Dag Hammarskjöld to Kofi Annan have released landmark reports and spearheaded initiatives that went on to have significant—albeit under-recognized—impacts on the multilateral system. Notable among these is Agenda for Peace, written by former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali in 1995 in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide and the Srebrenica massacre. The fact that Ban titled his report’s annex Agenda for Humanity is likely no coincidence. Some of these past initiatives may offer instructive guidelines for today. With the first ever World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) approaching in May in Istanbul, can the Secretary-General help reshape the global humanitarian agenda?

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Mediation Perspectives: Reframing the Charities and Terrorism Debate

Headline: Charity millions 'going to Syrian terror groups'

A recent headline in The Daily Telegraph. Photo: Howard Lake/flickr.

The UK’s Daily Telegraph ruffled a few feathers earlier this month by building a story around a few out-of-context remarks by the head of the UK’s Charity Commission to suggest that millions of pounds raised to assist victims of the conflict in Syria were being diverted to terrorist groups. The Charity Commission reacted swiftly to correct the story, pointing out that they possessed no evidence of any such diversions and that they work very closely with charities to minimize the risk that any could occur.

Fears of charitable donations being diverted away from their intended recipients are nothing new. Nor are accompanying fears that diverted money is ending up in the hands of people with less-than-good intentions. What is relatively new is how these fears are being addressed since the launching of the “global war on terror” in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US.

Humanitarian organizations have long recognized that they have a responsibility towards both their donors and their beneficiaries to ensure that aid reaches the people it was intended for. Many organizations have developed their own systems of checks and balances to ensure that it does. However, it has long been recognized, both by donors and charities, that in conflict and emergency situations no system is perfect and there is always a risk that some aid is diverted or ends up in the wrong hands. What has changed with the dominance of a counter-terrorism discourse is that this risk of diversion has been defined as a security threat due to the fear that those wrong hands are terrorist hands. » More

Disaster Relief 2.0

Disaster Relief 2.0“The 2010 Haiti earthquake response will be remembered as the moment when the level of access to mobile and online communication enabled a kind of collective intelligence to emerge.”

Last week, The UN Foundation, the Vodafone Foundation and Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) published a report on the future of information sharing in humanitarian emergencies. The paper examines the role of volunteer and technical communities (dubbed “V&TCs”) in providing information to aid agencies on the ground.

Paradoxically, aid workers in Haiti last year faced two opposite problems. At first, they lacked the most basic sources of information – even the UN offices had been destroyed and many employees had perished. In no time, internet communities mobilized to fill the gap, collecting data online, from satellite images or from SMS.

But then, established humanitarian institutions – and especially UN agencies – had no procedure in place to integrate such masses of external information, and overstretched aid workers soon faced a state of information overload.

Some NGOs focussing on information services in emergencies existed before the Haiti earthquake (e.g. MapAction, Télécoms Sans Frontières, Sahana). According to the report, the earthquake triggered a boom last year. Some of the key V&TCs involved in Haiti it mentions are OpenStreetMap, CrisisMappers, Crisis Commons, the 4636 Alliance and Ushahidi.

Disaster Relief 2.0” raises several issues regarding the management of information in international emergencies, especially with a view to better exploiting the potential of V&TCs. From the established humanitarian system’s point of view, reliability and professionalism are core values that can be problematic in loosely organized volunteer communities.

On the other hand, those communities have the potential to help solve the current humanitarian system’s “data silos” problem. Coordinated by OCHA, humanitarian relief is organized around clusters (shelter, health,  nutrition, etc…). According to the report, proprietary information systems and individual standards are major impediments to the exchange of data between those clusters and with actors external to the system such as V&CTs.

The arrival of these internet communities on the scene is likely to make the silos crumble. They will bring their open source and semantic web philosophies, hopefully fostering the development of open standards and structured data. Humanitarian aid 2.0 is on its way, hold on!

ISN Weekly Theme: At Peace With Rebels

Rebel leader announces the singning of a peace agreement in the DRC

Rebel leader announces the singning of a peace agreement in the DRC, photo: UN Photo/flickr

This week the ISN examines the role of armed non-state actors in conflict environments and peacebuilding processes. From rebel groups to militias, armed non-state actors are key to the course and sustainable resolution of today’s conflicts.

In this week’s Special Report:

  • An Analysis by Dr Véronique Dudouet from the Berghof Center for Conflict Research examines the importance of inclusive peacemaking that addresses the roots of the conflict and facilitates the reintegration of armed non-state groups by offering incentives for political participation.
  • A Podcast with Max Glaser explores the dilemmas facing humanitarian organizations as they try to balance the benefits against the dangers of engaging armed non-state actors.
  • Security Watch articles on India’s Maoist insurgency, US efforts to enlist local militias in the stabilization of Afghanistan and many more.
  • Publications housed in our Digital Library, including a paper analyzing the role of armed non-state actors in peace processes, and a working paper on the importance of foreign military assistance to fragile states facing internal conflict.
  • Primary Resources, including UN Security Council Resolution 1125 on the crisis in the Central African Republic.
  • Links to relevant websites, including an article by the International Committee of the Red Cross detailing instruments and strategies used by non-state actors to respect international humanitarian law during intra-state conflicts in Africa, and a wiki created by Mercyhurst College Institute for Intelligence Studies that provides intelligence analysis on the impact of armed non-state actors in sub-Saharan Africa between 2007 and 2012.
  • And through our IR Directory access to relevant institutions, including the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS).