London School of Economics and Political Science: Reform the system to provide better humanitarian aid

The need for humanitarian aid has exploded in recent years, putting increasing strain on a global humanitarian system that urgently needs reform, and is still too often focused on fixing the symptoms of crises, rather than their root causes. Without change and adequate anticipatory measures, these vast external pressures will only continue to grow, overwhelm and hinder efforts. However, with a refocus of priorities and sustained financial reform, humanitarian organisations can become more successful at serving vulnerable global populations.

This is the message made by former United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and current LSE Visiting Professor in Practice Sir Mark Lowcock in his book Relief Chief: Saving Lives in Dire Times.

One of the worlds most distinguished and senior international public servants, Sir Lowcock has spent over 35 years leading and managing responses to humanitarian crises across the globe.

In Relief Chief, which was the focus of a public lecture at LSE, Sir Lowcock walks readers through his four-year tenure as the world’s most senior humanitarian official: the leader of the United Nations’ emergency and humanitarian response teams – colloquially known as the UN Relief Chief. Between 2017 and 2021 Lowcock held this position, and co-ordinated global efforts to save lives and reduce human suffering during an unpresented spike of humanitarian need.

While there are huge challenges posed by numerous, competing global emergencies, there are also concrete opportunities for introducing positive change, says Sir Lowcock.

Aid systems must also more adequately look at, and attempt to address, the causes of crises, such as poverty and population growth, stresses on environmental assets and poor governance, he says, arguing in the book that these are still too often unaddressed by the global humanitarian system. As a result, programmes tend to respond solely to the symptoms of crises – such as the forced movement of people and emergency aid.

Modernising humanitarian finance is another core mandate Sir Lowcock presents. Humanitarian responses are very reactive, though they do not have to be, he says. Many problems we are faced with can be predicted. Therefore, applying insurance-based concepts of anticipatory action in practice can result in better, cheaper and more humane emergency responses.

Acknowledging the difficulty aid agencies face when navigating complex political environments, he also emphasises how necessary it is to engage with political actors, in order to operate effectively and do the necessary work. In his speech, he cites examples in which managing important political relationships and negotiating access to those in crisis can be at odds with calling out the atrocities of governments. Though this must be done, he says, moral clarity, utilitarian principles and pragmatism can provide a framework through which engagement with countries in need can be both strategic and ethical.

“Those living in and through humanitarian crises, are the same as the rest of us,” said Sir Lowcock in his speech. “They share our hopes, dreams, and aspirations, as well as our anxieties and fears.” In Relief Chief, he tells many of their stories.