Solidarity with World’s Most Vulnerable Prerequisite for Overcoming Crisis,
Secretary-General Says as Humanitarian Chief Warns ‘Stakes Have Never Been Higher’
Standing in solidarity with those least able to protect themselves from the COVID-19 pandemic is not only the right thing to do, but the only way the world will overcome this, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres told the Economic and Social Council, which launched a global call to action at its 2020 Humanitarian Affairs Segment, convened from 9 to 11 June via videoconference due to coronavirus-related restrictions.
The 54-member Economic and Social Council launched the Call to Action in support of the humanitarian response in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, including a set of 13 concrete actions encompassing flexible funding, fast-tracking health and aid personnel at borders and special measures to serve vulnerable populations. The actions aimed to save lives and prevent the spread of COVID-19, given that during the span of the three-day meeting, the number of confirmed cases rose to 7.1 million from 6.9 million, and the death toll reached 408,000 since the outbreak was reported.
The Call to Action stated: “As the world faces the unprecedented challenge of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, we must commit to act with urgency and determination to respond to this crisis. We must recommit to doing so through international solidarity, cooperation, unity and humanity.”
The Council called for urgent, determined measures to meet humanitarian needs and prevent and mitigate further devastating humanitarian impacts on those disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, including women and children, older persons, persons with disabilities, refugees, internally displaced persons and migrants.
Provisions of the Call to Action also urged Member States and other potential donors to support scaling up emergency efforts to contain the pandemic and consider urgently funding the Global Humanitarian Response Plan to meet its requirements, without diverting funds from other areas of need. Other provisions called upon Member States to work closely with the United Nations and to facilitate the provision of humanitarian assistance, including fast-tracking the passage of health and humanitarian personnel at borders and in-country, ensuring their health, safety and well-being, and designating them as essential workers.
The action plan further called on Member States and other relevant stakeholders to take steps to prevent speculation and undue stockpiling that may hinder access to safe, effective and affordable essential medicines, vaccines, personal protective equipment and medical equipment, as well as to provide access to and fair distribution of all essential health technologies and products, including their requisite components and precursors, as a global priority, and to urgently remove unjustified obstacles. All stakeholders were asked to heed the Secretary-General’s calls to address COVID-19, including for an immediate global ceasefire so as to lessen the devastating humanitarian effects of armed conflicts and to enable more emphasis on responding to the pandemic.
The 2020 Humanitarian Affairs Segment focused on the theme “Reinforcing humanitarian assistance in the context of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the United Nations: taking action for people-centred solutions, strengthening effectiveness, respecting international humanitarian law and promoting the humanitarian principles”.
Since 1998, the Humanitarian Affairs Segment has been a platform for discussing issues related to strengthening the coordination and effectiveness of the United Nations humanitarian assistance, including assessing progress and identifying emerging issues, obstacles and challenges. It also promotes the sharing of experiences and lessons learned at national and regional levels.
During the 2020 Humanitarian Affairs Segment, Economic and Social Council members participated in a high-level event on combating and preventing sexual and gender-based violence in humanitarian crises and three interactive high-level panels, focusing on health, technology and assisting internally displaced persons. Prior to the opening session, the Chairs of the Operational Activity for Development Segment and the Humanitarian Affairs Segment jointly convened a virtual high-level panel event on 8 June on the theme “Transition from Relief to Development: The multidimensional and interconnected challenges in the Central Sahel region: reducing needs, risks and vulnerabilities for people through closer humanitarian, development and peacebuilding collaboration.”
Side events were also held virtually on the following themes: saving lives, building trust, and informing humanitarian action: how good practice and lessons learned from community engagement can help beat COVID-19; strengthening the protection of children during COVID-19: launching the Child Protection Minimum Standards; anticipatory approach to COVID-19 and other crises; and counter-terrorism and humanitarian action in the age of COVID-19. The following side-events were held on 12 June: mental health and psychosocial support for displaced and migrant populations during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond; humanitarian consequences arising from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas; and towards more inclusive and disaggregated data on displacement.
