Keynote Address by Administrator Gayle Smith at the InterAction Forum 2016 Gala Banquet & Award Ceremony

Tuesday, April 19, 2016
Administrator Gayle Smith delivering the keynote address at the InterAction Forum 2016 Gala Banquet & Award Ceremony
"Humanitarian response is a burden shared by all of humanity, and the way we finance it should reflect that." - Gayle Smith
Elissa VanHoutte, USAID

Good evening everybody. Thank you Rajesh, that was a very kind introduction. By my calculation, I’m 104. [Laughter]

Now I will tell you one thing about my time with the Beeb. I was a BBC stringer a long, long time ago when my accent didn’t work very well on radio. So I used to go out to report a story and then go home or into a bunker or wherever I was and I would hear, “this is Gayle Smith live from Khartoum.” So, I miss it, I miss it.

Thank you everybody and I’m honored to be here. I’m humbled to be here, given the people you are honoring tonight, and I want to thank all of you. I want to thank the members of Congress who are here. Sam Worthington -- I want to thank you and all of InterAction for being such an extraordinary friend and partner to this Administration, to our government, and to USAID. I want to thank you also for pulling this all together this week and doing amazing work year-round to connect and support this community.

Yesterday I was here with Justine Greening, UK Secretary of State for International Development, for a conversation on the future of development. I know we would both agree that our governments have benefited enormously from the NGO community’s support of our efforts and from your invaluable feedback and guidance. All of you in this room and your partners and colleagues working across the globe in some of the toughest environments imaginable, you represent the best of what the world has to offer.

That was true for all of those our community has lost both last year and in years past. And I’m so thankful to InterAction for honoring them so beautifully each year. I hope their families can take some small comfort that the memories of their loved ones will live on forever, and that their sacrifices and contributions will never be forgotten. At USAID we are committed to doing our part to appropriately honor them as well. So I am proud to share with you tonight that in June we will dedicate a new memorial to our partner staff who have lost their lives while working with USAID.

The new plaque will join our existing staff memorial in celebrating the selfless dedication of people like Anita Datar, men and women who gave their lives in the service of others. The plaque will share the words of another great public servant, Secretary of State George Marshall, upon his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize. He said, “I have done my best, and hope to have sown seeds, which may bring forth good fruit.” That is all any of us can ask of our lives, our careers, and of our friends and colleagues.

The heroes we remember tonight are part of a powerful and lasting legacy, one that is shared by all of us who strive to advance peace and dignity around the world. It’s a legacy built in part by tonight's awardees, all of whom are great partners to USAID.

It’s been a pleasure to see how Senator Lindsey Graham fights for humanitarian causes, it’s also not bad to have the Senator say that your budget is some of the best money taxpayers spend. I recorded that. And what I’m always struck by – aside from how quickly he cuts to the point – is how deeply he understands the challenges our people face in the field. He knows that successful transitions don’t happen overnight and that progress rarely happens in a straight line. But at the same time he knows that peace and prosperity are always worthy investments, and that when we keep at it we can help build responsible and capable partners for the United States and make us all safer. I know that everyone at USAID is thankful for his leadership.

I’m equally grateful to call David Beckmann my friend. For more than two decades, actually it’s been longer than that -- he’s also 104 -- David has been a leader, maybe ‘the’ leader in the fight to end hunger around the world. With the moral clarity of a reverend and the analytic insight of an economist, he has pushed all of us to do better, and to be better. So it's fitting for him to receive an award named after Julia Taft, because that’s what she did as well.

I had the opportunity to know Julia, and she was a powerhouse. She had exactly what you needed to be an actionable humanitarian. She was smart, bold, and pragmatic, and good luck to you if you got in her way. Julia took over USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance towards the end of the Ethiopian famine in the mid-1980s. At the time I was in the midst of that famine, working with a few different NGOs, helping to organize relief efforts in some of the hardest hit areas of the war-torn north. I can think of no other time in my life that has had a more profound effect on me.

The things I saw will stay with me forever. Thousands of people leaving behind everything they knew to walk to Sudan. The elderly and sick too weak to make the journey. Women groveling on the ground to eat dirt because that was all that was left. Caught on the wrong side of the battle lines, hundreds of thousands of people perished, even with hundreds of millions of dollars in food aid flown to the country from all over the world.

