Interview

Interview: U.N. Undersecretary-General John Holmes

The top humanitarian official for the United Nations tells FP how to do aid in a time of war. Here’s a hint: it’s not pretty.

SAJJAD QAYYUM/AFP/Getty Images
SAJJAD QAYYUM/AFP/Getty Images

What do you do when refugees who need help live under the control of Pakistan’s Taliban or Somalia’s al-Shabab? Send aid, knowing that some of it might fall into the "wrong" hands — or withdraw, leaving thousands or millions in peril? The answer, as U.N. Under-Secretary-General John Holmes told Foreign Policy‘s Elizabeth Dickinson today, is simple: you figure out a way to get the job done — and it might involve talking to the bad guys (yes, that includes the Taliban).

Holmes’s words about humanitarian compromise in AfPak couldn’t come at a more pertinent time. Last week’s attack on the U.N. guesthouse in Kabul has sent the organization packing; at least a portion of the team’s foreign employees will be relocated, possibly outside the country. Meanwhile across the border, the United Nations has been forced to pull out of northwest Pakistan for security reasons, and a suicide bombing that left five U.N. World Food Program employees dead has forced the organization to question how long it can stay on the ground. In both countries, the United Nations and other humanitarians are facing hard choices about how they will deliver aid to millions in need. In his interview, Holmes tells FP about his frustrations with NATO troops and the dangerous melding of military and humanitarian roles. And since the crises don’t stop in South Asia, Holmes touches on the financial crisis, climate change, and Darfur as well.

Foreign Policy: Tell us about the current humanitarian situation in Pakistan, where millions have been displaced recently.

John Holmes: Two and a half million people [were] leaving [the Swat valley] in a very, very short space of time [earlier this summer] — one of the biggest movements that people can remember like that. It was [also] a very unusual situation in that only about 10 percent of those people actually went into camps; most of them were in host communities, and therefore they were harder to reach. We had to be fairly quick in responding and innovative by creating hubs where people could come and collect [food and supplies]. Now, 1.5 million people have gone home but that means 1 million are still there. We [also] have a new wave of people who have come out of South Waziristan — 200,000 or 250,000. They are coming out into an area to which we have no access, so we have to operate through local NGOs.

It is a very complicated aid operation, and now we face very significant security threats to it. The attack on the World Food Program was the Taliban saying, "We do not approve of what you are doing." We have to assume that is not the last attack of its kind we are going to see. We have to reflect carefully on what kind of footprint can we have in Pakistan under the current circumstances. There is no question of pulling out; it is more [about] how much can we still do and how do we do it?

FP: Taking the example of Pakistan, could you walk me through the logistics of an aid operation under such difficult security circumstances?

JH: What you want to do normally is have your international staff on the ground [doing the] coordinating. That is now becoming extremely difficult in Pakistan, so you have to operate more through local staff, who are not more dispensable but are able to operate in ways that are less high profile. Then, you need to find local NGOs which have capacity and independence to operate and are not either too close to the government or too close to the others. [Take for example the] World Food Program: You have stocks of foods that you will ship to various distribution points and then use a local NGO who you trust to be the distributors of that food. Then you might have another NGO who are the monitors for at least some check and a balance — some assurance that whatever you are providing is getting to where it needs to get to and not disappearing off into the markets or into the hands of the Taliban.

But the operating standards will have to drop a bit. If you assume, and we do, that these operations are necessary to keep people alive, then you have to accept those kinds of compromises in order to keep the aid flowing.

FP: In the example of Afghanistan, where some U.N. staff may have to depart due to security concerns, how does that process change, since you are operating on the same turf as NATO forces?

JH: It is very difficult coexisting with a military operation. The problem in Afghanistan is that there is more confusion than we would like between military and civilian roles. So you have the military, particularly the U.S. military, doing development and sometimes saying they are doing humanitarian assistance. And we say, "No, please don’t do that and please don’t say you are doing that, because you are putting in danger the real humanitarians." We have a major issue of liaison, communication and explanation to do with the military. If you [the military] can provide security assistance in a general sense, that is good. But otherwise, it is best left to the humanitarian experts, who will be there after you are gone and therefore need to preserve their independence and their impartiality.

[The civil-military relationship] is not easy in the best of circumstances, and in Afghanistan it is extremely difficult. There are circumstances in which the only way to deliver aid is through the military, particularly in very insecure environments. But that is very much the last resort. Occasionally, they are not delivering it, but we have to deliver [assistance] in a military escort. That is not at all what we want because it can give the impression that the humanitarians have some other political agenda. But sometimes there are no other choices, so you simply have to make those compromises in the interest of actually getting that aid through.

For us to be safe, the vital point to get across is that what we are doing is based on need and has nothing to do with politics. We help people whether they are under Taliban control or government control. We are not rewarding people for being under one or the other. It is a tough message to sell, and there are many people on the other side who do not believe it or choose not to believe it. So we have a major job to do to get that message across to those organizations, like al-Shabab and talk to the Taliban about what we are doing and why we are doing it, to try and persuade them to leave us alone.

FP: How has the U.S. military responded to these concerns?

JH: When we explain [our concerns] either here or [at] NATO or on the ground, people understand it. The difficulty is that the contingents rotate, so you are always dealing with new people. You just got one lot educated about why there is an issue here and then they leave. It is a dispiriting process.

FP: In a similarly rough environment, Somalia, there has been some controversy in the last few weeks, as the U.S. State Department has considered retracting humanitarian aid from Somalia based on concerns of it going to the militant group al-Shabab. How do you balance those concerns?

JH: That’s precisely the calculation we have to make. No one is trying to give any aid or comfort to al-Shabab or any other rebel group. But they are in control of a lot of the territory where people who need the help are, so we can’t avoid having some dealings with them — not political negotiation, but some kind of contact to say, here is a convoy of food coming through, please leave it alone. There are checkpoints with soldiers everywhere, and they often demand money. Who is that money going to? It’s very hard to say, but there are some certain minimum conditions that you cannot avoid. You have 3.5 million people in danger of starving. [W]ho would benefit most from the aid operation stopping because of concerns of aid leakage? Is it the government or is it al-Shabab? [It’s] al-Shabab.

FP:  What hot spots are you looking out for next year?

JH:  Well there are some long-running ones. Our two biggest operations are in Darfur and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and that isn’t going to change, I fear. Darfur is not as much in the news as it was, but it is not any better. The needs are still there, and the political problems are not particularly close to reaching a solution. That is a billion dollar operation, and it is going to stay that way.

FP: Following the global financial crisis, how has your role changed? Is it more difficult to convince donors to help out?

JH: It has not been as much of a problem as we feared it might be. But there is a fear that next year will be more difficult, because the appropriations for 2009 were set in 2008. For 2010, the allocations were being set in 2009, in the middle of the crisis when the fiscal effects were being felt so there is a fear that next year may be tougher.

FP: You have warned this year of the growing danger of humanitarian repercussions of climate change. Going into the Copenhagen climate talks next month, what are the priorities from your perspective?

JH:  The most important thing from our point of view is for people to understand that climate change is a not a future threat; it is a real current issue for many countries and people. I have lost count of the number of African [government] ministers who have come into my room and said, "Yes, we have had floods before, but never like this. The farmers don’t know what to do."

There needs to be a recognition that the humanitarian consequences of climate change are with us now and they will only get worse. The negotiation in Copenhagen needs to concentrate not only on mitigation of emissions, but also on helping countries adapt to climate change.

I think we have succeeded in the last year in getting the message across to the negotiators. The reality is, if there is not a significant adaptation fund, the developing countries won’t sign up [to the agreement].

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