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Can the UN’s new Emergency Relief Coordinator give it the boost it badly needs, to implement Sustaining Peace?

May 13, 2021

Martin Griffiths has been announced as the next UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC). Looked at from one angle, appointing Griffiths, a 69 year-old, white male representative of the humanitarian establishment hailing from the global North, seems a slap in the face to those calling for greater diversity and better representation of affected countries and communities. Even worse, Griffiths will be the fifth British ERC in a row, so this move clearly perpetuates the long-standing stitch-up of senior UN roles by Permanent Security Council Members. As an individual, Griffiths is highly experienced, respected and able. Nevertheless, this feels wrong. Growing cynicism about and within the UN can only be reinforced by the optics of this decision.

He takes on this role at a time of increasing global complexity and a recent UN record of dragging its feet on a series of critical reforms. Surely the available talent pool offered an opportunity to look beyond the usual suspects – beyond the pool of people who come from and represent the order that needs to be reformed? Sometimes only an outsider can break down the silos and clear away the decades of accumulated norms and habits that impede change.

On the other hand however, one of the UN’s major unfulfilled reforms is its re-commitment to preventing violence and building peace. Pretty much all donors and UN agencies are committed to mainstreaming this as a central priority, and have signed up to the Humanitarian-Development-Peacebuilding Nexus, an emblem of their commitment to combine these three UN functions more effectively. After all, the people they wish to help do not relinquish their right to and desire for peace and development, just because they face short term humanitarian needs.

Yet the UN is a difficult body to shift (to say the least), and has not yet achieved the momentum needed to bring about this change. Griffiths’ background suggests he may be better equipped than his development economist predecessor to help with this. He is a humanitarian, but also a diplomat. He co-founded international mediation organisation Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, was the first Executive Director of the European Institute for Peace, and has spent the past three years leading the UN’s peace efforts in Yemen. So he is an adept at both the P and the H of the HDP Nexus. While development and peacebuilding have a natural overlap, many humanitarians have long resisted calls to embrace peacebuilding as part of their work. And yet most humanitarian interventions are at least partly needed because of conflict. This challenge needs to be addressed as a major priority. Meanwhile, too many peacebuilders misunderstand the genuine challenges humanitarians face, in integrating peacebuilding into their frame of reference. So there are bridges to be built from both sides.

Thus, one of the potential advantages of his appointment in the eyes of the millions of people around the world who suffer the impact and threat of violent conflict, is that Griffiths has much of the knowledge and many of the networks through which, as ERC, he can help fulfill the UN’s commitment to Sustaining Peace. This seems like a real opportunity, and I hope all peacebuilding and multi-mandate agencies are already considering how they might help him in his efforts to do this.

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