In this room there are many of you with similar stories to tell. Together we've borne witness to some of the most devastating events of the past two decades. Famines, earthquakes, and typhoons. Families torn apart by war and entire communities destroyed by disease. We’ve worked with partners to save who we could, and mourned those we could not.

But we have also seen humankind at its best. We've seen courage emerge from fear, and hope from despair. We have known true heroes, the kind of people who put everything on the line just to save one life.

People like Raed Saleh, and his colleagues in the Syrian Civil Defense. Like all of you, I am sorry that Raed is not here tonight, but Raed’s absence does not for one second diminish the continuing heroism of the members of the Syrian civil defense. These are people who once led ordinary lives, with ordinary jobs. They were teachers, bakers, and drivers.

But there is no ordinary in Syria anymore. But Raed and his colleagues don’t run away. They run toward the bombs, protected only by their white helmets and driven by a simple belief inspired by the Quran -- to save one life is to save humanity.

It’s a belief that resonates beyond Syria -- in fact, it’s one that unites our entire community around the world.

We were united by that belief when we helped the people of West Africa stand strong against the scourge of Ebola, and ultimately defeat it. When we responded swiftly to Nepal’s earthquake one year ago this month. Or to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. And we are united by it today as we respond to tough crises together, in Yemen, Iraq, South Sudan, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and other zones of war and suffering.

When I think about these trials and triumphs and when I think about the selfless individuals doing this work, many I know and many I don’t, I have no doubt in my mind, this is a community that can beat the toughest of odds and inspire hope in the darkest of places.

But it’s getting harder to do. You know the numbers. 125 million people in need. 60 million people forcibly uprooted from their homes worldwide. An average 26 million displaced by natural disasters annually in recent years. Last year for us, USAID had a record five Disaster Assistance Response or DART teams deployed simultaneously.

And the conflicts and crises continue to pile up, straining our resources and testing our resolve.

One out of every eight babies born last year was born in a conflict zone. #HumanityActs
One out of every eight babies born last year was born in a conflict zone. #HumanityActs
AFP / Mustafa Ozer

The UN counts eleven ongoing major civil wars, up from four less than a decade ago. One out of every eight babies born last year was born in a conflict zone. This year, some of those children will take their first steps as bombs drop, and speak their first words in the screams of horror. For them, war and chaos will be part of everyday life.

We too are at risk of slipping permanently into a terrifying new normal, one that pushes the humanitarian community beyond their limits. It is characterized by crippling natural disasters that are more frequent and severe, by the willful denial of access to people in need, and by egregious violations of humanitarian principles. This new normal, as we know and as we saw earlier this evening, puts aid workers in grave danger, perhaps greater than ever before.

This is not a future any of us can accept. And what we must do together is commit to fight back against these dangerous trends in every way we can. We will have an opportunity next month, and I hope to join many of you when I attend the first ever World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. The UN Secretary General has billed the Summit as an opportunity to reaffirm a global commitment to address the world’s suffering, to stand united against attacks on humanity, and to make long overdue changes to the international aid architecture.

It’s an opportunity the United States intends to seize. We’re getting ready to make the most of the Summit, but we will need your help over the next month and in the many months following. We will need you as advocates, as partners, as validators and as critics. We may be facing new and complex challenges, but there is an incredible amount of experience and know-how in this room, and in the men and women of USAID and our partner agencies. We need to bring that expertise to bear to confront these challenges head-on.

I believe we can do that in four ways. First, we have to reduce the sheer number of global crises and lessen the humanitarian burden. And that’s easier said than done, but we actually know how to do it. For example, we can learn from progress we’ve seen in our efforts to bolster community resilience. By targeting places that are especially prone to crisis, whether natural or man-made disasters, we can build the core set of capabilities that people, communities and countries need to better withstand external shocks. We have to bring these efforts to scale.

We also need to continue our work and elevate the importance of reducing state fragility in the long term. USAID and many of our partners have the analytic capabilities to look at the drivers of fragility in any country. We have to put that information to better use and better address those drivers. But we cannot do that overnight, so we need to be in it for the long haul. We need the same kind of strategic patience to foster change over long transitions. And ultimately we need to realize the Sustainable Development Goals. By working to foster sustained, inclusive economic and growth and promoting democratic governance, we can put investments in the bank that will yield returns for decades. If we honor our global commitment to the SDGs and we leave no one behind, we can help build more open, flourishing and peaceful nations, true partners with the ability to deliver for their citizens, and the capacity to better withstand disasters and crises.

