What I learned from Nepal and the Sahel

BY Robert Piper | October 13, 2015|Comments 0

In my 25 years at the United Nations I have had the fortune to sample a number of the silos for which our institution has become famous. The development. And the humanitarian. I’ve also worked at the intersections – on peacebuilding, on recovery from the tsunami, on the MDGs.
From 2008 – 2013 I was both Resident Coordinator (RC) and Humanitarian Coordinator (HC) in Nepal. Shortly after arriving, I listened to the seismologists who helped me understand the history of plate movement in that part of the world. It was as clear as day that Nepal was due for a substantial earthquake. I visited MPs. I worked on a succession of six Prime Ministers. We brought Mayors from Christchurch, Generals from Pakistan, Marines from Okinawa.

We created the Nepal Risk Reduction Consortium that brought together the Government, the Donors, the International Financial Institutions, the Red Cross movement, the NGOs, the UN – humanitarians and development alike – around a $150 million plan of action. We set about retrofitting schools. Assessing the main hospitals. We built a National Operations Centre. An earthquake proof blood bank. A logistics platform at the airport. We trained thousands of masons.

It was good, but it fell far short of what was required, in the short time available. The death toll from last month’s earthquakes in Nepal is nearing 9,000 (Editor’s note: this post was written in May 2015). 750,000 houses have been damaged or destroyed. When they go back to school tomorrow, 1 million students will be without a classroom. I have seen estimates of a $5 billion reconstruction bill. The Nepal risk reduction effort taught me a lot of things. That there is a crucial role for the UN to play in looking over the horizon at what may be approaching, well beyond the election cycle. That it IS possible to bring together Banks and Humanitarians, Government and Non Government – big coalitions to tackle big issues – if you are practical and clear about the task to be achieved together.

The Nepal effort also taught me that disappearing into the stratosphere of UN jargon is the kiss of death. That risk reduction costs money. It’s important to raise awareness, it’s good to train masons, it’s important to have good policy. But then you have to retrofit thousands of schools. Rebuild dozens of hospitals. All that costs real money – a fraction of what it will cost in money and lives if you fail to do so but real money nonetheless. The link between a policy-savvy and technically-savvy UN and a deep-pocketed World Bank is critical therefore. And finally, that you can take nothing to scale unless you have a Government that decides this is a priority. Frankly, this remained elusive in the political instability that was post-conflict Nepal.

Recently, I finished a stint in the Sahel, coordinating a $2 billion annual humanitarian operation across 9 countries that was responding to two kinds of crisis. One is familiar to us, tied to civil wars that lead to conflict and displacement. The so-called acute emergencies that make it into the news. The second, less familiar, were the chronic emergencies. Chronic emergencies in the Sahel take the form of 20 million food insecure people, 6 million acutely malnourished children, over 17 million people at risk of epidemics like meningitis and Yellow Fever.5348207757_d05b7ce89c_b

600,000 children in the Sahel will die this year due to malnutrition-related causes. If that is not an emergency what is? Yet these numbers are annual, recurrent and tragically predictable. From food insecurity to malnutrition we return year after year to the same regions, to the same communities, even to the same households. The predictability of it challenges our understanding of what makes an emergency an emergency, what divides relief from development, and where to define the limits of humanitarian response.

What is deeply troubling about this phenomenon in the Sahel is that the numbers are growing, inexorably, year by year, and independently of a major weather event. Why? Because the drivers are deeply entrenched and structural. Climate change. Demographic growth. Lack of access to basic health services and clean water. Governance neglect.

Make no mistake: our Sahel humanitarian operation is saving thousands of lives every day. It is vital. But we have watched our appeals grow from $200 million a year to $2 billion a year in 10 years. And $8 billion in emergency aid to the Sahel over the last 10 years won’t get you a reduction in next year’s case load. It won’t reverse the highest fertility rates in the world. It won’t deliver climate-hardy seeds.

The Security Council is engaged. The Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC) is engaged. But where is the major development effort needed that will get to the real drivers of these numbers? What threshold do we need to cross in lives lost or humanitarian and peacekeeping expenditures before the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the wider development community insist on a profound rethink of our development strategies? Backed by the resources needed to translate new ideas into results?

Both my Nepal and Sahel experience contain a few important messages that I think are relevant as we talk about post 2015 and the positioning of the UN system.

  1. First, we desperately need to get serious about prevention. We are not today. You will be well aware that refugee numbers are now the highest since WWII. Globally, humanitarian budgets have soared in the last 10 years from $5 to $18 billion. We are watching countries fall over in slow motion – Mali, Nigeria, CAR – engulfed by insecurity. Nepal’s earthquake is no less the case – we saw it coming without a shadow of a doubt. A post-2015 UN that is ‘fit for purpose’ is in my mind a UN that has overcome its political and institutional shortcomings to put duty of care at the heart of its mandate.
  2. Second, that so many of today’s crises represent profound governance failures. I was often asked what I considered the greatest obstacle to Nepal getting ready for the earthquake? My answer? The absence of Mayors. 15 years without local elections meant 15 years without building code enforcement. 15 years of no one visiting the fire station. No one bothering about school safety. No one enforcing a land zoning plan. No one to be truly accountable at the local level. I was thrilled to see this and other key governance messages embedded in the SG’s MDG synthesis report.
  3.  Third, and finally, that ECOSOC matters. ECOSOC needs to ensure the important does not get crowded out by the urgent. Someone needs to keep their eye firmly on the structural issues that are generating so much fragility and suffering. I regularly attend seminars or retreats on conflict and fragility and the UN system. And invariably it is SRSGs, HCs, political or peacekeeping types sitting around the table. The development community is often completely absent from the room. Yet it is the development community that will have to do the heavy lifting on these issues. The World Bank’s 2011 WDR famously documented the time-frames required to establish rule of law or getting the military out of politics. 41 years, typically, to establish rule of law for example. At some point, briefly, during these prolonged periods of crisis and transition, the file may well be at the Security Council. At some point it may be at the Peacebuilding Commission. But for the vast majority of the time of this transition – for at least 30 of the 40 years it will take to establish rule of law – the file will be at ECOSOC under your oversight. The task will come down to the UN Development System. And the leadership on the ground will depend on a Resident Coordinator leading a UN team with the vision, tools and support you decide to give them.

Nothing could be more important than getting this right.

Editorial note: This post is based on a presentation made by the author in May 2015 during an ECOSOC Dialogue event in New York. 


Robert Piper Robert is the Deputy Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. He was the United Nations Resident Coordinator for Nepal (2008-2013). Follow him on Twitter.

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