Interview with Baroness Valerie Amos, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Co-ordinator

Her Excellency the Baroness has an impressive curriculum vitae and one might expect to meet an authoritative figure with such credentials, but it’s rather the contrary. She is a pleasant and friendly person, humble and down to earth, trying to make a difference for the people on the ground when disaster strikes. It’s definitely not an easy job. She took up her functions at a time when the United Nations in general, and the Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in particular, received much criticism for not being able to deliver what was expected during the two major humanitarian crises of 2010, namely the earthquake in Haiti and the floods in Pakistan. One could say that Ms Amos did not have an easy start. Since then, she has managed to put OCHA back on track and to rebuild confidence in the UN. Now we leave the floor to Her Excellency…
Q: I have looked at your biography and I note that you were made a baroness by Queen Elizabeth II. In what sense did that change your life?
It meant that in 1997 I became a member of the British Parliament. After Tony Blair had become Prime Minister, I became a member of the government so my life completely changed. I entered parliament and then, within a few months, I was working for the government.
Q: What was it like to be in the British Government?
It was very exciting. I was a Foreign Office Minister, then I became the Cabinet Minister with responsibility for International Development, and then I became Leader of the House of Lords. These were incredible experiences. I think that being at the centre of a working government, trying to bring about change but seeing the constraints that you face working at that level is fascinating.
Q: When you possess power like that, do you feel that it’s difficult to make the right decisions?
Yes, of course. To make the right decisions when everybody does not agree, that’s the important thing about cabinet responsibility. You have a debate, a discussion, a decision is made and you accept that decision. You never have a situation where everybody agrees with everything. So in that sense it’s a real test.
I strongly believe in that process and it’s something I exercise very strongly. Yes, you are sitting in the centre of power, but sometimes you feel powerless. There are also issues about using that power responsibly. For me it’s always about: what can you do with that power to make people’s lives better? Fundamentally, that is what it is all about.
Q: I also read that you entered politics at a very early age fighting for social awareness and women’s rights. How did it all start and why did you engage yourself in the first place?
There is not one thing I can point at. I was born and brought up in a country called Guyana, South America. I moved to the United Kingdom when I was 9 years old. I don’t know whether the experience of migration made me more aware of issues to do with equality and social justice. It’s something that my family always valued. We are very much internationalists in that sense, always considering what was happening in the world politically, but looking at a wider context as well. That’s how I grew up and how I have always lived my life. I was always a passionate advocate for equality and social justice. All that had to do with race relations, gender equality, poverty and development –– it was just there and it’s always been a part of me.
Q: Was it tough fighting for all these things?
It is never easy. You have successes and other matters where you do not win. It was a great learning curve in the sense of how do you make things happen, how do you lobby, how do you try to bring about change. Sometimes it’s hard, but if it’s something you believe in I do not think that you think about how hard it is. You only think about ways in which you can make things better.
Q: To have commitment is one thing, but confronting obstacles is something else.
I have always believed that obstacles are for climbing over or getting around in some way.
Q: Now you are Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Co-ordinator, what do you see as your main challenges?
If you look back at 2010 and you think about Haiti and Pakistan, our main challenges were obvious. The year 2010 saw disaster on a mega scale. The Haiti Earthquake happened in January with a huge loss of life. Haiti was a country that had already been much challenged in terms of development. That was a big test not only for OCHA but also for the UN humanitarian community. The UN also lost a significant number of its own people in the earthquake. That was hard to bear.
And then in July there were the floods in Pakistan which I really think tested our capacity –– 20 million people in Pakistan in a flooded area the size of the Netherlands. Coming so soon after Haiti, the floods were something that happened over a long period of time. It was quite difficult to keep people’s attention focused on it.
Thus, making sure that we deliver quickly at the right level and scale, that is something we are seriously looking at now. We are thinking through what we can do to support governments to develop their own capacity in terms of emergency response, because you can save lives by doing it this way. In the longer term it’s much cheaper.
We are looking at how we can make a proper transition out of emergency relief into the development of supporting people’s livelihoods. It is important that people do not become dependent on emergency relief. When I go around and talk to people, they all want to go back to their homes, to rebuild their lives, to educate their children and find work. We have a responsibility to make that happen. This means making OCHA as effective an organization as possible and continuing to advance the case for humanitarian work.
We must be able to perform this work where we need to do it, at the same time making sure that political, security and other concerns do not actually undermine the principals that are important when carrying out humanitarian work. Humanitarian aid should not be politicized in any way. In other words, we should have access to anyone who needs help. There should not be an underlying political agenda for the work that we are doing. However, this is very difficult when you are in a conflict situation, where you have a state party and non-state armed groups involved in a conflict in a country.
I think increasingly that countries would like to be able to respond by themselves to emergencies. They do not always want to work in partnership with UN organizations or NGOs.
Q: Don’t you think that the general public gets tired of all these disasters?
I’m not sure about that. That’s a message that does go out from time to time. But, if you look at the outpouring from individuals as opposed to their governments when you have a major crisis –– as in Haiti –– it’s significant.
I think what people are really concerned about is the nature of our response –– is it fast enough? Do we help countries deal with difficult situations quickly enough? The expectations are becoming higher about what we can achieve and I do not think we manage those as well as we should. Quite rightly, there are concerns about corruption in some countries. The media are worried about governments that do not seem to care about their own people. That is legitimate.
There is something else as well. I think that we have a responsibility to make sure that the support for our work spreads across the world and that we work as hard as we can to get global support. There are ways in which political agendas, ethnic divisions and other kinds of divisions can cause interruptions. This happens when people confuse what we do or use what we are trying to do. Sometimes they think that humanitarian work is a step into something else. We have told them that it is not and we have to assure them through our actions that this is the case.
