Responding to Africa's Emergencies: New Strategies for Humanitarian Assistance at the United Nations | Wilson Center

Responding to Africa's Emergencies: New Strategies for Humanitarian Assistance at the United Nations

Kevin Kennedy is Director of the Coordination and Response Division in the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. His field experience with the UN includes service in Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans and East Timor as well as numerous missions to Africa and Asia. In 2003, he served as the Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq and later as the Officer-in-Charge of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI). He most recently served as the acting Resident/Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan.

Krista Riddley is Deputy Director of Policy and Advocacy at Oxfam America. She previously served as Advocacy Director for Africa and the Middle East at Amnesty International.

The session was moderated by David Birenbaum, a Senior Policy Scholar at the Wilson Center who is working on a book on U.S.-UN relations in the post Cold War period. Previously, Birenbaum was the U.S. Ambassador to the UN for UN Management and Reform.

This meeting, co-sponsored by the Africa Program and the Conflict Prevention Project, examined lessons learned from recent humanitarian crises, as well as elements required for a comprehensive response to future emergencies.

Kevin Kennedy analyzed humanitarian responses in Darfur and the tsunami-stricken regions in a comparative framework. $6.7 billion was initially committed to tsunami relief efforts, he reported. Meanwhile, in Africa—where 1,000 people die of preventable causes each day—only nine percent of the continent (excluding Sudan and the Indian Ocean) receives sufficient aid. Kennedy noted that efforts to get the wheels turning in Darfur have been particularly slow. Major NGOs and international organizations were initially very short of staff.

Kennedy suggested that part of the delay in summoning adequate relief for the crisis in Darfur is due to demands for greater accountability on the part of relief agencies in delivering assistance. Humanitarian efforts of UN member states have fallen short of their mark, in Kennedy's view, because of inadequate management and synchronization. Better coordination within and between relief agencies and international organizations, he argued, would result in greater donor contributions and higher predictability of access to crisis-stricken areas.

Kennedy also noted that while protection for humanitarian workers often "goes well or well enough," and that most relief organizations would rather work without military escorts, UN member states would be more likely to involve their citizens in aid efforts if a template for protection could be established. Civilian-military liaisons are always involved in humanitarian responses, Kennedy said, and the coordination between the two parties is improving steadily. While political considerations trump humanitarian considerations 97% of the time, Kennedy remarked that the recent reports authored by the Secretary-General and the UN High-level Panel (HLP) on Threats, Challenges and Change make progress toward altering this trend.

Krista Riddley also juxtaposed tsunami relief efforts to those committed to Africa's forgotten crises. International fundraising resulted in donations of $470 for each person affected by the tsunami, while Africans affected by the floods in Mozambique in 2000 received $0.40 each. Riddley proposed that choices regarding humanitarian aid are often based on political considerations. The consistent exposure of such faulty choices would result in a more efficient and effective distribution of aid.

Riddley made several recommendations that she believes would improve international relief efforts. Adherence to a sphere of standards is critical for maintaining high quality responses. For example, despite having worthy intentions, some volunteers who responded to the tsunami crisis were lacking in the requisite skills. The most challenging crises should be staffed with on-site coordinators who have received the best training and preparation. Riddley emphasized that an emergency coordinator should be responsible for sustaining the impartiality of aid organizations, especially regarding issues of access and security. Agencies also need to integrate "the responsibility to protect" into their mandates, particularly as it concerns the specific needs of women and children.

While Riddley noted the importance of better coordination of humanitarian responses, she also emphasized that political solutions to conflicts should be explored in conjunction with relief efforts. She commended the report of the UN High-level Panel (HLP) on Threats, Challenges and Change for generating discussion about the tenuous relationship between sovereignty and the use of force. She suggested that the Rwandan humanitarian tragedy was exacerbated by the international community's failure to use available tools to resolve the conflict. By establishing international military intervention as a legitimate, albeit last resort to conflict, Riddley said, the report effectively made paramount the protection of civilians.