Second, we have to put in the work to resolve today’s protracted conflicts and political crises. Those that are stretching all of us to the limit. Sustainable development is the right path forward to address the crises of tomorrow, but the right now still demands our attention. And that is not easy. The conflicts of today are incredibly complex, often with many different actors, motivations, and causes. And too often one hears that a conflict isn’t ripe for resolution yet, that it’s too hard to solve, that the chances of success are too small.

Tell that to John Kerry, who lives his life on an airplane, and has never met a conflict he isn’t willing to make a run at. Tell that to the man who when many said it was impossible and wouldn’t be enough he said, “even if I can negotiate the tiniest of spaces for increased humanitarian access in Syria, I will do it,” and did it.

Administrator Gayle Smith delivering the keynote address at the InterAction Forum 2016 Gala Banquet & Award Ceremony
Elissa VanHoutte, USAID

Of course there are many challenges left for the international community in Syria. But Secretary Kerry, I think, has demonstrated what is needed: dogged determination backed by political will.

Third, we have to reverse the dangerous trend of eroding respect for fundamental humanitarian principles of humanitarian access in civility and protection. As a community, we understand better than anyone how access constraints hamper humanitarian operations, leaving people without urgently needed assistance and ramping up costs.

In places like Syria and Yemen, the willful denial of access by warring parties is the single greatest impediment to reaching people in need. In South Sudan, after aid-bearing river barges were caught in the crossfire between government and opposition forces, our partners were forced to resort to air operations, which are five times more expensive and less effective than other methods. Instead of focusing on reaching people, humanitarian workers in these places must spend their time haggling with political and military leaders. I think twice, maybe I didn’t mean ‘leaders’ there.

We’ve also seen firsthand how essential humanitarian principles are being eroded in conflict around the world. Barrel bombs, crimes against humanity, forced starvation, human shields, mass abductions, sex slaves...the list goes on. And aid workers are facing increasing risks.

In South Sudan, at least fifty aid workers have been killed since the start of the conflict. In 2014, 329 aid workers were killed, wounded, or kidnapped, the second highest number on record after 2013’s all-time high. I’m afraid that 2015 will prove no better when we have all the numbers.

Two months ago this week, soldiers entered a UN compound in Malakal, South Sudan and opened fire. Their targets were civilians, people seeking refuge from a brutal civil war that has raged for over two years. They were there for shelter, food and water, and medical care. There were aid workers there too, people there only to help. The bullets came anyway.

All over the world, attacks on health centers, hospitals, and schools are becoming more common. We cannot accept this. We cannot accept a world where sanctuaries are no longer sacred. We cannot accept a world where what once shocked us no longer surprises.

That is why one of our core objectives heading into the World Humanitarian Summit is to renew our deeply held commitments to humanitarian access and civilian protection. We must raise our collective consciousness and condemn, in a clear, unified voice, the alarming disregard for human life. We must commit together to take action to stop the onslaught against our principles and our values. We must stand up for humanity wherever we can, and draw the world’s eyes to the perpetrators so that no violation goes unseen.

And finally, we’re going to have to adapt to deal with the crises we face. In this time of great need we are reaching and serving more people than perhaps ever before. This is a credit to the unmatched professionalism, dedication and ingenuity of the people in this room and our partners around the world.

This is a community that has risen to every challenge thrown at it because that’s what we do. When a political system fails, we call on the humanitarians. When a peace agreement breaks down, we call on the humanitarians. When an army or band of irregulars wreaks havoc, or a natural disaster destroys a government's ability to respond, we call on the humanitarians.

When I look back at what this community has accomplished in recent years, I stand in awe. So I want to be clear that the increasing pressures this community is feeling these days are not the result of our failures; they are the result of much larger system failures. But still, as we demand more of others, we must also demand more of ourselves. We owe it to the people we serve to do even better.