Q: It seems that you have a lot on your plate.
This is a really busy job. Sometimes it can be frustrating, but it’s a job that I love because you can make a tremendous difference in the world. Everybody who does this job knows that you have to work flat out the whole time, but it’s full of challenges.
Q: That’s true as long as you have the means. What about the financial situation?
As long as you have the means and you work with people who are committed. There are plenty of committed people out there. You know we constantly have to work to raise money, that’s partly because the scope and depth of what we are doing is increasing the whole time. If you look at last year, I think something like US$11 billion were raised within the UN system through OCHA for humanitarian action, and that’s not the totality of all the money that’s being spent on humanitarian work around the world. Such a huge amount of money shows the continuing generosity of donors. It also shows us the scale of what we have to address. Those needs are not decreasing but increasing.
Q: With the financial crisis should not prices be going down?
It’s not about prices going down, it’s about the fact that you have more and more climate related disasters around the world. In a country where you would normally expect seasonal flooding, for example, it is now much worse. I’m sure that people have been watching what happened in Australia at the end of 2010 –– this is not a country we had to assist because the Australian Government themselves have the capacity. If you look at what just happened in Australia, plus Brazil had the biggest floods for many years. In Colombia we had 2 million people affected–– there is also Sri Lanka. These are just some of the floods around the world. We have had earthquakes, cyclones, etc.
All of this is separate from the countries where we have a proactive crisis, a crisis that continues over many years because of conflict. I could mention the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Sudan and Afghanistan –– these are all major humanitarian crises around the world. In 2010 in the Sahel we had a huge problem with food insecurity. I went to Niger and half the population was living with food insecurity, with low nutrition levels. We are going to see more of that this year, given the food prices in some parts of the world which will have an impact on how much people will have to eat.
Q: On a personal level, when you see all this misery, how do you cope with it?
Partly through the people themselves who are living in the most atrocious conditions. Even when we have done our best, people are living in camps. They may have access to water and sanitation, but this is not a home. They are able to send their children to school because UNICEF or NGOs create “schools in a box”. It is the resilience of the people themselves that quite frankly is the thing that keeps me going.
Q: I have heard that you are going to Norway soon.
Norway is a huge supporter, not only of the humanitarian system but also of the development system overall. It has been a big supporter of OCHA and it is always in the top ten donors. At present Norway is number four and it was one of the first countries I visited. I spoke to the Government about their projects and what we are trying to achieve. Norway is also an important partner to us in terms of thinking through what the future challenges are going to be. We really depend on our major donors to work with us, so it’s a relationship that is also about policy thinking. What are the challenges? How can we address them? You have to engage your major donors in that conversation.
Norway has been an incredibly important partner. I’m going back there because we have something called the Nordic Meeting, which brings together the countries in the region precisely to talk about some of these issues.
Q: If you are trying to enlarge your donor base, who would you like get on board?
We are talking to countries like India and Brazil. We are talking to new countries in the European Union, who may have been recipients in the past and are now able to give back. China and the Republic of Korea are equally important. Going back to what I said about growing global support for our work, you have to engage countries in discussions about what we do and why it is important. It is not just about asking for money. It’s a real partnership and that is what we are seeking to establish.
Q: Do you feel that people do not know about humanitarian work?
Some people know more than others, and there are all kinds of principles that underpin our work. We are not a development agency. We go to a country for a short period of time, to help in the immediate aftermath of a crisis. That period becomes longer and longer for a whole variety of reasons, partly because the crises are so big now, but also because there is a relationship between development challenges and humanitarian and emergency challenges in a country. Making that transition is very important too.
Q: We have heard in the case of the Haiti Earthquake that more than 10,000 NGOs intervened.
There were thousands of NGOs! Our job is to co-ordinate, but of course you cannot force people to become part of the co-ordination system. We demonstrate that there is value added if you are part of the co-ordination system. Not everybody wants to participate and this can create confusion.
Q: A friend told me that the NGOs were doing their own thing and this created a terrible redundancy.
This put a strain on the national authorities as well. Some NGOs may be quite fragile. There were thousands of organizations that came from abroad who needed to be supported. Sometimes organizations do not think through the impact of what they are doing. Their desire to be helpful can put a strain on the capacity and resources of a country.
Q: What can you do to prevent this?
I hope that the NGOs themselves will find the answer, and some of them are already looking into this. Governments, of course, are also thinking about ways in which they can set up systems that will enable them to have a key number of organizations they would like to work with. The Swiss government is examining the idea of having a certification system. There are a number of conversations going on right now because the problem has been recognized.
Q: If you introduce the certification system, will it only concern the big international “western” organizations?
One of the really important things in emergency work is that the big international NGOs have partnerships with local organizations in the countries concerned. This is because otherwise they cannot deliver on the ground. A key part of the agenda is how to build that relationship, particularly for national organizations, and how to raise their capacity, because they are the ones who work in the most remote and difficult areas. They are the ones who know their country best. If you think about any disaster situation, it is the local people and the local organizations that are the first to respond.
Q: Where do you see OCHA and the UN in a couple of years from now?
I would like OCHA to be a highly responsive, flexible organization where our staff is very committed. They should feel that they have been supported through training enabling them to be deployed to areas where we need action very quickly, and where we are able to demonstrate leadership by bringing organizations together in the field to respond effectively.
Q: On a personal level, what do you expect of this experience and what would you like to contribute? I expect to learn a huge amount. I think that when you take up jobs like this one you would like to bring something to it, so you have to be ready to learn. Every person who has led OCHA has contributed to the organization in some way. When I leave I would certainly hope that people feel that I have made my contribution in handing it on to the next person –– who will make theirs. You know it’s a process of continuity building. It is not easy but it’s a great job!
Celhia de Lavarene