Interview with Rashid Khalikov, Director of OCHA, New York

Rashid Khalikov, a graduate of the Moscow State Institute for International Relations, started his career as a diplomat with several postings to his credit. However, it was not in diplomacy that he was going to conduct an interesting career, but as a humanitarian.
At the time that the United Nations created the Department for Humanitarian Affairs, Mr. Khalikov was in a posting in New York, and Jan Eliasson, the first Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Assistance, called Mr Khalikov in to work with him. This proved to be an excellent choice! Ever since that day, Mr Khalikov’s life has been filled with emergencies, humanitarian catastrophes and natural disasters. When he talks about his work, you feel that he is the right man in the right place at the right time. Mr Khalikov has a heart of gold and has the capacity to give everything in order to help others. A real humanitarian, you might say!
Q: First of all, congratulations upon your new job. You are now the Director of OCHA NY. Before that, you were the Deputy Director here in Geneva. Is there a big difference between NYC and Geneva?
First of all, thank you so much for your congratulations. Second, it is very different, because the job is different. In New York my responsibilities cover branches that deal with the development of policy, information management and advocacy, and I also oversee the units that deal with external relations with Member States, fund-raising and the Central Emergency Fund, which is a big enterprise. In that sense, the list of responsibilities is much longer and very different from what it used to be in Geneva.
Q: You are in charge of obtaining money which is to be spent here in Geneva. Is this the case?
No, we are carrying out fund-raising in both places. Member States in New York have their plates full with lots of political and socio-economic issues, environment, development, General Assembly, ECOSOC, various commissions, etc. Therefore, they really do not have time to focus on OCHA’s fieldwork or policy dialogue in the same way that they do in Geneva.
So I think that donors are more engaged in Geneva, and it really shows that Geneva is the Humanitarian Capital of the World.
Q: Do you feel that you are more involved in political work?
Not personally, but the department is doing a lot to co-ordinate our activities with the work of the Department of Political Affairs, the Peacekeeping Operations, to support issues related to peace and security in the Security Council from the humanitarian perspective.
Q: You were in charge of the co-ordination of all the humanitarian assistance for the earthquake in Pakistan –– the NGOs, the different UN agencies. Do you miss being in the field?
Yes, I miss it very much. I just came back from Pakistan. I was asked by the Under-Secretary-General to go there and look into a couple of issues. One of them was to see how things were going now, two years after the earthquake, and how successful was the move from relief to rehabilitation and development. When flying by helicopter from Islamabad to Muzaffarabad, which used to be the headquarters for co-ordination outside the capital, it was very heartening to see how the landscape has improved.
In October 2005, when I flew there for the first time, you would fly only over rubble. Everything was completely destroyed and the situation was very bad. Then, towards the end of October/beginning of November you could see more and more tents. By the end of November the whole area was covered by very brightly coloured tents, which could be seen from the helicopters.
Just before I left, a lot of materials started to arrive –– plastic sheets, special metal sheets for winterization because tents were not supposed to be durable enough for the winter season. Tents can only protect you from wind and rain, but not from cold and snow, simply because they are not sturdy enough –– unless they are actually winterized tents and there are very few of those.
At that time, we needed about 600,000 tents. Nowadays, as I was flying over the area, there was not a single tent to be seen, only houses. I checked some of them and they are really excellent! I think the population has never lived in such good houses. It is a small house, two rooms with a kitchen, but earthquake resistant; it is heated in the winter. I would not say that it’s beautiful, but it’s very functional, modern and looks very strong. The authorities have also rebuilt a lot of schools and hospitals with the support of the international community.
Interview with Rashid Khalikov, Director of OCHA, New YorkI remember after the Tsunami, President Clinton came up with his slogan: Build back better! This is what happened in Pakistan in the earthquake-affected areas.
Going back to the last part of your question: yes, I miss it a lot. I was taken to the place where our camp used to be –– and there is nothing left! The UN camp was demolished, and it had become a football field again. Frankly, it was very sad! No tents, no UN flag; but it was also very heartening to see this as a strong indication that life is back to normal.
When I first arrived there, they were setting up a radio antenna about 30 meters high, and I gave them my UN flag to fly from the top, so that everybody in Muzaffarabad would know where the UN was located. Life in Muzaffarabad really was like being in the field, living in a tent, flying everywhere by helicopters, and also very challenging professionally.
Q: Does this hardship create a kind friendship or solidarity among the aid workers?
Not only among the aid-workers, but also with the Pakistanis! We had a very good team. You know, in times of crisis human beings normally show their best side. There was so much suffering around the place where we happened to be that this united us in a common goal. First of all, it was an extremely difficult operation.
If you look into any textbook where they teach about humanitarian assistance, almost everything you can imagine was true about this emergency, including poor understanding of the complexity and magnitude of the crisis. The logistics –– roads were blocked as there had been lots of landslides.
There is one image I will never forget. On one of the main roads, two mountains had moved. As you flew over the mountain, all of a sudden there was no road, only mountain, and then road again, and then mountain again. On this little isolated stretch of road there were two trucks! Can you imagine what these drivers went through? They were driving along and then all of a sudden the mountain started to move!
