Interview with USG Lowcock on the importance of unearmarked funding for humanitarian response

07 Dec 2018

Sweden is the largest donor in terms of flexible funding to UN humanitarian bodies. It is also a significant contributor to humanitarian country programmes, emergency appeals and to humanitarian pooled funds including the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), which provides immediate funding for crisis-response anywhere in the world, and Country-Based Pooled Funds (CBPFs) which support the most urgent humanitarian activities in specific crises. Sweden’s flexible funding makes a difference. Today we talk to UN Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, about the importance of flexible funding for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs OCHA.

With almost 2,000 relief experts in 60 countries, OCHA brings the international community together to help people get the humanitarian assistance they need whenever and wherever a crisis occurs. OCHA provides leadership, expertise, tools and services so that humanitarian organizations – large and small, international and local, UN and non-UN – can work together to deliver effective responses to disasters and conflicts.

Q: Humanitarian needs continue to grow, and every year the gap between needs and resources to address them is widening. In that context, how does Sweden’s flexible funding help OCHA make a difference for people facing crisis around the world?

A: Almost every year, we face growing humanitarian need due to protracted complex crises, escalation of conflict in several countries, climate change-induced vulnerability and natural disasters. To put that into perspective: this week I launched the 2019 Global Humanitarian Overview  in Geneva – it calls for a staggering US$22 billion to meet the urgent and life-saving needs of more than 94 million people. And OCHA plays an important role in bringing urgent relief to millions of those people. Our efforts – from information management and access negotiations to resource mobilization and relentless advocacy – demonstrate the critical importance of strong and effective coordination.

None of that would be possible without timely, predictable and, especially, unrestricted contributions from donors like Sweden. Indeed, more than any other form of support, flexible funding is critical to OCHA’s ability to help humanitarian partners save and protect lives around the world. OCHA needs to be agile and responsive to the rapidly evolving humanitarian landscape. Flexible contributions allow OCHA to plan more strategically across its operations and to manage resources efficiently and effectively. For instance, without unearmarked funding, it would be impossible for OCHA to operate at a global scale, or to rapidly open and close offices or scale up or draw down operations according to coordination needs on the ground. Flexible funding gives us the freedom to steer resources to the most critical parts of our operations and to deliver our humanitarian mandate where and when it was needed the most. Furthermore, we rely primarily on almost 2,000 staff members who work with thousands of partners – large and small, UN and non-UN, national and international, non-governmental organizations and Governments – in some 60 countries, and a high degree of predictability and flexibility in funding is critical to our ability to maintain a stable workforce that can build and maintain relationships and deliver coordination services, especially in challenging and often dangerous environments.

Last year (2017), OCHA received a $238.7 in voluntary contributions of which $130 million was unearmarked or softly earmarked. More than two-thirds of Sweden’s $24.6 million contribution to OCHA was unearmarked or softly earmarked – making Sweden our second most important source of flexible funding. I would also like to mention that Sweden is a major supporter of OCHA-managed pooled funds, which are critical sources of flexible funding for the humanitarian operations around the world. Sweden is currently the second biggest donor to the CERF so far this year ($85.1 million) and third for CBPFs ($90.3 million). Incidentally, Sweden was the first-ever donor to CBPFs when it contributed to the Angola Humanitarian Fund in 1997 and has given to the CERF every year since the fund was established in 2006.

Q. Flexible funding can be used several times during the year. Why is this flexibility so vital for your work and what does it mean for your response capacity? 

A: As you point out, OCHA uses flexible contributions numerous times across its field and headquarters locations according to need and priority. This multiplies operational impact and value for money. For example, unearmarked funds can be used to quickly scale up operations when a crisis deteriorates and if earmarked funding isreceived for that location later, the unearmarked funds can be moved to support other operations or activities. That’s why flexible funding is so important to OCHA’s ability to respond quickly to sudden-onset emergencies. But it also allows OCHA to respond impartially to all needs, including to overlooked or forgotten emergencies that may not attract much interest.  

Q. Can you give some recent examples of how this helps your field operations? 

A: Last year (2017) for example, flexible funding helped cover the full breadth of OCHA’s coordination tools and services around the world, with funding often re-allocated, multiple times to kick-start responses to new emergencies, scale up operations in deteriorating crises, fill temporary funding gaps and keep critical operations going. In Iraq, Syria and Yemen, our operations were fully funded by earmarked contributions by the end of the year, but we relied heavily on flexible funding early on to maintain uninterrupted delivery of our coordination tools and services there. Flexible funding was also critical in the scaleup of operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), particularly following the activation of an L3 (the highest level) response in October. And when escalating food insecurity in north-east Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen caused the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, to launch a call to action to help 20 million people who faced the risk of famine, unearmarked funding received early in the year allowed OCHA to scale up in-country operations to provide immediate support to the rapidly expanding responses in those four countries. Finally, when the Rohingya crisis escalated in August last year, with massive displacements of members of the Rohingya community in Myanmar seeking refuge in Bangladesh, OCHA was able to respond quickly with the immediate deployment of humanitarian coordination experts thanks to flexible funding.

Flexible funding allowed OCHA to deliver essential coordination services to our partners operating in forgotten and less visible crises, including our largest field operations in Afghanistan, the DRC, Sudan and South Sudan. In the Central African Republic OCHA was able to maintain a presence and deliver its services in 10 locations thanks to unearmarked contributions.
While the bulk of OCHA’s flexible funding goes to operations in the field, all OCHA offices and projects benefit from these contributions to some degree. At the global level, unearmarked contributions allowed OCHA to run centrally-managed support programmes that improve our field effectiveness and directly support coordination in the field, including information management services, standby response tools, such as UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination teams and the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group, and expert support, including civil-military coordination, needs assessments and humanitarian programme cycle management.


Last updated 07 Dec 2018, 1.10 PM