Lowcock to head up UN’s humanitarian arm

12 May 17

UK Aid’s chief civil servant and CIPFA member Sir Mark Lowcock has been appointed as the next head of the United Nation’s humanitarian operations.



Mark Lowcock, permanent secretary, Dfid. Credit: Patrick Tsui/FCO

Mark Lowcock, permanent secretary to Dfid since 2011, is widely expected to be confirmed as the next UN humanitarian chief soon. Credit: Patrick Tsui/FCO


Lowcock, who has worked in British overseas aid for over three decades, will take the helm of the UN’s humanitarian wing, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, at a time of dwindling aid spending and unprecedented need.

As it looks to find savings worth at least $20m in 2017 – about 10% lower than its budget in 2015 and 2016 and $60m lower than its 2016 appeal – OCHA is cutting jobs, closing in-country offices and set to undergo a substantial overhaul.

Lowcock will take over this effort from current OCHA head and former Conservative MP Stephen O’Brien. He differs from his predecessor, and others before him, in that he is a bureaucrat rather than a politician.

“His management and financial background will be critical to running OCHA as effectively as possible,” said Christina Bennett, head of the humanitarian policy group at UK think-tank the Overseas Development Institute.

“I think it’s a good appointment,” she added. “He’s got good knowledge of the sector, and the difficult aspects of it. I think he’s very familiar with some of the issues and challenges we’re dealing with.”

Lowcock joined the civil service in 1985, in Dfid’s predecessor body the Overseas Development Administration and has worked in UK aid ever since, qualifying as an accountant in the process.

In his most recent post as permanent secretary at the UK’s Department for International Development, which he has held since 2011, Lowcock was responsible for the department’s finances and accountable to the British parliament for how Dfid spent its £12bn (in 2016) budget.

While he has faced criticism amid increasingly heated debate about the size of the UK’s aid operations and some spending fiascos, Dfid is renowned for being a world leader in the aid sector.

As per the UK’s 2015 new aid strategy, Lowcock oversaw the restructuring of the aid budget around new priorities and funding mechanisms, with more cash channelled through cross-government funds and other government departments.

Again, Bennett said this experience would be helpful in his new role, which is expected to be confirmed soon. It’s not just OCHA that is under pressure and looking to reform, but the entire UN and international aid system more generally.

Lowcock would need to be able to provide a vision for the humanitarian sector amid a challenging international environment – the kind of vision, leadership and ability to navigate complex bureaucracy he has already shown at the helm of Dfid, she said.

But Bennett pointed out that the role of UN humanitarian chief is a “dual-hatted” job. As well as managing OCHA, Lowcock would be responsible for coordinating emergency relief across a number of different organisations, crises and governments and acting as the voice of those in crisis.

“I think it remains to be seen how he’s going to fare,” she said. “That role requires really high-tuned political acumen.”

But she noted that it doesn’t always need the vocal charisma typically associated with politicians. “There is a role for quiet charisma,” she said, noting it’s not always necessary to be as visible and loud as possible to command respect or support for your mission.

Andrew Mitchell, the former UK international development secretary who appointed Lowcock to the post of permanent secretary, told the UK’s Civil Service World last year: “Mark’s guidance and his advice were always welcomed. When he said, ‘That would be quite a courageous thing to do minister’, we students of Yes, Minister thought very carefully before doing it. His advice was always outstandingly good.”

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