What was very important was the very strong bond of solidarity between internationals and the Pakistanis. There was a lot of criticism that the Government did not do this and did not do that. I do not challenge this statement, but I say that the level of co-operation was really enormous. Every evening I met with the general who was in charge of the relief operation in Pakistan Administered Kashmir. I met one of generals again the day before yesterday and it was very emotional! Both of us were almost crying! We used to see each other almost every evening at 7 o’clock and spent at least 45 minutes going through various issues. One would have the feeling that we went through a very difficult test together, and we never ever had an argument! Can you imagine?
The Pakistanis would never say no, because they knew that we were trying to do our work the way we are supposed to do it. They gave us space. We also showed them respect because this is a sovereign government, an independent country –– it was their country! Most of the assistance came from them; the assistance from the UN was just a drop in the ocean!
Q: Did you not find it very difficult to co-ordinate all these different agencies coming from all over the world. Wasn’t there a kind of chaos?
I do not think that there will ever be benchmarks to measure the success of coordinating an operation. For instance, if you say that assistance reached everybody, this is impossible. It could never happen.
I will give you an example. One day I was in Muzaffarabad and some senior officials were arriving. Since I was the senior UN staff there, I had to receive them. As these persons arrived at the helipad, I saw two helicopters coming in –– one from the Red Cross and the other from the Pakistani Armed Forces. I asked the visitors to remain on the heliport and watch. I told them: “You will never forget what you are going to see now.” The staff started to take injured people out of the helicopters. Three weeks had passed since the earthquake, and people were still silently dying at home –– because there were no roads, and therefore no access to medical assistance! These people could not believe it! It was 29 October–– exactly three weeks after the earthquake –– and some of the injured had still not seen doctors.
These injured people were on stretchers. And yet, we do not know how many of them passed away on day 3, day 5, day 25 … So it is impossible to say whether an operation has been a success or not. 100% success – never!
You may say that an operation is successful if you have very good co-ordination among UN agencies and with the government, the Red Cross and the NGOs. In this respect, I think it worked quite well. We knew that the International Committee of the Red Cross was covering certain parts of the Pakistan –– Administered Kashmir –– and that they were delivering the full package –– food, water, tents, shelters, etc. –– everything! So the UN did not need to go there, which was very good.
We had an enormous number of meetings with local and international NGOs. They told us “we are doing this and that, we are here”, etc.
We also had very good relations with UN agencies. For this you have to invest your time and effort, to show understanding to their respective mandates, and to make it known that you are not trying to direct them. On behalf of these UN agencies, we negotiated various aspects of the operations with the local civil and military authorities and the police, who were in charge of security. The police were very concerned about our security as we were just living in this camp with very little protection.
We spent a lot of time in meetings, that’s true, but there is no other way to communicate. One-to-one meetings: the civil authorities, the military, the UN agencies, etc. –– all of them. I also used to have a weekly tea with local ‘notables’ as they were called. I had put together a group of about ten people, former President of the Pakistani Administered Kashmir, businessmen, a professor from the university, a lawyer, etc., who used to come to my tent once a week and have tea, and discuss various issues for two hours. I listened to them and told them what we were aiming to do. This is a useful way to understand what the population thinks about you. The population was in shock! They were not used to foreigners, and all of a sudden there were white cars with UN flags everywhere.
For instance, after the earthquake in Iran in December 2003, the governor of the province told me that one of the biggest challenges for him was how to deal with the internationals, because there were hundreds of them running around doing their business. At some time there were more than thirty search and rescue teams. There were more than 1,000 search and rescue workers there at a certain point. This means that most of them had very, highly specialized equipment and dogs! It is a big challenge. The earthquake happened in a remote province, so the locals probably had not seen many foreigners before. In Bam, there is this beautiful, absolutely magnificent fort, thousands of years old, so foreigners come there, but not in huge numbers.
Q: Somebody said that the Iranian Red Crescent Society had done a tremendous job during the earthquake in Bam.
Yes, the Iranian Red Crescent society is very active and they have branches all over the country. They have very well developed standard operating procedures; they know what to do because the country is very vulnerable to natural disasters. Earthquakes take place in Iran quite often, and it depends on the scale. The one that took place in Bam was probably on the extreme side: more than 25,000 people were killed and about 200,000 were affected in one way or another. It was huge, but very localized. It affected the city of Bam and the surrounding villages , because the epicentre was very shallow and just below the market place.
You have to understand something! There used to be about seven Red Crescent workers living in Bam. Three or four of them were killed by the earthquake, and one of those who survived lost forty of his relatives that very night. How can you expect this person being able to do anything for the next month?
Similar things happened in Pakistan. In Pakistan there was no epicentre, it was along the fault line, so everybody who lived near the fault line suffered. The Chief Secretary in Muzaffarabad, who was the senior civilian administrator, was living in his office because he had lost his house in the earthquake. His office used to have this small back room where he slept. His family had been sent away to the place where he came from. There he was, operating out of a building that had cracks all over it and that could collapse at any moment.
