‘Affected people should be front and center in humanitarian action and we should be listening to their voices’: An interview with Mark Cutts (UN OCHA)

August 17, 2016

In the lead up to World Humanitarian Day on August 19 the PK Forum is talking to a range of different people about the challenge of localisation in emergency response. Today we talk with Mark Cutts who is the Head of Office for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affair (OCHA) in Myanmar

 
How do you think decisions from the recent World Humanitarian Summit will change OCHA's work in Myanmar? 

 

The first ever World Humanitarian Summit, held in Istanbul in May 2016, was a once in a lifetime opportunity for world leaders to come together with UN agencies, local and international Non-Government Organizations, Civil Society and representatives of affected communities to agree on priorities and principles for humanitarian action. Few events have brought together such a diverse range of actors.  An 18-strong delegation from Myanmar including Government, Non-Government Organizations and civil society representatives attended the Summit. In Istanbul, the global humanitarian community was reminded that affected people should be front and center in humanitarian action and that we should be listening to their voices. There was global consensus that we should be spending more on disaster preparedness and disaster risk reduction to reduce the need for humanitarian response and that we should be better at funding and working with local organizations to support crisis responses.  On Myanmar’s part, it was great to hear the Government commit to increased investment in disaster preparedness at the summit and restate its commitment to principled humanitarian access to conflict zones.  All of these commitments and priorities give us a framework for humanitarian action in Myanmar, not just for OCHA, but for the entire humanitarian community. This is the start of a conversation, not the end. We now have to talk locally about how we can make good on these commitments and priorities. Much of the work is already underway, particularly in terms of improving funding for local humanitarian organizations, but the Summit gives us new momentum to push ahead with these ideas and make them a reality.

 

There was considerable support amongst local and international NGOs in Myanmar for the Charter for Change following the World Humanitarian Summit. The Charter contains some broad themes but also a very specific target of 20% of humanitarian funding going to national organizations. Do you support the Charter for Change? 

 

In its report to the UN Secretary-General in January 2016, the High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing highlighted the fact that globally only 0.2 % of reported humanitarian funding was channeled directly to local NGOs in 2014. This has to change. In Istanbul, local NGOs and Civil Society Organizations were vocal in advocating for the international system to be redesigned to be more inclusive of them and their enormous contribution to humanitarian response. In Myanmar this argument is a strong one. In Kachin and Shan States, local organizations are already central to providing vital humanitarian relief to those in need as they have greater access to affected communities. When flooding strikes in Myanmar during the annual monsoon, a complex network of local organizations and groups swings into action, moving people and food to dry ground and supporting people who are displaced. When a natural disaster strikes or conflict breaks out in Myanmar, it is always the local NGOs and civil society who are the first to respond. To continue this vital work, local organizations need a strong voice at the humanitarian table, they need to receive funding more directly, and they need international humanitarian organizations to invest more in assisting their efforts and building their capacity. The Charter for Change was one of several important initiatives launched at the World Humanitarian Summit which aimed to address these issues. OCHA was a champion of the ‘Grand Bargain’, which is an agreement between the 15 largest humanitarian donors and 16 aid agencies, including the 3 INGO consortia and the Red Cross, to change the way we work. The Grand Bargain goes even further than the Charter for Change in terms of local funding. It establishes a goal that by 2020 at least 25 % of humanitarian funding will be distributed to local and national responders, as directly as possible, to improve outcomes for affected people and reduce transactional costs. When it comes to the Myanmar Humanitarian Fund, which is administered by OCHA, we already aim to disburse 50% of grants to National NGOs (both directly and indirectly). We have some way to go before achieving these targets but our efforts are very much in sync with what is being advocated in the Charter for Change. 

 

In a future humanitarian response if UN resources were placed under local leadership, what do you think would be the main differences from recent responses? 

 

We are already taking steps to ensure that local humanitarian organizations are not just seen as project implementers, but as equal partners and decision-makers in our joint response efforts. For example, this year for the first time we invited representatives from local NGOs and the Myanmar Red Cross Society to become members of the Humanitarian Country Team, which is a strategic and operational decision-making forum for the UN and its partners.  I already see that our humanitarian responses have been enhanced by their knowledge and analysis.  After all, local organizations are usually the first and last responders to any crisis, with deep roots in their communities and national staff who have an unmatched capacity to navigate the local context. These local organizations are also able to respond more quickly and efficiently due to their extensive in-country networks and lower overheads. Working more closely with them makes good sense and enhances our ability to respond to the needs of affected people which is our overriding goal. This is very much in line with the comments made by the founder of Myanmar’s Metta Development Foundation, Daw Lahpai Seng Raw, at the World Humanitarian Summit where she noted that the most effective way to improve the way we respond to humanitarian need is by tapping into the existing capacity of local actors and their relationships with the governments and communities where they work.

 

There seems to be a tension in the role of OCHA in any process of 'localization'. On one hand OCHA is a key stakeholder, yet on the other hand it would seem odd for OCHA to be leading a discussion on local leadership. How will OCHA navigate that tension? 

 

Yes, of course the conversation about localization needs to be led by local organizations. In our coordination role, OCHA can facilitate this discussion between local and international organizations to help ensure the humanitarian community is living up to the commitments made in Istanbul.  OCHA also has a role to play in designing funding systems which are accessible to local organizations and working with them so that they can have a louder voice at the table. Daw Lahpai Seng Raw said in Istanbul we should be working with local organizations, not around them. She’s right. International Organizations in Myanmar have already been applying this principle for some time but there is more work to do. 

 

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