Secretary-General António Guterres, delivering the keynote address in a video message, said that even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the world faced unprecedented levels of humanitarian suffering. Now, at a time when the coronavirus threatens to increase hunger and poverty and risk the reversal of decades of development gains, he urged Member States and other donors to swiftly fund the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan and sustain funding to existing humanitarian operations.
“We must act now to save lives and prevent future suffering,” he said. “When human rights are at the centre, we deliver better outcomes.” Emphasizing that respect for international law must form the foundation of the response, he said the wider drivers of suffering around the world must also be examined, including persistent inequalities, climate change and prolonged conflict. He also wished participants a constructive segment.
Chaired by Economic and Social Council Vice-President Omar Hilale (Morocco), the opening session featured: Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator; Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF); Qu Dongyu, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO); and Abby Maxman, Chief Executive Officer of Oxfam. Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), sent a video message.
Mr. Lowcock said: “this pandemic is unlike anything we have dealt with in our lifetime; extraordinary measures are needed. Our response must be proportionate to the scale of the problem we face.” Emphasizing that discussions over the coming days present an opportunity to harden the resolve to fight the virus and find solutions, he declared that “the stakes have never been higher; we will either win this battle together, or not at all.”
Laying out the landscape, he said that as of 8 June, there are 6.9 million confirmed cases worldwide, approximately 1 in every 1,100 people. Over the past month, rapid increases have been reported in Africa, from roughly 55,000 cases on 8 May to more than 190,000 a month later, and in Latin America and the Caribbean, which is now considered the epicenter of the pandemic, with 1.3 million cases. The disease is set to peak in the most fragile places on Earth in the next three to six months and could potentially be catastrophic in the developing world.
The pandemic’s secondary effects are equally worrisome, he said, as they pose a deeper and longer-lasting threat to some developing countries than the virus itself. Indeed, the biggest economic slowdown in living memory has led to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimating that the main measures of human development are set to decline in 2020 for the first time since 1990. The World Bank forecasts that the pandemic could push as many as 60 million people into extreme poverty while the World Food Programme (WFP) predicts it could move 130 million people towards the brink of starvation, almost double the 2019 figure. COVID-19 is also compounding pre-pandemic humanitarian threats, including the world’s unprecedented 60 million displaced persons, countries facing negative climate change consequences, sharply rising food insecurity, disease outbreaks and the worst infestation of locusts in generations.
Meanwhile, he said, innovative steps are being taken to address the erosion of humanitarian access crippled by cancelled flights in some places, border closures, quarantine measures, lockdowns, curfews and disrupted supply routes that have made it almost impossible to get help to people in need. They include air bridges for humanitarian aid and personnel to get to vulnerable populations and technology tools to trace and track infection and fight the spread of disinformation.
Still, an estimated $90 billion is needed to provide humanitarian assistance to those in the world’s poorest countries, he said. At the same time, the COVID‑19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan is the international community’s primary fundraising vehicle to respond to the impact of the virus in low- and middle-income countries and support their efforts to fight it. While $6.7 billion would cover the period until December, only $1.2 billion, or 17.4 per cent, is funded to date, he said, warning that diverting resources from humanitarian operations to fund the COVID-19 response would be counter-productive and lead to more and faster loss of life. As such, he called on donors to continue providing flexible funding that allows for quick, agile decision-making wherever possible.
Ms. Fore, outlining UNICEF efforts and obstacles, said the pandemic marks an opportunity for the entire humanitarian community to “do things differently” to more effectively reach those most in need, including the world’s children. In just a few short months, the pandemic and efforts to contain it have laid bare existing inequities, vulnerabilities and weaknesses of national systems around the world, the result of decades of under-investment in what is needed to support children’s futures. While the landscape has changed, children’s needs have not, including vaccinations, schools, water, sanitation, hygiene, nutrition, release from detention and protection both from violence and now the spread of COVID-19.
