Justine Greening: A humanitarian system for the 21st Century

Speech delivered by the Secretary of State for International Development at the World Bank spring meetings.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

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Good afternoon. It’s a pleasure to be here with others who I know are so committed to the vital issue of disaster resilience.

I’d firstly like to thank Rachel Kyte from the World Bank for being our host today. It was a year ago that Rachel, Helen Clarke, Valerie Amos and I visited Haiti in our role as Political Champions for Disaster Resilience… and I know how passionate Rachel is about tackling the causes and consequences of climate change.

I’d also like to thank Matt Frei, of the UK’s Channel Four News, for chairing this meeting.

When you look around the world today you see the humanitarian system being pushed to its limits…

  • In Syria, Central Africa Republic and South Sudan, where conflict rages.

  • In the Sahel, where a protracted crisis has led to chronic food insecurity.

  • And in the Philippines, recently devastated by Typhoon Haiyan.

With humanitarian need quadrupling in the last decade, there is a growing gap between needs and resources.

And the reality is that we are facing ever more demands on the system, as we deal with the effects of a changing climate, growing populations, conflict and extremism.

The scale of the challenge that climate change presents was laid bare in last week’s publication of the latest Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change report.

We know that the likelihood of more droughts and more floods will also mean that future food supplies get threatened, invariably hurting the poorest.

There are also increasing challenges around getting aid to civilians under fire with humanitarian access in conflicts like South Sudan shrinking.

This is why the UN Secretary General has called a World Humanitarian Summit for 2016 and why it is so important that in the lead up to 2016 we hold the same level of discussion on how we address humanitarian need, as we are currently having about the post-2015 development goals.

So holding this discussion, in this forum, is absolutely vital. And I’m delighted to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate and set out today what the UK sees as some of the key challenges and opportunities ahead.

At DFID, we are currently taking a comprehensive look at our own humanitarian work, to see how we can make our responses even faster and more efficient.

We have identified five key overlapping areas that need our attention and focus. But these are also key issues for the international community to grapple with in the build-up to the 2016 Summit.

Preparing for disaster

The first crucial area is preparation.

For the most part, disasters are no longer the unexpected cataclysms of old. The science of predicting and understanding risk is getting better every day.

Bangladesh is the most famous example of countries being increasingly prepared to deal with disaster.

In 1970, Cyclone Bhola killed half a million people in Bangladesh, the largest number of people killed in a tropical storm ever. In 2008 the same magnitude of storm in the same area killed 3,400 people. The difference was that in the intervening years Bangladesh had built a comprehensive system of disaster management.

And only last week I had the chance to visit China’s excellent National Disaster Reduction Centre in Beijing which is working with DFID to further improve resilience in Bangladesh.

Yet in spite of the world’s efforts, current global investment in emergency preparedness is woefully low.

An analysis of 12 low-income countries over a 20-year period revealed that while these countries had received 5.6 billion dollars of funding for disaster response, they had each received less than 10 million dollars for disaster risk reduction.

So we urgently need larger, sustained investment in preparedness and resilience. This is the right moment to be looking at this with the successor to the Hyogo (He-ogo) Framework for Action for disaster risk reduction due to be agreed in Japan next year.

Today I’m announcing that Britain will fund a £40million Disasters and Emergencies Preparedness Programme to improve significantly the quality and speed of humanitarian response in countries at risk of natural disaster or conflict related humanitarian emergencies.

This funding will go toward training and development for local humanitarian workers at national level. National preparedness systems will also be strengthened and plans for at-risk areas improved. This includes better early warning systems and communication channels to let workers know when there’s a risk and what they can do to protect their communities.

I am also pleased to announce today that my department is investing £20million in the first ever joint UNICEF and World Food Programme disaster preparedness project, which will improve the effectiveness of humanitarian responses in 11 high risk countries and regions including Pakistan and the Philippines.

This is about stocking and pre-positioning relief items locally so humanitarian responses can kick off immediately after disaster hits.

I’m also keen to help scale up the level of insurance in lower income countries using public-private partnerships, showing too that there is definitely a role for the market in being better prepared. In developing countries just 5% of direct losses are insured compared to 40% in developed countries.

As part of the Political Champions agenda, this July I will host a meeting in London with key insurance companies and donors to mobilise resources for a set of insurance investment plans being developed, including for the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan.

Supporting national and local leadership

The second area we’ve identified is supporting national and local leadership in emergencies.

At the moment, international response to disasters tends towards a one-size-fits-all approach. I believe we need to re-think how we tailor the response to different situations.

For natural disasters the primary aim must be - as much as possible - to support countries to manage disasters by themselves, drawing on civil society and private sector support.

My department is already contributing up to £30million over 3 years to the START fund, a network of NGOs which will provide fast, small-scale funding to frontline Civil Society Organisations, particularly during the more low-profile, underfunded emergencies.

This will also free up the UN to focus its resources and expertise on the most critical missions where a national or local response simply isn’t possible or sufficient.

Need-driven aid

The third important area we’ve identified is the need to create a more accountable, transparent and demand driven system built around the needs of the most vulnerable.

This will sound obvious, but for years there has been a tendency to do what we think is best for people, rather than listening to their needs.

Girls and women in particular have suffered from a failure to get to grips with their specific needs during emergencies.