Almost of 400 civilian staff of the Pakistani Administered Kashmir were living in tents. How they would be expected to administer the province while living in tents themselves? One has to show some understanding of the turmoil that the local administration was going through. Even for those of us who were coming from outside, it was emotionally challenging to see the suffering and the destruction. So, for those who lived there and who knew the people who had passed away, they knew whose house it was, their neighbours –– the whole thing was in ruins. It is very difficult! So people like to say that it was chaos –– of course, it was chaos!
Q: You talked about Bam and Pakistan and I presume that you have seen other disasters. How do you manage to cope with it?
Quite frankly, I do not know. Perhaps your skin becomes thicker. Maybe, the feeling that you know that you can do something about it helps you. If you know that you can do nothing about it, it’s far more difficult.
Q: So you just pull up your sleeves and do it?
Yes, I remember at some point in Pakistan I gave an interview to a news agency and somebody called me from HQ to tell me: “Why on earth did you say that?” I replied that if we do not mobilize all the assistance now, the second wave might be even worse than the earthquake itself because people might be dying during the winter. “So we need to help them now.” Some people did not believe that this was true –– these are sturdy mountain people; they are used to living in the mountains in these kinds of weather conditions. Of course they are, but they are not used to living without shelter. When they know that winter is coming, they prepare for it. But now, all of a sudden there is no food, no shelter. How can you say that they are sturdy, and that they will survive? Probably they have a better chance than people who are not used to cold climates.
You could say that people began to recover from the shock maybe three or four weeks after the earthquake. From the helicopter you could very often see people sitting in the ruins of their houses just doing nothing. They were just sitting there looking at the rubble and could not believe that such a thing had happened to them. It was such a huge shock! It takes some time for human beings to absorb it, and then to start rebuilding their lives.
The President of Pakistani Administered Kashmir told me that a lot of people had been telling him that they had thought it had been the end of the world. This is how it is written in the Holy Book –– that there would be a huge noise, mountains would move and there would be great destruction, and you will be killed! And for more than 70 000 people it was indeed the end of the world!
Q: It is very difficult for us to imagine what it is like to be in this kind of situation. Everybody felt very concerned when the Tsunami struck. Do you think that the general public felt less concerned about the Pakistan earthquake?
You know, at a certain point when I was in Pakistan, I was thinking about inviting some of the harshest critics at the UN to come and visit us in that camp to see the commitment of staff. Instead of living in pretty good conditions in their respective duty stations in New York, Geneva and Rome, they came to this place, with about ten people living in one tent with no partitions. We started to get showers with hot water after ten days, but it was not available 24 hours per day. You wake up at 6 a.m.; the first engagement is at 7:30 a.m. –– you would be busy until 10 p.m., and you are not supposed to leave the camp because there is no security, and basically no place to go anyway. Of course, those who are called disaster junkies! One has to understand that they are there to help other people!
I heard a lot of good things from the Pakistanis in general, not only the government officials but from people I spoke with. They understand this and told me: “You people flew from New York, Rome and Geneva and lived in this tent –– you could have forgotten all about it. It’s not your country, not your neighbours, not your relatives.” So, I think the local population was very grateful.
You could never expect the affected population to be entirely happy, no matter how much assistance was provided. They are going through a terrible ordeal. To become a displaced person is a very big deal, and no matter how little you had, it’s no longer there. Your kitchen is not there, the place you used to live –– it is no longer there, your children cannot go to school. On the top of that, if somebody in your family was killed, the survivors cannot be happy, no matter how much food and water, and how many tents you may provide. They cannot be happy, and one should not expect them to be! They will say “thank you very much” for everything, but they will still not be happy.
Q: Looking back at your career, which operation do you think has been the most gratifying?
Certainly, the experience with the earthquake in South Asia. I would also say that in 1996, I was with the UN team that went to Tajikistan to launch humanitarian programme there. The country was in a very bad shape. There had been internal conflict and thousands of people were killed, and thousands more became refugees and internally displaced. Since it’s a very remote place, nobody cared too much. I think it was very good that we went there and raised awareness about the situation. We launched the programmes and the appeal for funds, so during the next 4-5 years they received a lot of support from various UN agencies.
Q: What is the situation like today?
Ah, it’s much better. The first time I went there, tanks were in the streets. The last time I went there, in 2003, you would find economic activity picking up on. I’m not saying that everything is fine; it may take some time before everything is fully back to normal.
Our task is to help people survive, to reduce their suffering and to help them to get back on their feet. They received a lot of support from donors, the World Bank, etc., and I think our action was very much appreciated by the government. All the refugees have returned from Afghanistan.
Q: Do you have a message for the international community in Geneva?
No matter how much we do, we still have to understand that there are still a lot of people out there who are not receiving assistance in times of crisis. I am not sure that we will be able to reach all of them, but I think we should try together, and this is the place it should go from. Geneva is the Humanitarian Capital of the World!