Interview with Hansjoerg Strohmeyer: Humanitarian system

“The best insurance policy against politicization is the focus on needs”

Hansjoerg Strohmeyer reminds us that humanitarian principles work and that the most important task for humanitarians is to gain the trust of the communities they serve. He also provides insight on how to improve the humanitarian system, leadership and coordination.

Hansjoerg Strohmeyer is Chief of the Policy Development and Studies Branch at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Read interview transcript
Politicisation of aid

The best insurance policy against politicisation is the focus on needs. While security measures are important, the most important thing that humanitarians need to do, are doing, and have been doing for a hundred years, is to build a trust and acceptance of the communities they’re there to serve. These people believe that we are actually an agent, or an appendix, to a larger political stabilisation, securitisation effort that impacts on our perception in these communities, and ultimately, on our security. Misrata (Libya), for me, is an example of how humanitarian principles work, how clear communications of who we are work, and how we have to refrain from, what we call, politicisation, meaning political affiliations and so on and so forth. We managed, within little more than two weeks, to evacuate over 13,000 third-country nationals from Misrata. We delivered with every ship that went to the harbour of Misrata, humanitarian commodities – food, medicines, water and other needed commodities, without any major incidence and without any military escorts.

Improving the humanitarian system

We all need to focus more on needs-assessments, not only donors demand this, but beneficiaries demand it, governments demand it, and we need to do it to have more effective programming. The interaction with local governments, national governments, local civil society and capacities needs to vastly improve.

What about women? Gender in humanitarian action

I think much more needs to happen and I think we agree, but there are things that have happened, even over this last decade. I think there’s a recognition, for example, many, many years ago, already by the World food Programme, that food distribution for women is a more effective means than it is, sometimes, for men. We’ve recognised now, for many years, that camp settings need to take into account gender-specific needs, sensitivities, concerns, also sometimes related to violence. An important initiative, I’m not saying that’s the ultimate step, but it’s an important step, that more funding – more predictable and secure funding, needs to be provided to gender-specific programming. This is an initiative that the Gender Marker is trying to drive, that a set percentage of programme funding actually goes to specific programmes of a gender-specific nature, focused on women and children.

OCHA: Driving leadership and coordination

We need to do better in building the capacities and identifying the people who would be willing and training them, that is one part. But we also need to make the position of the Humanitarian Coordinator really attractive. It is not attractive to have all the responsibility and ultimately, accountability, but have zero authority, actually, over changing anything. I think we as OCHA recognise that we have a particular responsibility in supporting Humanitarian Coordinators, particularly in this area, communicating explanations, having difficult communications and advocacy around political or protection issues, for example – that can all be done. But I think leadership is this central ingredient that, in a way, makes a country team, in the end, join and relate to common visions, common strategies and priority – all of which is expected from the Humanitarian Coordinator.