Humanitarian forum opens with warning of difficulties facing sector

Humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock spoke at the opening of the HNPW on Monday 19 April. (Keystone / Salvatore Di Nolfi)

The Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Weeks (HNPW) opened on Monday with a warning from humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock that the world’s failure to address the causes of conflict and climate change, accentuated by Covid-19, is pushing record numbers of people into crisis.

Speaking at the opening ceremony of the HNPW, which is taking place virtually from Geneva this year, Lowcock said the impacts of conflict and climate change were threatening to “unravel decades of development progress”, driving up famine, economic instability and a rise in violence against women and girls.

“The pandemic has made all these things much worse, but it's also important to recognise that in fact humanitarian needs were already at peak before the pandemic and that is essentially because of the combination of conflict and climate change, and the failure of the world to deal with the causes of conflict and climate change,” said Lowcock.

“One thing this means for humanitarian agencies is that we really have no choice but to keep trying to improve the way we do our work,” he added.

The annual HNPW, organised by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), brings together a range of actors working in humanitarian preparedness and response.

The Geneva-based forum, which is taking place entirely remotely this year for the first time, brings together thousands of professionals from across the sector for three weeks of talks and events to find solutions to common challenges facing humanitarians around the world.

“This event is all about collaboration,” said Nadja Gueggi, associate humanitarian affairs officer at OCHA, speaking to Geneva Solutions. “It's about encouraging the networks to stop working in their silos, but to actually discuss these topics across the different partners across the whole humanitarian sector. That’s the main aim of this event, but also [the programme] is really trying to foster collaboration among networks throughout the year to improve emergency preparedness and response.”

Every year, the HNPW focuses on topics such as localisation, anticipatory action before disasters, climate change and accountability to affected populations. This year, there will be discussions on a number of new topics that have not featured on the programme before, such as organisational culture within the sector. Emergency responses during the pandemic will also feature prominently, with practitioners sharing their experiences in the field delivering assistance in the face of Covid-19.

“It’s a really important [issue] in terms of how we need to adapt our work and how we make sure that we can provide remote support in the future,” said Gueggi. “How we can introduce new virtual tools and how we can make sure that we really work with local partners that are already in the country that can respond immediately in case of an emergency.”

More than 250 sessions are scheduled on a broad range of issues, ranging from civil-military coordination and access to the Tigray region in Ethiopia to mobilising international frontline response in Beirut following the port explosion in August. There are also sessions covering issues such as racism, discrimination and mental health support for staff.

One of the core themes of this year's event is inclusion, which outgoing humanitarian chief Lowcock emphasised remains the most important challenge facing the sector.

“We cannot pay enough attention to the wishes and express needs of the people who we say we're trying to help,” said Lowcock. “If there's one thing that will make the system better, it would be that we listen harder to what people in crisis say they want, and then we give them more of the things they asked for, and that is what inclusion is about.”

With over 3000 people expected to attend throughout the next three weeks, the event is due to be the largest HNPW to date. Organisers say, despite the predictable technical difficulties and the loss of the usual informal meetings, the virtual format has made the event more accessible and inclusive, in keeping with its aim to foster collaboration between actors from throughout the sector.

“Everyone is welcome to collaborate, most sessions are public, and most of them are interactive, so you could be a local actor based anywhere and contribute to the discussion, give your feedback and some of the solutions you have identified to some of the problems you face, ”said OCHA's David Laügt, who has been involved in organising the event.

“We truly have a unique opportunity to come together as a community and capitalise on the wealth of experience and knowledge represented in this year's event,” said Mervat Shelbaya, secretariat of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (ISAC), speaking at the opening ceremony, “particularly that of local actors, to tackle some of the most complex humanitarian challenges that we are facing as a community.”