Highlighting interwoven challenges preventing the humanitarian community from serving the world’s most vulnerable children, she cautioned that there is a new Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 60 countries have put vaccination campaigns on hold while focusing on defeating COVID-19 and new outbreaks of measles and cholera are likely to worsen as a consequence of coronavirus responses. In addition, staff and partners face violence and harassment due to stigma and people fearful of becoming infected, convoys and missions are subjected to delays and searches, and vehicles are being expropriated. She also pointed at reports of violence against mostly female health-care workers responding to COVID-19 across countries. In some cases, security forces are violently enforcing lockdowns, which could lead to potential under-reporting and “hidden caseloads” of the coronavirus.
She said improving responses now depends on strengthening health systems, reinforcing local groups and increasing collaboration with donors to change the conditionalities that often limit the ability to provide assistance that is impartial, rather than political. The humanitarian community must unite in finding new ways to share the risks of this important work. “Let us use this moment as a time to define a new contract among the global humanitarian community, as we seek to better serve and support the world’s most vulnerable communities,” she said.
Other speakers described factors affecting the present and future humanitarian landscape. Reflecting on how the humanitarian system is responding and adapting quickly and collaborating with a range of partners, and what more can be done, they also examined the value of collective humanitarian action to multilateralism and to global solidarity for affected people and communities.
Addressing Increasing Complexity of Health Challenges
Following the opening session on 9 June, a high-level panel was convened on the theme “Addressing the increasing complexity of health challenges in humanitarian contexts”. It focused on the critical next steps needed to mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and to respond to increasing needs driven by it, recognizing trends in recent years of disease outbreaks and epidemics.
Chaired by Mr. Hilale and moderated by Mr. Lowcock, it featured the following panellists: Sigrid Kaag, Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation of the Netherlands; Ibrahima Socé Fall, Assistant Director-General for Emergency Response at the World Health Organization (WHO); Amir Abdulla, Deputy Executive Director of the WFP; Jagan Chapagain, Secretary General of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC); Christos Christou, International President of Médecins Sans Frontiers; Raji Tajudeen, Head, Division of Public Health Institutes and Research, Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention; and Atim Caroline Ogwang, Director of the South Sudan Women with Disability Network.
Mr. Lowcock said humanitarian agencies are doing all they can to maintain and adapt ongoing operations in the face of the unprecedented challenges brought on by COVID-19. Along with Governments, they are using creativity to ensure that they can deliver ongoing services and launch new ones wherever feasible. WHO and other humanitarian health response organizations are scaling up preparedness, planning and response to the pandemic in dozens of countries while adapting their pre-COVID-19 responses to this new reality, working with hundreds of health partners and community workers.
Highlighting several examples, he said that partners in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Djibouti and Sudan are providing larger food rations, requiring less frequent deliveries, and pre-positioning supplies closer to camps. In Niger, they are collaborating to provide assistance on all fronts at once — health, food, nutrition and protection — to reduce infection risks; and in Ukraine, aid is provided door-to-door where possible. All over the world, aid agencies are increasing their use of cash over in-kind assistance to limit human contact. Citing the Secretary-General’s message, he said: “We are in this fight together, so now it is our job as humanitarian agencies to ensure that no one is left behind.”
Panellists discussed how the United Nations and its partners are mobilizing responses and working with local organizations to adapt to current and future challenges while identifying emerging needs, addressing access issues and implementing preparedness measures to mitigate further risks. They also explained how to anchor these new humanitarian principle approaches in a context where related needs are driven by an increasingly complex mix of health, economic and development crises, and by protracted conflicts.
Further, they highlighted measures required to lower the human costs of these new dynamics and described ways they are meeting urgent existing needs, even as the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to drive already historic levels of hunger to new extremes and add hundreds of millions to the ranks of poverty. Speakers also offered solutions for facilitating the flow of humanitarian and medical supplies to where they are most needed. Finally, they discussed the pandemic’s mental health and psychosocial impact, along with solutions for affected people, and for front-line humanitarian workers.
