Interview: Martin Barber, on humanitarian work and a global response to coronavirus

Farewell Call: The Secretary-General with Mr. Martin Barber, Mine Action Organization, photo by UN

“Can I tell you a little story?”- What Martin Barber’s career in humanitarian work has to teach us about a global response to Coronavirus. Interview by Gabriella Emery.

As a journalist at Oxford, the sky really is the limit in terms of who you may be able to approach for interview. It didn’t take me long to know who I wanted to reach out to for this conversation. While at Sixth Form, I read Martin Barber’s Blinded By Humanity, after being lent it by a teacher when unsure if the world of humanitarian work was for me. Martin was the Director of the United Nations Mine Action Service (UNMAS) from 2000 to his retirement in 2005, and his book gives an engaging, raw, and unfiltered account of what a life in service to the world’s most vulnerable had taught him. I began, during our phone call on a damp Tuesday morning, by asking him what he was currently involved in:

“The main thing I’m involved with at the moment is an initiative called United Against Inhumanity. This is a relatively new attempt to mobilise people around the world to protest inhumanity in war and refugee situations. We feel that crimes against humanity have almost become normalised. Governments are able to get away with bombing hospitals and the only response from the international community seems to be to say, “Oh how dreadful- we must send some aid.” So I’m a member of the international executive committee of United Against Inhumanity and I also chair the UK local branch called UAI in the UK.”

When I had emailed Martin originally, I had asked if he would be interested in talking about the word on everyone’s lips at the moment- Coronavirus. I didn’t want to start by discussing the UK as that’s all we get in our news channels, understandably. From his unique position as someone who has seen and overseen a plethora of humanitarian operations, I wanted to know how he felt this may hit the developing world differently and what our main concerns should be:

“I think the first thing I’d like to say is that, as everybody will understand, it’s extremely difficult to predict what’s going to happen. But I do think it’s worth looking at a distinction between those governments which operate normally on the basis of withholding information from their own citizens and those which have a more open attitude towards sharing information.

I think it’s also worth bearing in mind that in recent history some governments have shown a willingness to sacrifice very large numbers of their own citizens in order to maintain power. If we only look at events in my life-time, such as the famine in Mao’s China, the genocide in Cambodia, famines in the Horn of Africa since the 1970s and more recent food shortages in countries like Venezuela and Zimbabwe, these have been caused or greatly exacerbated by political decisions intended to keep a regime in power. so I think one shouldn’t underestimate the readiness of some leaders to accept a level of sacrifice, by which I mean death, in their population.”

Refugees in Thailand on motorcycles in a detention facility after fleeing the Khmer Rouge Regime in Cambodia. In June 1978, Martin was assigned to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Regional Office in Bangkok.

Refugees in Thailand fleeing the Khmer Rouge Regime in Cambodia. In June 1978, Martin was assigned to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Regional Office in Bangkok.

I pause here for a moment, thinking about the gravity of what Martin has just reminded me and with hope (and perhaps some naivity) I ask if there’s anything the international community can do to stop that huge loss of life or are we going to have to sit and watch as this unfolds:

“I’ve thought for some time that a major weakness in the international architecture is the relative weakness of regional organisations. And I do think that in the coming years one would hopefully see a growth in the activity, in the level of resources put into regional organisations such as the African Union (AU) and Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), because I think that the activities of governments which are not conforming to basic norms are perhaps best influenced by their neighbours rather than by us, for instance, sitting thousands of miles away. So if the architecture of response to this pandemic could feasibly be built up around a recognition that a nation should be reporting through their regional organisations and strengthening the capacity of regional organisations to advise, support, assist, document, all the things you need to do in a crisis- that would be a plus.”

