Face of World Humanitarian Summit to step down

Kristy Siegfried

Migration Editor

The woman leading the UN’s largest attempt in decades to reform emergency aid is resigning, IRIN has learned.

The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) confirmed that Jemilah Mahmood, a doctor and founder of MERCY Malaysia, will be stepping down as chief of the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) Secretariat to take up “a new and exciting opportunity”. 

The secretariat told IRIN that Mahmood is taking up a “senior role with a leading humanitarian organisation” from January 2016 onward. 

Mahmood was described by several members of the humanitarian community as an “inspiring” leader who will be sorely missed. 

WHS, due to be held in Istanbul in May 2016, has set itself the ambitious goal of bringing together governments, aid agencies, the private sector and affected communities from around the world to agree on new, more effective ways of responding to humanitarian crises. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon tasked OCHA with managing WHS; OCHA then set up the secretariat to coordinate the process. 

As crises around the world become more frequent, severe and complex, the international emergency aid machinery has never been under so much pressure to better meet the needs of those affected, become more cost-effective, and tap into local capacity.  

Under Mahmood’s 15-month tenure, the secretariat has overseen a long process of consultations with more than 23,000 people in 151 countries across multiple sectors. 

See: Editor's Take: What hope for reform? 

“The WHS process has been very unique for the UN so far as it is a multi-stakeholder process and I think having someone like Jemilah Mahmood lead that consultation process has been very important,” said Alice Obrecht, a research fellow at ALNAP, a London-based network focused on improving humanitarian response.

“We’ve found Jemilah’s leadership to be quite inspiring and in particular found her to be an indefatigable advocate for local humanitarian responders and improved humanitarian response,” added Obrecht.

Her planned departure comes as the secretariat concludes the phase of regional consultations. It is now preparing a synthesis report of those discussions, which will feed into a global consultation to take place in Geneva in October. Following that, the Secretary-General is expected to release his own report outlining his recommendations for the Summit. 

Oliver Lacey-Hall, who heads OCHA’s regional office for Asia and the Pacific, said the global consultation would mark “a sort of sea change moment”.

“The multi-stakeholder process has been really positive, but inevitably it will come to a point where governments will have to sit down together in a room and talk about what they’re willing to contribute,” he told IRIN. “Thereafter, I’m not sure how central the role of the secretariat is going to be.” 

The summit was already on shaky ground with some NGOs who questioned whether it would add value and governments who felt threatened because they could not control its outcome. 

See: The World Humanitarian Summit: Talking shop or game changer? 

Mahmood’s exit is likely to further destabilize the process, but for Lacey-Hall, it shouldn’t be viewed as ‘jumping ship’: “She hasn’t shied away from difficulties she’s faced to date and she’s had to deal with very disparate stakeholders with extremely different views."

Jens Laerke, a spokesperson with OCHA in Geneva, told IRIN that Mahmood had agreed to see the secretariat through some “key ongoing processes” before she leaves, including the global consultation in October.

“The WHS process is well on track and has built up considerable momentum towards next year’s summit. We are taking steps to ensure that it continues,” he said, adding that OCHA would hold “a transparent appointment process to ensure the smooth management of the WHS Secretariat”.

Some observers have suggested that OCHA has recently taken more active control of the process, particularly in drafting the synthesis report. But in an interview with IRIN last month, Mahmood said she had faced no pressure to protect OCHA’s mandate, insisting the process had been “genuine”. 

Nan Buzard, executive director of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), a global network of NGOs, said Mahmood had kept a “clear vision of the multiple actors” involved in the WHS process and that the secretariat “has not been beholden to the UN, or member states or the NGOs.”

It can always be difficult in the home stretch of an important initiative to lose a leader with her passion and qualifications.

“We would expect that the WHS Secretariat would continue with the independence it has exhibited in its work to date,” she said, speaking to IRIN from Geneva. 

“It can always be difficult in the home stretch of an important initiative to lose a leader with [Mahmood’s] passion and qualifications,” Buzard added, commending Mahmood for keeping the WHS consultations focused on key issues impacting the humanitarian sector such as the need for new financing mechanisms and finding ways to empower local NGOs to play a bigger role.

“We really respect what she’s been able to do and we think these things matter and we need to continue the focus on getting member states to be reminded of their obligations,” she told IRIN.

Mahmood’s office said in a statement that she is “immensely proud of the work the WHS secretariat has achieved, particularly of the inclusive and transparent consultation process which she thinks has truly exceeded expectations and built incredible momentum and an appetite for change”.

“We’ve run an authentic process,” Mahmood told IRIN during the July interview. She acknowledged the summit would not solve all problems, but would lay out a clear agenda for improvements that would, by its very nature, expose any subsequent inaction by governments, the UN and others. 

The secretariat said Mahmood would continue in her new role to support the vision of WHS “as a watershed moment and a catalyst for change in the humanitarian sector”. 

ks-ha/bp