Combating and Preventing Sexual and Gender-Based Violence
In the afternoon a high-level event was held on the theme “Combating and preventing sexual and gender-based violence in humanitarian crises”. The event brought together key stakeholders, including Member States, humanitarians, civil society and survivors, to engage in dialogue about key issues and experiences, and share best practices to address sexual and gender-based violence.
Chaired by Mr. Hilale and moderated by Mr. Lowcock, it featured the following panellists: Ine Marie Eriksen Søreide, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Norway; acclaimed author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA); Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of UNICEF; Kelly Clements, Deputy United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; Elinor Raikes, Vice-President and Head of Programme Delivery at the International Rescue Committee; Christine Seisun, Sexual Violence Operations Manager at the ICRC, South Sudan; and Fátima Shehu Imam, Director of the Network of Civil Society Organizations in Borno State.
Mr. Lowcock said COVID-19 has multiplied threats to human rights and dignity while also threatening to reverse gains towards gender equality and women’s rights. Many women and girls have faced gender-based violence, including sexual violence, and sexual exploitation and abuse, and in many places, calls to hotlines have increased by 30 to 40 per cent following quarantine and lockdown measures.
“It has forced us to take a hard, and I hope, honest look, at inequalities and how we protect our most vulnerable,” he said. “This is also a moment of opportunity to act fast and in unity, while there is global momentum to recover better from the pandemic.” Everyone must pull together, he said, to put girls and women at the centre of efforts through a whole-of-system approach working with local communities, civil society, Governments, regional organizations, donors, and humanitarian and development organizations.
Actions to address these concerns must be prioritized now, he said, stressing that one in three women will experience some form of physical or sexual violence in her lifetime, and the likelihood of that happening is worse for women with disabilities. Leadership, including by involving women in humanitarian decision-making, and addressing gender inequality, are some of the ways forward. For its part, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is working to mitigate, respond to and prevent gender-based violence in humanitarian emergencies. It is also prioritizing gender equality and addressing gender-based violence in response to the pandemic through the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan, he said, adding that: “We are doing this because responding to gender-based violence reduces suffering and saves lives.”
Panellists drew attention to the current situation, assessing the disproportionate impact on women and girls in humanitarian crises. They also discussed trends exposed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, what is being done and what more needs to urgently be done to prevent and respond to ongoing concerns in humanitarian contexts.
New Technology and Innovation
On 10 June, a high-level panel addressed the theme “improving humanitarian effectiveness through new technology and innovation: opportunities and challenges”. Chaired by Mr. Hilale and moderated by Ramesh Rajasingham, Acting Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, it featured the following panellists: Fabrizio Hochschild, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Commemoration of the United Nations Seventy-Fifth Anniversary; Valerie Guarnieri, Assistant Executive Director of WFP; Balthasar Staehelin, Director of Digital Transformation and Data at the ICRC; Adelina Kamal, Executive Director of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management; Patrick Meier, Chief Executive Officer of WeRobotics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy; Raj Kumar, Founding President and Editor-in-Chief of Devex; and Sunita Grote, Innovation Fund Manager at UNICEF.
Mr. Rajasingham recalled that “flatten the curve” is among the terms recently penetrating public discourse in most countries, many languages and all age groups. This commonly used shorthand covers a long and complex process of data collection and verification, analysis, computer modelling, forecasting and data visualization to get to the “curve”. It also demonstrates that data-driven decision-making language in most countries is now driving public conversations about how the world should respond to the pandemic.
Modelling and forecasting in various forms are not new to humanitarian planning and preparedness, he said, pointing to such tools as artificial intelligence, machine learning and predictive analytics that are used to more quickly and efficiently analyze and make decisions about how to respond to crises. In 2019, the WFP quickened its emergency response to cyclones in Mozambique by relying on artificial intelligence and machine learning for disaster mapping. Data compiled in large and complex humanitarian and development databases form the building blocks of this new technology and innovation, he said, adding that many public, private and academic partnerships across the international community use analytics to forecast, prevent and mitigate the spread of disease, hunger, flood damage and other hazards.