Today as you all know the humanitarian system is groaning under the strain of modern challenges, from conflicts that won’t end to the widespread displacement they fuel. And unfortunately, we cannot expect the load to lighten any time soon. That’s why another of our core objectives for the summit is to strengthen the international humanitarian system to ensure it can meet 21st century challenges. We cannot let overly complex processes impede our agility, nor can we let silos or other bureaucratic barriers limit meaningful collaboration. We must share the burden fairly and equitably among partners and reach everyone with the assistance they need.

In short, we must adapt our system to today’s world.

This too is not easy, and it has to start with a shared understanding that how we provide aid should be driven first by the needs of people, not by the capabilities, expertise, or preferences of the providers. Specifically, we need to better equip the humanitarian system to do four things.

First, to clearly articulate the humanitarian needs of all population groups. Second, to develop a single, unified, and prioritized response strategy. Third, to engage in effective system-wide operational coordination and information management; and fourth, to develop a mutually accountable and effective leadership approach to determine and implement response priorities.

To put these concepts into practice we are pursuing an ambitious suite of actions for donor governments and humanitarian agencies to take. If reached, this grand bargain will be an important first step in improving the way the world responds to crises, and building a more flexible, accountable, and collaborative system.

As you all know, such a shift is long overdue, and the United States is willing to put skin in the game to make it happen. We will make quick fixes where we can, but we are prepared to invest in long-term change as well. Right now we are looking with other donor agencies at a few concrete reforms to demonstrate our commitment.

For one, we can harmonize our reporting requirements.  We can better align funding and other resources behind shared goals.  We can support multi-year planning. Wait for this one: we can work to reduce unhelpful funding restrictions in our grants to operational partners. We can also commit to partnering more equitably with national and local response organizations.

Yes, all right, we’ll do all that.

What we also have to do is foster greater coherence between humanitarian response and sustainable development. The first part of this is about learning. Throughout my career I’ve worked on development and humanitarian challenges, and I think the two communities have a great deal to learn from each other. I’ve often said since becoming Administrator that development is an aspiration but it’s also a discipline. Humanitarian response is also a discipline. Right?

For any successful development venture to succeed, it must be focused on making sure progress can last well into the future. We all know and agree with that. That takes a careful understanding of the political, economic, and social contexts and a commitment to building capacity of the country's government and communities.

But for emergency responders, sustainability has simply not been a guiding principle in the past. The objective is most often to meet the needs, stabilize, and move on to the next fire. But there are opportunities for more coherence there.

Another concept prevalent in our development work is the idea of value for money. This is just as important in humanitarian response, and we need to start thinking about it that way. By the same token, we have to think more about how development assistance can be used more strategically in fragile and crisis situations. I’m sure many humanitarian responders have ideas, so let’s put those to work.

These are the kinds of conversations we need to be having as a broad community, and the World Humanitarian Summit is the right place to amplify them on the global stage. But we need these crucial conversations to inform concrete action.

For example, within the U.S. Government, we are working to build in a sustainable response trigger point within one year of the start of a crisis. Our idea is that at that point we would jointly assess the trajectory of the crisis and its aftermath to determine how we can tailor our approach to consider both humanitarian and development needs. We continue to prepare this process for the Summit in the hopes that it can serve as a model for others.

If we bring together the knowledge of the development and humanitarian communities, I know we can find the solutions needed to transform the way we respond to crises. But for this community to continue to respond like you have to disaster after disaster and crisis after crisis, the whole world is going to have to step up.

We have to expand the resources available to meet the high level of need, understanding that any contribution, no matter how small, is needed and impactful. Humanitarian response is a burden shared by all of humanity, and the way we finance it should reflect that. I am confident that we can make progress in all of these objectives, but it will take a great deal of hard work. But a little hard work never scared any humanitarian I know.

If we stand together as united as we have been in crises around the world, we can turn the tide against the erosion of humanitarian principles. We can better protect civilians, and take care of our own.  We can build a modern system capable of meeting modern challenges, and of meeting needs both urgent and important.

We can do all of this, but we will need compassion. We will need determination and grit, foresight and persistence, strength and courage. Fortunately for us, we already have plenty in this community. It was in Julia Taft and Anita Datar. It’s in the Ebola burial teams in Liberia who offered the dead their final dignity, and are still being shunned by the very people they risked so much to protect. It’s in those few honored here tonight, and of course it’s in all of you. Because that’s what humanitarians are made of. Thank you.


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