Administrator Samantha Power at the Un Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ 2022 Global Humanitarian Overview Launch

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you so much. Thank you for hosting us virtually here today. It is a true pleasure to help kick off this important event as the UN presents its Global Humanitarian Overview for 2022 here in Washington DC, and in several other locations across the world. I want to thank Undersecretary Martin Griffiths and Executive Director Natalia Kanem for their steady, indefatigable leadership across yet another grueling year of need for so many families and communities around the world. And that, truly, is unfortunately the message of this year’s Overview it seems: deja vu.

Over a quarter-billion people predicted to be in need in 2022, topping what was already a decades-long peak this year. A stubborn, evolving pandemic that continues to take lives, batter economies, and drive more people into humanitarian crisis. More than one percent of the world’s people displaced. Food insecurity at unprecedented levels. Longer-lasting conflicts, more frequent complex emergencies, and climate change looming over it all, exacerbating losses and undoing gains. While it’s clear that more funding is urgently needed to chip away at the gap between donor commitments and this range of acute needs, I want to use my time today to discuss a shift in approach that is needed and would go beyond the need for more resources.

Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in fragile and conflict-affected areas. Although it can be easy to think otherwise in the midst of a pandemic and a rapidly changing climate, the major source of humanitarian need in the world today is not from pandemics or natural disasters—it is from conflict. Now I recognize that conflict becomes more likely in light of the changing climate, and indeed in light of some of the fallout from the pandemic itself. But take Yemen, Syria, Somalia, South Sudan—these protracted battles in these countries haunt these countries’ people and threaten stability far beyond their borders. This last year we’ve also witnessed coups in Burma, the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, a military takeover in Sudan, and a spiraling human catastrophe in Ethiopia.

In many of these cases, the governments in these fragile or conflict-affected states are simply failing to meet the needs of their people, choosing violence over relinquishing or sharing power or respecting rights and pluralism. The answer to these conflicts is political—and in that sense it is heartening to see the tireless efforts of envoys like our Ambassador Jeff Feltman who has been so active in the Horn, working on Ethiopia and Sudan. And it is why it is so important that the United States and other countries practice what President Biden calls relentless diplomacy.

We need to find a way to use diplomatic negotiation regionally, at the UN level, and in terms of our bilateral relations and coming together as allies to try to bring the parties together to bring conflicts to an end. We have to bring the weight of global diplomacy to bear to end these conflicts, but right now while those conflicts persist the burden of dealing with their fallout currently falls unfairly and almost exclusively to humanitarian organizations. As a result, these organizations, many of which are represented here today, are having to provide more than just life-saving humanitarian assistance, they are also having to prop up social safety nets and even manage shadow health systems.

Humanitarian responders must be part of the picture in fragile and conflict-affected states, but they can’t be the whole picture. Where governments are unable or unwilling to provide for their populations, when governments actively marginalize communities or block aid from reaching its intended recipients, we need multilateral organizations and regional and multilateral development banks to step forward to help reach people most in need in ways that don’t legitimize bad actors or support morally bankrupt regimes.
We have a sense of how this can work in places like Yemen and South Sudan; there, multilateral banks have directly partnered with UNICEF and ICRC, respectively, UNICEF in Yemen, ICRC in South Sudan, to support social services. But these kinds of efforts can’t be one-offs; we need these multilateral institutions and development banks to more regularly employ such mechanisms that can quickly and effectively provide services to people in need, without working through unreliable governments.
Many of our multilateral development institutions are built to work, structured to work with national governments and implement aid only through state systems or at least through state systems by default. They have less experience and are often on one level understandably risk averse to working amidst collapsed or fragile, with or around collapsed or fragile governments or in very challenging security environments. But ultimately, our shared aim is to alleviate suffering and poverty, so we got to grapple with the fact that the geography of poverty and suffering is shifting to places characterized by violent conflict. By the end of this decade, 85 percent of the extreme poor—some 342 million people—are going to be living in fragile and conflict-affected states.

So we have to shift our focus, not just in terms of where we work but with whom we partner. And critically, this means strengthening and scaling partnerships with local actors, whether it is local chapters of the Red Cross or Red Crescent or other international institutions, or community and faith-based organizations rooted in the societies in which we work. That is especially true of women-led organizations whose perspectives from the front lines of the world’s most harrowing crises are too often left out. When disaster strikes or violence breaks out and communities face intense pressure to find safe harbor, it is most often women who lead efforts to identify those most in need, and women who direct resources most effectively. But when it comes to designing how humanitarian aid is distributed and who benefits, more often than not they don’t get a seat at the table. Local organizations, especially women-led organizations, must be involved from the start, must be central in the design and implementation of humanitarian programming.

The same is true for work aimed at building climate resilience and adaptation. It is well established that women and girls bear a disproportionate burden of the worst impacts of climate change. But here too, women are not just victims, they are first responders providing food, water, nutrition, and health care to families and communities. So as we work with local communities globally to build resilience to climate shocks, we have to think strategically about who ought to be designing and implementing programming for disaster risk reduction.

When we do that work, we have seen the data is there, the effects are real and dramatic. When Hurricane Mitch, the second-deadliest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded, tore through Honduras and Nicaragua back in 1998, there were more than 6 million people in its path and more than 10,000 people died. As a result, in the early 2000s, USAID began investing in local systems for emergency management and response, early warning and evacuation, communication systems, and climate smart infrastructure that would better protect lives and livelihoods, in the spirit of resilience really. And when two storms of similar strength to Mitch, Eta and Iota, took a nearly identical path through Central America this past November a year ago, the most at-risk communities were far better prepared. Lives lost were minimized to 205—still too many of course for storms that we know are coming in advance, but clearly still demonstrating the benefits of locally-led adaptation and disaster risk reduction.

Many of these approaches are laid out in the Climate and Environment Charter for Humanitarian Organizations devised by the International Committee of the Red Cross and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies. I’m pleased today to announce that USAID will join as a supporter of this charter, as we work to invest globally in both climate mitigation and badly-needed adaptation and resilience. When it comes to providing humanitarian assistance, the U.S. takes pride in its long-standing tradition of being the world’s most generous donor. And whenever a conflict develops or a climate shock puts people in harm’s way, America will be there and will mobilize support. But in a changing world with these galloping, growing needs, we can’t keep making the same efforts, issuing the same pleas, and just writing bigger and bigger checks and expect different results. That is not to say we should lower our ambitions. In fact, we should raise them. We must find a way to work with multilateral organizations and development banks to devise new funding mechanisms, to think creatively about how basic services can be provided for populations most in need and when appropriate, without directly involving governments that are exacerbating harms and not alleviating them. And we must also change the ways we deliver humanitarian assistance to include full participation, design, and leadership from local populations and organizations; from women and marginalized peoples who can help develop truly sustainable solutions to the risks they face in their own communities.

Thank you so much and thanks Martin for giving me this opportunity to join you today.