Donald Trump has coined this the ‘Chinese Coronavirus’, symptomatic of the rise in nationalistic tendency in the West. We are very much seeing nations looking inwards in dealing with this crisis. I asked Martin if this is something we should be wary of:

“I think it’s really important from the outset to emphasise this is global and perhaps this is the moment to remark that Yuval Noah Harari points out that almost all aspects of our lives have become globalised- economy, commerce, communications, even things like entertainment. The one aspect which hasn’t is politics. We are willing to pool sovereignty on issues like air traffic control but states have become more inward looking and we talk about the retreat from multilateralism. Multilateralism was a response to two world wars. The aftermath of the First World War saw the League of Nations, the first really multilateral organisation. After the Second World War, that was replaced by the United Nations. The whole concept of an organisation like the United Nations was built out of a recognition that individual countries, even individual regions could not deal on their own with issues of global significance and their impact. And so, we find ourselves facing this global pandemic at a time of retreat from multilateralism. We see major leaders turning inward rather than outward. This is extremely worrying. I think it will impact on the way support is provided to developing countries. We see today, for instance, the situation in India where you have the most extraordinary disruption of normal life by the government trying to lock people down where they have no adequate safety-net, and I fear that we’re only at the beginning of potential breakdowns in national and local economies which will have very serious consequences.”

I then moved to ask him that question I was most afraid he’d have no answer to, about areas of high density in the developing world, for example refugee camps, and whether we could, in any way, minimise the spread of this virus among vulnerable people there:

“Again I think that, and if you don’t mind me saying so, asking that question in that way, is perhaps the wrong way to ask it. The way I would ask the question is ‘How can local communities and organisations and authorities best prepare themselves to respond?’

If we are interested in supporting that, we should find ways of supporting a local response. So I think this isn’t a challenge we should pose to ourselves, it’s a challenge that local communities and organisations around the world are already posing to themselves. It is interesting to be reminded that the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies was founded in 1919 to help local Red Cross societies with their response to the influenza pandemic which killed 50 million people. Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies around the world, along with other local organisations, are preparing their community-led responses. We should ask what we can do to support their efforts.

I sense that in some of the conflict zones currently raging in different parts of the world there could be opportunities to make peace off the back of preparing for the impact of coronavirus and we can support that too.”

For the second time in the interview, I’m left feeling a little naive that I could’ve been thinking about this problem in such a way, and to pull it back and redeem Martin’s opinion of me, I retort that could we not also see the opposite, that the fear and anxiety could fragment society more and exacerbate conflict or that it could create a kind of chaos in which hostile groups can profit from the instability and gain power:

“I think the second part of your question is more likely. I don’t think we’re going to see a growth in the number of wars. I do think it’s quite possible that this extraordinary disruption of normal life will open up opportunities for challenges to governments. I mean it’s pretty obvious to everybody that the levels of disruption to normal life that we’re seeing in India, in South Africa, in Russia, In Europe, in the US, you can’t expect to do that without consequences.”

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Due to a lack of access to the internet in these camps, word about the Coronvirus is only spreading by word of mouth.
Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Due to a lack of access to the internet in these camps, word about the Coronvirus is only spreading by word of mouth.

Martin had already told me that he finds the “blame game terribly unhelpful” and so I ask my next question hesitantly, as to whether the world could have done more to prepare for a pandemic such as this:

“There was a very interesting report that came out in the middle of last year from the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, sponsored by the World Bank and WHO and led by Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Director-General of WHO, former PM of Norway, which said that the world was woefully underprepared for a disaster which is bound to come which would be a respiratory viral pandemic. They predicted it almost down to the detail. And the fact that countries in Europe don’t have sufficient stockpiled PPE shows that governments have not taken a preparedness approach. It also reflects governments’ perception of threats. An article published by the Costs of War project in the US points out that in the last few years the US government has vastly increased its expenditure on military assets and decreased its expenditure on public health and things like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which is the essential organisation for dealing with this kind of outbreak.