In the past, even simple but important steps for preventing violence such as having separate toilets for women that can be locked from the inside and adequate lighting at night have been forgotten.

Last November, Governments, the UN, NGOs and Civil Society came together in London at our Call to Action event, to sign a ground-breaking communique which is based on the principle that keeping girls and women safe is a critical priority in an emergency.

But I think we can do much more to empower those who are affected during emergencies to shape the response they need.

Increasingly it is the people we help who should be driving how we work. But in order to do this people affected by disaster need to know who is helping them and what they are supposed to be doing.

DFID has led the way on aid transparency amongst donors. We were the first to publish data to the new standard from the International Aid Transparency Initiative and our online Development Tracker tool allows people to see exactly how the UK invests in developing countries.

The UK will also be piloting a new accountability monitoring system in emergencies, which will particularly look at how we can use technology to allow people affected by disaster to make their voices heard quickly and effectively.

A 21st Century response

This brings me on to the fourth area I want to raise today. As humanitarian need grows it is clear we need to find new and innovative approaches, building a 21st Century approach to disaster.

It’s vitally important that we are taking advantage of new opportunities through technology, particularly mobile phone technology.

After the Haiti earthquake, aid workers used the ‘crowd sourcing’ software Ushahidi to locate pockets of need.

And we can expect this trend to continue. As more and more people across the planet own mobile phones, we will increasingly be able to work out in real-time where there is the greatest need and what people actually need during emergencies.

Though not every innovation we invest in will be hi-tec. Sometimes it’s about getting the basics absolutely right. So at DFID we will continue to invest in innovations like stronger, more flexible shelter kits.

Innovation is also about the way we do things, and one of the best ways of supporting populations affected by disasters is to keep local economies and supply chains - the means by which people ordinarily get their food and other essentials – flowing as normally as possible. So while communities are rebuilding and getting their household incomes back on track, it makes sense to ensure people have money in their own pockets for life’s essentials.

Cash-based schemes provide people with choice so if they need a blanket rather than a cooking pot they can purchase what they really need. Over the winter just gone, we are funding jointly with ECHO a winter distribution in Lebanon in order for Syrian refugees to buy cooking stoves and fuel.

They can also be more cost effective because they cut down dramatically on storage, management and distribution costs.

And today I can reveal that DFID will commission an expert panel of leading finance, technology and aid experts to assess how cash-based assistance can best be delivered in emergencies and in particular how we ensure we have the institutional arrangements to move fast.

The development challenge

The final, critical area I want to highlight today is the development challenge for countries that we know are vulnerable to disaster and conflict.

These are the places where extreme poverty will increasingly be focused.

And since we know we’ll be involved in assisting people in crisis for some time to come, it is right that we take a long-term, joined-up approach to predictable and protracted problems.

So this is what DFID is doing. In Ethiopia, for instance, we have set up so-called safety net schemes. These identify where communities are likely to be vulnerable to bad harvests or other shocks and ensure we can intervene to prevent starvation and help out before situations deteriorate even further.

Such schemes have so far proved extremely cost effective, and in 2011 prevented the drought in Ethiopia from becoming a food security crisis.

I can confirm today that we are also scaling up this approach in the Sahel by allocating £47million towards a new trust fund managed by the World Bank, working with Burkina Faso’s Government, and in Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal and Niger.

And I know the UN is also starting to take this approach through multi-year planning.

But we still need to do more. And that means working smarter.

A recent Overseas Development Institute report points out that too often our funding instruments for developing countries - be it humanitarian, development or climate finance - are working in isolation of each other.

We urgently need to break down these barriers.

And I would like to set a challenge today. My department is willing to work with one or two at-risk, but committed, countries to come up with a long term plan of what it would really take to build preparedness and resilience.

This would see us integrating current and future planned finance from the humanitarian, development and climate change community, identifying the principal gaps and financing them. I hope the World Bank together with the UN and others will be part of this challenge.

And I hope to pilot this approach in the right country with the right partners soon.


I’ve set out some of the issues our humanitarian system is facing today, but there is no doubt that there are many more questions we need to ask ourselves ahead of the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit.

Our humanitarian system does great work, there is no doubt about that. And the UN has done a hugely impressive job trying to keep pace with growing humanitarian need, and reducing the death toll from disasters.

But as I’ve outlined today, the demands on the system are getting greater. And when the scale and variety of challenges we face are combined, it is clear that we are running out of time to get our collective act together.

Our current humanitarian system is too fragmented. UN agencies understandably want to maintain their independence but none of us want it to be at the expense of a less effective response.

A streamlined, effective international system led by a strong UN is in all our interests, as are well-coordinated donors prepared to commit funding in advance to give the UN the best chance of doing a good job.

We also saw great improvements in the international response to the Philippines, but we all still have further to go.

So - as I’ve set out today - tackling humanitarian need is not the sole prerogative of the humanitarian system. We need greater emphasis on supporting host governments and local civil society to prepare for and manage disaster themselves.

And it’s critical that we build long-term approaches in fragile and vulnerable states, blending development and humanitarian finance. That’s the challenge for all of us.

We need to ask tough questions, try radical new approaches and scale up the best solutions.

The neediest, most vulnerable people on the planet are depending on us and we can’t let them down.

Published 15 April 2014