‘The Humanitarian System is Making an Effort to Understand the Changes that Need to be Made” – an Interview with Oliver Lacey-Hall

The fourth in our series of interviews finds us chatting with Oliver Lacey-Hall, the current head of the Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). With over 25 years experience in humanitarian work, Oliver previously acted as Deputy Director of OCHA’s Communications and Information Services Branch in New York and has worked in China, Viet Nam, Indonesia, Iraq, Croatia, Armenia and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Development Programme, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the European Commission. He also managed the UN’s Disaster Assessment and Coordination Team for Asia Pacific, was responsible for OCHA’s information management team and spearheaded development of OCHA’s surge capacity mechanisms. You can follow him on Twitter @OliverLaceyHall


TiP:         You’ve been working in the field of DRR and humanitarian response for a number of years. What have been some of the highlights of your career so far?

OLH:      Well, firstly a lot of the highlights have also been what one might describe as lowlights, where working in some really difficult situations were, at the time, very tough but, with hindsight, were situations where I felt that my work and that of my organsiation made a difference. I actually started out in the humanitarian field after flunking out of university at the end of my first year, having reached the conclusion that I had made the wrong decision about the course of study I had followed. My grandmother took me in hand and had me volunteer at a local reception centre for Vietnamese boat people, where I taught English for a couple of years. I was then made a full time staff member of the quite small (and now no longer existing) NGO that was handling reception and resettlement for Vietnamese boat people (this was back in 1981). The simple act of preparing these people for life in the UK was pretty much a highlight of my early career. The fact that I remain in touch with many of them 25 years later, and have seen them and their children (and now grandchildren!) thrive has been a great long-term experience.

Besides that I’ve worked in a number of countries on a number of issues in my now 25 years in the humanitarian sphere. Other highlights would likely include working on refugee return in Croatia. This was shortly after the conclusion of the 1995 Dayton Accords, where the Balkan Governments were not terribly keen on moving to implement the accords at speed. I worked at the time for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). There was a tightly-knit group of (relatively) young people who worked across international organisations and Embassies in Zagreb. We rapidly recognised that we would be far more effective if we worked together on the key issue of refugee return. I would say that this is the one time in my professional career where the diplomatic and humanitarian communities worked in complete harmony – each respecting the others space and principles, but working to a common end. Through hard work and a lot of political legwork the government was persuaded to develop a programme for refugee return which enabled many of the innocent victims of the conflict to return home over a period of years.

Work in Indonesia after the conclusion of the Hyogo Framework of Action (HFA), where I was employed by UNDP. We worked closely with the government on the development of its strategic national action plan and the thinking around the establishment of the national disaster management agency (Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Bencana – BNPB), which is now a robust and increasingly confident institution in a country that really needs strong disaster management capacity. Recently we arranged for colleagues from a nascent disaster management agency to travel to Indonesia to see what they could learn from the Indonesian experience. This was pretty satisfying – to see Indonesia now being regarded as a leader in regional thinking on effective disaster management.

Revamping OCHA’s communications work during my time as Deputy Chief of Communications and Information Services. It may sound pretty un-humanitarian, sitting in the New York office, a long way from the action; but a great deal of what we have to do as humanitarians is to communicate principles, needs, protection concerns, capacities, data and a long list of other priorities, and to do this as quickly and robustly as we can. I worked with a great team of innovators. We standardised OCHA’s situation reporting, revamped the website, got ourselves up to date on the use of video and film, developed a culture of “telling the story”, made our way into the social media sphere at a time when everyone was really quite nervous about this. We also started work on the development of a humanitarian data exchange (https://data.hdx.rwlabs.org/) – a huge project which is now coming to fruition, and which aims to collate data and information in one place – no mean achievement when one thinks of the diversity of data and information available from multiple sources.

Watching and supporting the emergence of regional capacity to manage disasters, as we are seeing in South East Asia with ASEAN. Capacity and related resources are still quite modest, but ambition is huge. The appetite to do the same for conflict management requires greater impetus, but the fact that regional organisations are increasingly being turned to represents a challenge for current notions of humanitarian action, and presents opportunities for a rethink of how we do things. I have been lucky enough to be a part of the discussions that are taking place on this and to help shape the international humanitarian response to this shifting reality. In a meeting OCHA held last year we drilled down into six key areas which we see as having a major impact on the evolution of international humanitarian action in the part of the world that I now live and work in (Asia). These were public-private partnerships; cash transfer programming; communications with affected communities; technology and humanitarian innovation; and working in conflict settings and urban settings. Recognising that things are changing and trying to anticipate how we move forward in a way that meets needs and mitigates risk have become key priorities. OCHA is doing some good work on this and I am very proud to be associated with it. (For more on this see: http://bit.ly/1gvVNun and http://bit.ly/1jvSve5.)

