Former U.N. 'relief chief' shares his secret for coping with crises: a 'sunny gene'
It's a grueling and grinding job.
Mark Lowcock has spent nearly 40 years getting critical help to those suffering through a variety of crises: civil wars, famine, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Along the way, he says he confronted "an enormous, horrifying catalog of human misery and human brutality toward other human beings."
How does he find the strength to keep on going?
"I've been blessed with a sunny gene," he says. "Unless you are able to see a brighter future, you don't hang around for decades in this work."
That positive outlook has supported him through his role as the world's most senior humanitarian official: the "relief chief" of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, a position he held from 2017 to 2021. His job was to encourage aid groups like the Red Cross and U.N. agencies like the World Food Programme and UNICEF to work together — and raise funds for them to assist those in need.
He's now published a memoir reflecting on his time at the U.N., titled "Relief Chief: A Manifesto for Saving Lives in Dire Times" — and proposing solutions to how to support people faster and more effectively.
NPR talks to Lowcock, now a fellow at the Center for Global Development, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, about worsening global crises, the problem with donor aid — and what inspires him to keep doing this work. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why is the head of UNOCHA called the "relief chief"?
The formal title of the job is "Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator." And that is obviously an impossibly long sentence to tell anybody!
How would you describe your job to family and friends? Let's say a young niece said: "Uncle Mark, what do you do for work?" What would you tell her?
Every morning you wake up and you look on your phone to see what new problem there is. There could be an earthquake somewhere. A typhoon. A famine leading people to lose their income and their ability to put food on their table. And you work out whether these people need help and then it's your job to get them the help.
What kinds of global emergencies did you deal with while you were at the U.N.?
The war in Syria. The war in Yemen. There was a drought with a threat to famine in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia and Somalia. Then there were new problems, like the Rohingya refugee crisis, which happened in late 2017 as soon as I started.
People in these situations may need a lot of different things: food, water, shelter, medicine, education or cash. How do you make sure that the U.N. and aid groups get enough funds?
You invite anybody you know who wants to tackle these problems to contribute.
That seems pretty simple — but also very hard.
One of the challenges of this system is that the people providing the money decide what crises they want to support. I have to describe all the [humanitarian] needs to the donors — the U.S. government, the British government, European countries, Middle Eastern countries, also foundations and individuals around the world who care about these problems — and hope they will provide enough help.
I imagine that some crises — like the Syrian war — garner more attention than others. How do you fund emergencies that aren't top of mind in the public arena?
I had a relatively small amount of money, about $2 billion, that donor countries would give me at the beginning of the year to deal with problems that weren't being prioritized by the donors. And typically those crises were in places that either hadn't been in the news much, like countries in the Sahel [that were dealing with food insecurity due to conflict and climate change] or were in a place where there was a really new problem, and it was going to take a while to convey the gravity of it to people and persuade them to contribute. For example, when Rohingya populations [were first] fleeing Myanmar in 2017.
That's not a lot of money when you compare it to how much you raised from donors in say, 2021: $20 billion. It must be very frustrating to always have to convince donors to pay attention to underreported crises.
It is frustrating. In my book, I set out some proposals for different ways to respond to these problems.
First, lots of these crises are predictable. We know that when there's a drought in the Horn of Africa, months later there'll be a famine unless there's a [humanitarian] response. So why don't we deal with the problem as soon as we know it's going to happen rather than waiting for the face of the starving child to appear on our screen?
The second thing we can do is to put more money into the shared funds like the Central Emergency Response Fund that the U.N. runs, and make it a requirement for every country in the world to contribute to it as part of their membership of the United Nations. That [can ensure] there will be more money available to be allocated straight away when there's a new problem or a problem that's not being attended to.
In your book, you argue that the world is moving backward in terms of human development.
There was a huge progress in development across 100 countries in the 50 years after 1960. People were living longer. They were better fed. Children were less likely to die in infancy and more likely to go to school.
But over the last ten years, things have gone into reverse. We're in a bleaker, more foreboding and more worrying decade than in the previous four or five decades. For example, in 2015, there were something like 600 million people on the verge of starvation. Now that number is 850 million.
Why is this reversal happening?
There's been an upsurge of conflict, especially in parts of Africa and the Middle East. That's partly a reflection of geopolitics. But it's also the reflection of resource pressures. Climate change leads to more competition over resources, particularly land and water, and that can create grievances which can spill over into conflict.
On top of that, we have the pandemic, which has dragged down many poorer countries. Rich countries were able to protect their own economies, but poor countries weren't able to do so — so the number of extremely poor people grew.
What needs to change?
The U.N., the World Bank, donor organizations and donor countries provided a lot of help to those 100 countries [that have made progress since 1960]. But they haven't provided as much effective help to the 30 or 40 countries that are left behind and going backward, such as Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. So we need to focus much more on those vulnerable countries by giving them more money and higher priority in financing decisions — and hiring more staff who are used to working in very poor countries.
This is a very bleak field. Your "sunny gene" must help a lot.
I've been doing this kind of work for nearly 40 years, and I've seen that you can make a big difference in saving lives.
My first job was [to provide relief during] the famine in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s. And I used to go back every few years. And over the years I met people there who had barely survived the famine — but had gone on to have good, decent lives and whose children were having much better lives than their parents had.
And so in the direst of situations, I've always been able to hold on to the thought that not only can we save these people, maybe we can help them recover and get a better life.
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