Amos served as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator at the United Nations from 2010—2015. She has advised on race relations and women’s issues. She has been foreign office minister, secretary of state for international development, leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council. In September 2015, she became the first black woman to lead a British university.
Amos was in Canberra from 18 to 20 June to speak at the Australian National University’s 2017 Crawford leadership forum. She shared her views with SciDev.Net on developmental and humanitarian challenges currently facing the world.
Is humanitarian work being hampered by social and political issues, and what role does science and innovation play?
Humanitarian work is changing as a result of technological developments, particularly the use of mobile phone technology, and the desire of humanitarian organisations to ensure that people affected by natural disasters and conflicts have a key role in designing the response.
There is politicisation of humanitarian aid linked to the desire of governments to exercise sovereignty — which can be both positive and negative. We have governments which have faced a number of challenges in terms of natural disasters. Over the years, they have worked to put preventive measures in place working with local authorities, civil society and people affected. They want to manage response to disasters themselves and turn to the international community only when the scale of a disaster becomes overwhelming. The Philippines is an example of this. In conflict situations, sovereignty can be used differently. The permanent members of the UN Security Council may support different sides, as we see in Syria, impacting the ability to agree and implement a sustainable solution.
“If a major world power turns its back on the international rules-based system it helped to create, this becomes a major challenge for the rest of the international community.”
Valerie Amos, School of Oriental and African Studies
What does moving away from globalisation towards more nationalistic societies mean for global peace, security and cooperation?
There is increasing cynicism about traditional political processes and leaders around the world. The growth in social media, concerns about the lack of the shared benefits of globalisation, and increasing inequality have resulted in a rise in protest movements as well as retreat to nationalism in some parts of the world. People want leaders who can explain the challenges we are facing with a consistent message and show compassion, understanding, and authenticity. We have to find a way to ensure that people feel connected and are heard.
Will the ‘America first’ policy of the US impact multilateral institutions like the UN and the development agenda enshrined in the SDGs 2030?
There are political leaders in some countries who see the impact of globalisation as a threat and are taking a more nationalistic approach. Globalisation has had positive and negative consequences which leaders need to explain. If a major world power turns its back on the international rules-based system it helped to create, this becomes a major challenge for the rest of the international community, for e.g. through its contributions to multilateral organisations and support for development and humanitarian operations. Other countries have to step up to fill the gap. That’s why there is so much concern about the announced cuts in the US contribution to the UN. How can the UN be more effective in addressing the main development challenges facing the world today? How can we ensure that “no one is left behind” when it comes to health, education and housing?
The UN is made up of 193 different countries. So, it's important that there are clear priorities and an integrated agenda. Today's global challenges are connected and require a connected response. It's hard to talk of just three challenges. Right up there are fragility and conflict; environmental degradation and climate change; and poverty and poor governance.
The international community needs an interconnected response to these challenges with an agenda that links political, economic and other challenges. The SDGs provide the framework for a more interconnected approach.
How will the exodus of rural people to urban areas impact food security and access to water, especially in the developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America?
Rapid urbanisation is a major challenge. People in developing countries flock to cities looking for work to help their families and communities. An important part of development is job creation in urban and rural areas. To continue to feed the world, we need people in agriculture. Infrastructure, technology and support to small farmers are keys to development.
Access to water and sanitation is important for health and development and also for girls’ education as spending time fetching water can mean that they miss out on school. Where water has become scarce, we are also seeing more and more conflicts.
Q&As are edited for length and clarity.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.