7 October 2008

Humanitarian reform - Speech by Gareth Thomas, UK Minister of State for Development

On Tuesday 7 October, Gareth Thomas spoke in Geneva to humanitarian aid experts from the UN, including UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres. Here is the full text of his speech.

Gareth ThomasWhether it is the Caucasus, or Sub-Saharan Africa, or the Indian sub-continent, millions of lives are lost or devastated each year by humanitarian crises: homes are destroyed, livelihoods ruined, families traumatised forever.

I know that organisations represented in this room play a vital role in getting urgently needed support to those affected, protecting the most vulnerable, and helping people to rebuild their lives in the wake of disaster.

I know that often you have to work in a very dangerous situations and that humanitarian workers have paid the ultimate price. Frankly I marvel at the courage and dedication of your and your colleagues.

And on behalf of the British Government I celebrate and salute your achievements. The many, many lives you have saved. The shelter and food you deliver. The safety and medical help you offer.

What has been welcome is that in the last few years we have seen greater recognition of the crucial role humanitarian organisations play, and the fact that more and better humanitarian assistance is now being delivered.

I want to take this opportunity to not only pay tribute to the work you have already done, the reforms you have put in place, and the progress you have made in getting help more quickly to those in need.

I have no doubt that as a result more lives are being saved.

But I also want to challenge anyone who thinks the task of reform is complete. It isn’t. Yes - we have come a long way. But we have much further to go.

The scale of the humanitarian challenge we face today is greater than ever before.

The number of reported disasters over the last ten years was 60% higher than the previous decade, and in 2006 alone there was a 40% increase in the number of severe floods and natural disasters compared with the average in previous years.

Conflict, climate change, water shortages, scarce natural resources, and rising food prices are all putting increasing pressure on developing countries.

And the poorest - always hit first and hardest – are the least able to protect themselves.

back to topBack to top

Driving reform

The 21st century will increasingly be defined by these new and global challenges; we will see humanitarian disasters occurring with greater frequency and ferocity.

One hundred million additional people are already being pushed further into poverty and hunger by rising food prices; by 2020 up to 250 million people will not have access to enough clean drinking water; and on current trends 170 million additional people will be at risk of hunger and starvation.

We need a humanitarian system that can adapt to these new and greater pressures, and make the most of the resources we have available.

And we need to continue driving reform, so that an under-performing system doesn’t become the limiting factor in our ability to help those in need.

There are, I believe, five key elements essential for improving the international humanitarian response – and finishing the job we started in 2004:

  • Stronger in-country leadership
  • More and better funding
  • Better coordination
  • Greater accountability
  • Sustained political commitment

back to topBack to top


Firstly, humanitarian co-ordinators provide critical leadership on the ground in an emergency. The coordinators in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic demonstrate what strong leadership can achieve.

But of the 42 poor countries most at risk of conflict or natural disaster, one third do not have a humanitarian coordinator. So in some of the worst disasters there is no one on the ground to lead the international response.

That lack of leadership costs lives.

The number of countries vulnerable to disasters is increasing. I believe that globally by 2010 we will need at least 50 coordinators – double the current number – and all with the right humanitarian experience and in-country support – to meet that growing need and provide leadership on the ground in an emergency.

Finding the best people for the job will require a more credible, transparent selection process; we need humanitarian agencies, the Red Cross, and big donors such as ourselves, and NGOs to put forward candidates; we need more candidates from developing countries and more women; and we need to empower the Emergency Relief Coordinator to rigorously monitor performance – rewarding good performers and quickly replacing poor ones.

If the shortage of humanitarian co-ordinators was not a big enough problem, one third of the UN’s 130 plus Resident Co-ordinators are to due retire in the next four years – leaving potentially major gaps in broader UN leadership roles. We need as an international community to prioritise finding people to fill the critical gaps.

back to topBack to top


Secondly, the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) has enabled us to provide vital funding in the most severe humanitarian crises and make more than $400 million a year available to meet urgent needs.

But disasters on the scale of the recent tropical storms in Burma, which displaced over half a million people, illustrate that we are facing unprecedented demand - and existing funds simply aren’t enough.

If we were able to attract new donors and increase the CERF to $1 billion a year by 2010, we could go some way towards meeting that demand.

And just as the CERF enables us to work more effectively at the global level, a single pot of money at country level enables Humanitarian Coordinators to act faster on the ground in a crisis.

The world’s biggest country doesn’t contribute. Over 90 countries are presently contributing to the CERF. European donors are contributing and countries such as Syria, Albania, and Bangladesh. We would welcome American leadership. As it stands the world’s biggest economy does not contribute in line with its economic power.

We saw that in Central African Republic, where pooled funding allowed the Humanitarian Co-ordinator to quickly get money to where it was needed most.

That meant more lives were saved.

I would like to see pooled funding in 80% of countries facing protracted crises by 2010, and greater efforts to ensure our money gets released rapidly to NGOs on the ground to meet urgent needs.

back to topBack to top


Thirdly, in the wake of disaster, poor coordination costs lives. Without a unified response - led by the Humanitarian Coordinator, with lead agencies assigned specific roles – emergency relief won’t reach the people who need it.

In Chad earlier this year, poor coordination meant that drinking water was allocated unfairly and people in desperate need went thirsty.

So I urge agencies to work together better – looking beyond their mandate to support the Humanitarian Coordinator – and for NGOs and the Red Cross to engage more proactively.

I want here to pay tribute to the excellent example set by Save the Children and Merlin in working with the UN to take on cluster leadership.

When we work together and get it right, the results are clear. I think the response to the recent storms in Haiti – where agencies worked together under clear leadership – is a case we can be proud of.

back to topBack to top


Fourthly, an effective response requires people to be held to account for delivery. It is vital that we have the tools in place to tell us whether the assistance we are providing is making a difference on the ground.

Agencies urgently need to put in place standardised monitoring arrangements. And where accountability mechanisms already exist - such as the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International – we must use them more systematically.

back to topBack to top

Political commitment

Fifthly, I said initially that we need to avoid complacency, maintain momentum and keep up the pressure for improvement.

To do that I propose an annual meeting of Ministers, the UN, Red Cross and NGOs at which we can come together to drive progress forward and take key decisions on financing, leadership and coordination – issues which are fundamental to our ability to help people in an emergency.

back to topBack to top

Early recovery

Of course emergency humanitarian response is often only the beginning of a country’s long road to recovery. We must also do a better long-term job of helping countries emerging from conflict and disaster to recover and rebuild shattered lives.

We need to think about long-term recovery sooner, and for the development community to engage earlier. I know this is of great concern to Antonio. It is also a top priority for the UK.

I have set out what I believe are the steps we need to take to make the humanitarian system more effective. We have come along way since 2004, but l believe we must strive to go further. Because if we don’t, the cost of delay, inefficiency and poor coordination in the wake of disaster will be counted in lives.

Back to topBack to top