And then there are the individual stories: seeing two unaccompanied children return to their home in Vietnam after I tramped down a beach for two hours to see their father and reason with him that their best interests were not served by living in a boat people camp in Hong Kong waiting for resettlement to a third country that would likely never come. Visiting Aceh shortly after the 2004 tsunami with a senior UN official. We met a 65 year old woman who had lost her entire family, home, possessions, everything. This official had seen everything, but left the meeting with this woman in tears, vowing to do everything in her power to help with the rebuilding process – and she did. Getting light and heat into a dormitory for Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan in 1994 and joining in the joyful dancing once it was done. Realising, at my now somewhat advanced age that I know something about how DRR and humanitarian action work – and still having enthusiasm to try and make a difference despite the sometimes seemingly insurmountable challenges that we face in making the system work.

TiP: You have been deeply involved in The World Humanitarian Summit (www.worldhumanitariansummit.org), which was initiated earlier this year to gather inputs from all regions on how to reshape humanitarian aid. Effectively, this is a global lessons learned process. What makes this process different from other initiatives to harness lessons to inform humanitarian aid?

OLH:      I am not sure that I agree with the analysis that this is ONLY a global lessons learned process. The UN Secretary-General has called for this Summit not simply to learn lessons but to try and chart a forward course for global humanitarian action. Perhaps that’s why you’re asking what makes this process different.  I think there are a few things: The goal of the Summit, and the process leading up to it, is to find new ways to tackle humanitarian needs in our fast-changing world. The summit will set a new agenda for global humanitarian action. It will focus on humanitarian effectiveness, reducing vulnerability and managing risk, transformation through innovation, and serving the needs of people in conflict. The conversation is designed to be global – making heavy use of the web for a series of online discussions around the key themes – and there are some quite lively discussions going on. The process is designed to try and hear new voices, to get beyond a discussion about humanitarian action ONLY with humanitarian agencies and to hear the views and opinions of people on the receiving end of humanitarian assistance, to bring in academia, civil society organisations, people who have been affected by conflicts and disasters, military personnel who work on disaster response, as well as NGOs (national, regional, international) and, of course, humanitarian agencies and governments. The reality is that the 2014 international humanitarian system is very different from GA Resolution 46/182 (http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/46/a46r182.htm) created back in 1991, but new actors are not yet included in the decision-making processes. There are a series of face to face meetings taking place around the world between now and May 2016. For North and South-East Asia we held a consultative meeting in July this year (http://www.worldhumanitariansummit.org/whs_NSE_asia) and came up with a number of quite far-reaching recommendations which will be taken forward to the Summit in 2016, in Istanbul. Clearly these recommendations were based on lessons learned.

Perhaps the difference between this exercise and previous exercises is the need to move on, as well as the appetite for change. This quite large sector (the Annual Appeal for 2014 comes in at around USD 19 billion) is poorly regulated. The funding gap between needs and donations is growing. While there is a lot of rhetoric around preparedness for response, funding flows remain stubbornly focused on resourcing large scale disaster responses rather than working on reducing exposure to risk through better preparedness. Links between humanitarian action and recovery and development remain poorly defined and agreed at all levels. The cost of global humanitarian action is increasing year on year; resources to meet those needs are not growing at the same speed. The private sector is playing an increasing role in humanitarian work.

And there are a host of other issues. So the Summit aims to use the lessons we have either learned or, perhaps more accurately, NEED to learn, to reboot the system and make it fit for the very considerable challenges we see ahead (and in some cases which are already upon us).

But this will require real engagement in this process and I don’t sense that we have universal buy-in across the currently defined humanitarian system on this. In the consultations that have been held so far local voices are being heard far more clearly than those of the traditional system, where organisational interests may well skew analysis and, if we are not very careful, drown out the voices of those on the front end of humanitarian action; the national NGOs and local civil society organisations that are responsible for an increasing amount of actual implementation on the ground.

TiP: There was a very interesting and enlightening article recently by Steven Zyck (http://www.odi.org/comment/8881-pakistan-floods-markets-analysis-shelter-humanitarian-mistakes) which uses a case study in humanitarian response in Pakistan to highlight how lessons are learned during one emergency, but are not applied in the next. There are many factors, but the main issue is the management of humanitarian response. The same applies to accountability in humanitarian response, as discussed in an essay by Michel Dikkes in this Journal (http://theory-in-practice.net/?p=463). Based on your own experiences, what is your opinion on these arguments? What do you feel is the biggest challenge in putting lessons learned into practice?