Another article, by Karen von Hippel and Randolph Kent in the journal of the Royal United Services Institute, details the concept of ‘black sky hazards’ and these are things like a breakdown of the internet and of course pandemics. It shows that the way that governments have been prioritising particular sectors has been short-sighted and not based on a serious assessment of probable risks. If this experience resulted in a willingness to engage in serious global preparedness work in the face of ‘black-sky threats’, then that would be a big step forward.”

Just about everyone seems to be giving their two cents at the moment about what the government should be doing. I hope that Martin will pour into what is a sludge of tweets and angry reacts some valuable insight from his years of responding to crises. His answer certainly didn’t disappoint:

“One thing I think the UN experience around the world has demonstrated, and many countries in the developing world do this, is that somebody in each country really needs to be appointed as the coordinator. I don’t think it’s reasonable for the prime minister to take on that role because a prime minister cannot be expected to do it full time. You need someone, directly accountable to the prime minister, and who is at the head of a multidisciplinary interdepartmental mechanism for dealing with all aspects of the country’s response to this crisis. It struck me that when the EU was thinking about how to respond to Brexit it decided “OK, we need somebody who will represent us, all of us, 27 of us, at a senior level and he will be the focus and this will be Michel Barnier”. Well I think the EU should appoint a ‘Michel Barnier’ for COVID-19 and the British government should appoint a coordinator for COVID-19 because that allows the prime minister and the whole country to feel that the response is in the hands of a structure that is led by an identifiable person.

I was just talking yesterday with a couple of former UN colleagues and we had exactly the same reaction after the Grenfell Tower disaster. The extraordinary thing was that no one seemed to be in charge of the response and to us who spent our lives working in the UN that was the most obvious thing, the first thing you do is to appoint your best available person as the coordinator of the response.”

My last question brings the anecdote I’d been fishing for throughout the interview, and I think this is perhaps where I least expected Martin might bite. Among the titles Martin has held over the years is Director of the UN’s Mine Action Service, where he was a pioneer in treating de-mining as a humanitarian exercise, a venture he was deservedly awarded an OBE for in 2006. As I ask what advice he would give to the opposition in government, he reminisces on his years in Afghanistan:

“In a crisis, if you’re managing a crisis, one of the things that can be very useful is when you get severely criticised for not doing something. Can I tell you a little story?

This is 30 years ago, in Afghanistan, in 1990, I was working for the UN running the humanitarian response, and there was clearly a huge problem if refugees went back to their villages. A lot of the area was infested with landmines. No international organisation before anywhere in the world had done mine clearance. It just simply hadn’t been a thing and there weren’t any NGOs doing it so we were really starting from scratch. So at the humanitarian coordination office, we very tentatively initiated a project with some money we got from just two governments to clear some mines in one of the border provinces. We recruited through an Afghan organisation 60 people to go and start clearing mines. After we’d been doing that for a couple of months the ICRC out of the blue issued a press release saying that if the UN continued at this pace with their de-mining operation in Afghanistan it would take 1200 years to clear the landmines.

My colleagues thought this press release was terrible. I thought about it for a moment and said, “You know what, this could be rather good news because this puts the fact that we, as a humanitarian organisation, are doing this very firmly into the public domain and we’re being told that we’re not going fast enough. Great! Then we can speed up.”

And to be perfectly honest we persuaded other governments to support the mine clearance program in Afghanistan as a humanitarian action on the back of that ICRC criticism that we were going too slowly. And up until then those governments had been telling us this is not a humanitarian activity, it’s a military activity.

Now I realise this is not an exact parallel with our current situation, but I think that some of the steps that the government took to strengthen the lockdown and the self-isolation were taken in response to labour party criticism and the government was able to overcome doubts in its own ranks by using the criticism they were getting from the Labour Party. This is a good way of justifying taking unpopular decisions if you can persuade the opposition to criticise you for not doing something which, as a leader, you believe needs to be done.”

De-mining efforts continue in Afghanistan to this day, something Martin’s team started in the 1980s after the wothdrawal of Soviet Union forces, photo by Mines Advisory Group (MAG),