Sir John Holmes Address: Communication in Humanitarian Efforts

December 3, 2018

On the 22nd November, the Durham University United Nations Society had the honour of hosting Sir John Holmes, former British diplomat and current head of the Electoral Commission. Mr. Holmes also worked at the UN as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs from 2007 to 2010, and it was this work that was the focus of his address. 

Sir John painted a vivid picture of a complex humanitarian system facing a complex moral calculus: how can and should one best help people when faced with  uncooperative and, in some cases, antagonistic governments?

Communication is key. Making sure that local governments understand and trust aid agencies is crucial to make a success of aid efforts.

The case of Myanmar in 2008 illustrates this point. Cyclone Nargis brought devastation to the country, which saw over 2 million individuals become refugees. The government refused aid, citing its ability to cope on its own. Recently, the Rohingya refugees in Myanmar have similarly seen the government of Myanmar turn away foreign aid efforts, and the government has been accused of manipulating aid for political ends.

Sir John Holmes’ answer to antagonistic governments such as these is perseverance. It is always better, he argues, to compromise with the government if that compromise will allow you to help the people who need it the most. Communication is key to this approach. Making sure that local governments understand and trust aid agencies is crucial to make a success of aid efforts.

One may drawn on Syria as an example. Here, foreign organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – an organisation that Mr. Holmes is affiliated with – are limited to operating solely around the rebel-held city of Idlib because the Syrian government treats them with suspicion. Many aid organisations continue to refuse to cooperate with the government on the grounds of its frequent human rights violations. Even when refugees from the Syrian conflict are able to escape the country, it remains difficult to target aid, since many refugees flee to foreign cities looking for shelter and work. Nonetheless, the ICRC and other humanitarian groups persevere in providing aid. 

Sir John argues that what is needed in our world is faith in the power of communication and in the power of individuals to reach a balance that suits everyone.

Aside from antagonistic governments, there are also problems within the humanitarian system, which tends to suffer from fragmentation. Indeed, there is no single ‘system’, but a collection of organisations working in concert. Sometimes this lack of coherence can lead to less effective aid efforts, and it is certainly a challenge that needs to be overcome. Sir John Holmes also pointed out the need to focus our efforts on preventing future disasters rather than exclusively treating their symptoms. At a time when climate change is intensifying the rate and severity of natural disasters, this is a particularly salient warning.

Yet Sir John presents a vision of an international system based on hope. He argues that what is needed in our world is faith in the power of communication and in the power of individuals to reach a balance that suits everyone. The message of resilience is an incredibly powerful one, especially when coming from an individual as resilient as Sir John Holmes.

The theme of balance also permeates John Holmes’ argument – balance between the national and international, and between helping people and compromising with antagonistic regimes. International relations in our modern world are based entirely on compromise, which must be achieved through careful diplomacy. Humanitarian organisations have no mechanisms of enforcement or compulsion, and they simply cannot afford to rely on such measures if they wish to win the trust of the people they are trying to help. Persuasion is the only tool available to humanitarian aid agencies in order to gain access to many disaster areas.

International relations in our modern world are based entirely on compromise, which must be achieved through careful diplomacy. Persuasion is the only tool available to humanitarian aid agencies in order to gain access to many disaster areas.

The cynical among us may be inclined to wonder whether a better way is possible. If we adopted an international system based on the rights of populations, rather than the sovereignty of their governments, then perhaps the work of aid agencies could be made less precarious and more effective. Sir John Holmes, however, resolutely defends the current international system. Though it is not a perfect system, it works to balance competing interests in ways that allow humanitarian aid to get to where it needs to be.

The challenges that face the UN at this time (and our international system as a whole), can be overcome, a long as we maintain our faith in communication and compromise.

The Society would like to thank Sir John Holmes for coming to Durham! His speech inspired us to think about the workings of the international system and engage with how humanitarian efforts can and must be improved in order to better help people across the world.

– Joseph Beaden

Image by the Durham University United Nations Society