OLH:      This is a great question – and very timely. I don’t have any issue with the Zyck and Dikkes articles – both of which offer a thorough perspective on how our interventions often skew market forces and that we haven’t made as much progress as we would like to have on “accountability” – and I use quotation marks there on purpose, because I am not sure that we are agreed yet on what that means. But on both of these issues the system is making some efforts to understand the changes that need to be made.

Notwithstanding Zyck’s points around high turnover of staff and the tension between the need for speed and the need to be sensitive, the establishment of the cash learning project (http://www.cashlearning.org/) and the increasing use of cash and vouchers in disasters (as we saw in the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan last year) are an indication of things to come. Admittedly cash progamming isn’t a universal panacea but it is a recognition that we need to change how we programme. Truckloads of food and non-food supplies brought in from outside disrupt markets just as much as unwise local bulk procurement practices. But the Cash Learning Project shows that careful and sensitive programming may well be a game-changer for how humanitarian action works in the future. (See http://reliefweb.int/report/world/review-cash-transfer-programming-and-cash-learning-partnership-calp-2005-2015-and)

And let’s remember that people are more informed and engaged than was possible even 10 years ago. In Haiti after the earthquake in 2010 the going rate to charge your phone for 15 minutes was 40 gourdes, or one US dollar – that’s a day’s salary in Port au Prince. Here’s a question: when you think of your daily priorities, how much of your salary would you devote to charging your phone? Now put yourself into the position of someone sitting in the middle of the devastation wreaked by that earthquake and think about the question again. You’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, everything you know is upside down and you don’t have a clue what’s happening, where to access services, find food, medicine, water. Think how your need for information would change in that situation.

A friend of mine, who knows a lot more about communications with disaster affected communities, interviewed a Somali woman in Kenya during the famine last year and was told “we might not have been able to afford lunch, but we have mobile phones”. The poorest people in the world are choosing to put the tiny resources they have into mobile communications.

People want to make decisions about their own destinies – on the basis of the best available information. And so while the argument may be around accountability in the current humanitarian discourse and the IASC Commitments to Accountability to Affected People, I think we need to simplify the discussion and go a lot further in terms of actually walking the walk rather than just talking the talk. What may be more useful is to describe process – getting information to people, letting them digest that information and, on the basis of their conclusions, offer support. For me that should be the root of accountability. Of course, it’s not that simple – there are many other facets to this. BUT we don’t really have the mechanisms in place to collectively inform people of what the options are at the front end of an emergency – and perhaps we can’t in those first couple of weeks when the imperative must to be save as many lives as possible. But thereafter there is a need to get a great deal smarter. Technology can help – but only that. This is about commitment to systemic change and I am sorry to say that I think we are still quite some way off.  We are risk averse when it comes to research and development. Often this is because it’s easier to carry on as we were, but usually because the resources aren’t there to research new ideas and new ways of working. Investment in “humanitarian research and development” is pretty poor.

My sense is that while we are struggling to understand how to deal with these issues the changes will be forced upon us by increasingly engaged people on the receiving end of our assistance. Humanitarian organisations are inherently adaptable and flexible – but I do wonder whether the current humanitarian “system” will actually survive in its present form. As Dikkes notes the incentives are actually skewed in favour of maintaining the status quo. So donors (and the people they represent) need to rethink what REALLY constitutes value for money. They and the Monitoring and Evaluation people need to likely acknowledge that results need to be qualitative as well as quantitative.

And humanitarian organisations need to use the opportunity presented by the World Humanitarian Summit for a global rethink on how to work in this 21st century world.

TiP:         The SPHERE Standards are basically the minimum conditions that international and domestic actors must meet when operating in a humanitarian and recovery environment. These are global standards and are important to ensure some consistency, and accountability, in the delivery of aid. However, because they are global, they do not necessarily make the most sense or respond to context-specific issues in individual emergencies. For example, during the 2013 tsunami in Solomon Islands, international humanitarian actors were focused on ensuring that proper toilets were being provided for affected communities. In this context, the affected communities did not even have modern toilets to start with, and significant time and resources were used on an issue that was not important to the community. Certainly this is not the only case of the gap between community expectations and the SPHERE Standards. In your opinion, should SPHERE be a guide rather than a rule? Is it more important that community needs and expectations are being met rather than abiding by international practice that is not entirely relevant in a given context?