Citing other ongoing initiatives, he pointed at biometrics to provide digital identities for people needing aid, blockchain technology to send digital cash, drones to assess disasters and deliver aid, 3D printing to dramatically shorten delivery time and costs, and chatbots to communicate with affected communities. Through the Centre for Humanitarian Data in The Hague, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is exploring predictive analytics that can drive anticipatory action to get ahead of a crisis and avert the worst consequences.
However, these promising innovations have great potential while posing new challenges and risks, he said, among them privacy, data protection and spreading false information. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a new risk is now labelled the “infodemic”: the spread of misinformation and disinformation, and the use of technology to stigmatize people or incite tensions. To overcome such risks and challenges, he said the “do no harm” concept must apply, as should respect for other international principles and norms guiding humanitarian work.
Panellists addressed concrete ways the humanitarian sector is improving effectiveness in a changing landscape by using new technology and innovation. Some showcased innovations being used to improve the impact of humanitarian operations while sharing best practices and lessons learned. They discussed how the humanitarian sector is positioning itself to work with partners, including regional, national, and local actors and the private sector, to identify and roll-out further opportunities. They also identified the risks and challenges associated with new and emerging technologies and how these can be mitigated.
Mobilizing Action for Internally Displaced Persons
On 11 June, a high-level panel was held on the theme “Mobilizing action to improve humanitarian assistance for internally displaced persons and achieve durable solutions”. Chaired by Mr. Hilale and moderated by Mr. Lowcock, it featured the following panellists: Federica Mogherini, Co-Chair of the United Nations Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement; Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; António Vitorino, Director General of the International Organization for Migration (IOM); Asha Mohammed, Secretary General of the Kenya Red Cross Society; Nasir Ahmad Andisha, Co-Chair of the Group of Friends on Internal Displacement and Permanent Representative of Afghanistan to the United Nations Office in Geneva; and Veronica Ngum Ndi, Gender Officer in the Coordinating Unit of the Associations of Persons with Disabilities.
Panellists shared experiences involving the diverse needs of internally displaced persons and new approaches towards achieving durable solutions. Speakers explained how long-term solutions can be advanced from the very outset of a humanitarian emergency. They also explored concrete ways the international community can better support internally displaced persons, host communities and Governments.
On 11 June, at the closing session, Mr. Rajasingham said that the two leading messages emerging from discussions are that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing humanitarian challenges while also exposing and amplifying existing inequalities.
“The most important takeaway of this Humanitarian Affairs Segment is that challenges will remain with us, but we need to rise to the occasion, working with Member States, affected people and all of our partners to save lives and prevent suffering,” he said. “We now need to act urgently and differently. This moment is an opportunity to do things better, together.”
Mr. Hilale, thanking participants for a constructive session, summarized discussions held and presented a range of recommendations, such as investing in community engagement, which is essential and will lead to a more effective humanitarian response. The pandemic has also demonstrated that anticipation and preparation can save lives and reduce suffering and costs. One critical anticipatory step the entire international community can take right now is to commit to what the United Nations and the IFRC have described as a “people’s vaccine” to COVID-19 to ensure that no one is left behind from the vaccine. A “business as usual” approach will not be effective, nor should it be acceptable, he said.
Other recommendations included investing in mental health and psychosocial support; prioritizing women’s experiences, protection, capacities and leadership; and better harnessing the transformative potential of new technology and innovation. Inclusiveness is key across the board in humanitarian action, he said, underlining the importance of focusing on vulnerable groups, including internally displaced persons. In addition, such ongoing threats as terrorism and the adverse impact of climate change must be addressed.
Launching the global Call to Action, he declared that: “Ultimately, no one can be safe from COVID-19 until we are all safe from COVID-19. The Call to Action in support of humanitarian response in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic addresses our determination and the urgency to act now.”
Mr. Hilale also said the resolution traditionally adopted at each Humanitarian Affairs Segment will be adopted at the Council’s first formal meeting, following the lifting of restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.