Yes. Maybe the starting point here is the humanitarian charter, which states in article 8:

“We offer our services in the belief that the affected population is at the centre of humanitarian action, and recognise that their active participation is essential to providing assistance in ways that best meet their needs, including those of vulnerable and socially excluded people. We will endeavour to support local efforts to prevent, prepare for and respond to disaster, and to the effects of conflict, and to reinforce the capacities of local actors at all levels”.

If the aim is to ensure consultation with affected people then the delivery of the portable loos you reference in your question probably shouldn’t have taken place but something more appropriate to the local context should have been developed.

SPHERE was, and remains, a highly consultative process. Its governance board comes from across the planet and there are SPHERE focal points in many countries around the world. So I think efforts have been made to contextualise the way SPHERE works. But what I have discovered is that there really is no “one size fits all”. Whether we’re talking about a strategic action plan on disaster management, a school building, text books, water and sanitation equipment, data collection or anything else, different people have different ways of doing things in different countries. My sense is that we strive for global standards because we see a need for order. But often the reality is that our definition of standards is skewed by our personal preferences, by our socio-cultural positioning and a host of other factors.

SPHERE is a worthy endeavour; it provides technical standards based on the Humanitarian Charter.  Sadly, despite the lofty ambitions of the charter, there is no universally agreed accountability standard – and that is an area where we may want to focus a bit more attention. Accountability standards SHOULD be universal, for if we subject ourselves to common accountability standards then the issue of how we provide assistance to people will be driven by commonly agreed standards with the recipients of assistance, rather than technical standards put into place largely by, well, technicians.

TiP:         A more personal question: humanitarian emergencies are devastating not only for the affected communities, but also for the emergency responders. Over time, it takes a toll. What drives you to continue in this field? How do you cope with the extensive suffering that you have witnessed? What advice would you give to newcomers to the field of humanitarian response (and development more generally)?

OLH:      I’ve done this work since I flunked out of university (but I did go back for a few years later on and get my degree!) and so it is what I am used to. I’ve had a couple of times when I really felt burned out. After the bombing of the UN Office in Iraq: I wasn’t there at the time but was deployed the day after the bombing with the response team that was sent in to keep the mission running. Working, eating and sleeping in the metal container offices right next to the bombed out UN office was an experience I won’t forget in a hurry. Similarly, nine months in Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami took their toll. Instinct on both occasions was to stop and take some time out. So I went home to the UK, disconnected the phone, switched off the email and spent a few weeks being as normal a person as I could. There are people in our business who go from one high pressure emergency to the next – and seem to thrive on it. I am not one of those people. I need to take time away, to recharge the batteries and then to carry on. There is a certain bravado amongst humanitarian workers; in my view it’s pretty unhealthy. Certainly more is being done to try and ensure that burned out aid workers get the help they need, even when they can’t see that they need it. My friend, Amy Brathwaite, went through some very tough experiences in Haiti. She has been working to look more closely at the issue of ad-worker stress and has filmed a short documentary which readers might like to take a look at: http://www.amybrathwaite.com/kick-at-the-darkness/.

I guess I continue in this field of work because the work needs to be done, because the world is an imperfect place and because I still believe that what I do contributes in some way to making it a little bit better. That may sound either trite or egotistical, or both (depending upon your perspective) but it’s how I see it. Humanitarian work has offered me amazing opportunities to influence national, regional and even global agendas, like the World Humanitarian Summit process. It has taken me to places I could never have dreamed of going to and doing things that very few people have had the chance to do. Spending two years working in North Korea, tramping down beaches in communist Viet Nam in the late 1980s to monitor the return of unaccompanied children to their parents after the trauma of detention camps in Hong Kong, walking through minefields in Croatia to get assistance to people, being fired at in Iraq just for being there, seeing, hearing and smelling death, witnessing amazing dedication and humanitarian spirit in government officials; witnessing unparalleled greed and corruption by other government officials – seeing the best and the worst of human spirit.  And for all of those experiences and many more I am very grateful. I have had a fulfilled professional life – and I know it.

And to newcomers I suppose the message is that it needs to be all about the people. So much of what we do is now about the process rather than the people. Humanitarian action should not be about red tape and bureaucracy, but it is becoming increasingly so. Our leeway to be creative and innovative, to find simple solutions, is being gradually eroded by those who demand tangible results against ever more complicated M&E frameworks and risk matrices, until we find ourselves spending more time on satisfying donor requirements than getting the job done. My hope would be that newcomers will push back against this and regain the ground that people of my ilk (me included) seem to have lost to notions of taxpayer accountability. As I said earlier, accountability needs to be to the people we serve, and the people we serve are those who are affected by the horrors of man’s inhumanity to man.

TiP:         Thank you!

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