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A Conversation with Mark Lowcock, “A Design Flaw in the UN System for Declaring Famine”

Gebrekirstos interviews Mark Lowcock on the themes of his book from the prism of the crisis in Tigray and Ethiopia.



Mark was the head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs before he left it in 2021. Currently,  he is a Visiting Professor at the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics and Distinguished Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington, DC. He has recently written a book titled “Relief Chief: A Manifesto for Saving Lives in Dire Times”. I sat down with Mark for a brief conversation on the general themes of his new book, especially looking at some of the issues of humanitarian aid and the UN agencies through the prism of the crisis in Tigray and Ethiopia.

About his book Relief Chief: A Manifesto for Saving Lives in Dire Times

Mark describes Relief Chief: A Manifesto for Saving Lives in Dire Times  as both an account of his experience as the head of UN Humanitarian Affairs coordinating humanitarian operations, with chapters on the major crises across the world including the Horn of Africa, Syria, Yemen, Sahel, Rohingya, and on natural disasters, and a list of things to do (the manifestos) to make humanitarian responses more effective around the world, but from a perspective which is realistic, which does not pretend that the UN or humanitarian agencies have power and influence that they don’t have.

Questions and Context

Before Mark left his job as a relief chief in June 2021, he bluntly said there is famine in Tigray. Recently he said Ethiopia successfully blocked the declaration of famine in Tigray and that the international system for declaring famine is broken. After he left his relief chief job, Mark wrote an excellent article for the Centre for Global Development where he said Abiy has two aims on Tigray: “ the first is to starve the population either into subjugation or out of existence. The second is to do that without attracting the global opprobrium that would still, even in today’s fractured geopolitical environment, arise from deliberately causing a massive famine taking millions of lives.”

Given these views of Mark and the fact that things have gotten worse for Tigrayans since June 2021, I asked Mark whether Abiy has succeeded in his aims and the international community and humanitarian organizations have failed in their missions of protecting vulnerable communities.

Following that, I asked whether the UN system is broken or it has design problems, if Ethiopia that is accused of committing crimes can block processes and decisions at the UN.

Referring to the dangerous acts and words of the heads of UN agencies in Ethiopia including demonization of Tigrayans and repeating government talking points1, I asked Mark what he thinks of the case of UN agencies being dangerous, opposite to their mission, to people like Tigrayans who are in relatively powerful countries that want to eliminate them.

Mark says the UN is an organization of member states where regonized governments get to speak for their countries, and that it is extremely difficult for humanitarian organizations to do humanitarian work without the cooperation of the host country. In his book Mark writes Nelson Mandela’s advised Meles that “the various ethnic groups should have been encouraged to think of themselves as Ethiopian first and foremost, subjugating their ethnic and tribal origin” but that this did not happen. Given that Abiy is now using the language of unity for his war on Tigray and others, and that there seems to be no UN mechanism to protect people like Tigrayans, I asked Mark whether pushing for independence to be a UN-recognized member of the community of nations was not a logical thing to do for people like Tigrayans to be able to exist as people and to get UN protection.

For Mark’s responses to these questions, and other points, please watch the interview video.

Relief Chief: A Manifesto for Saving Lives in Dire Times is available from AmazonEurospanIPG and other booksellers.


  1. In one of the leaked audios, UN Ethiopia representatives said two shocking things 1) evidence must be verified and accepted by the Ethiopian government in order to be deemed credible and 2) they hesitate to use personal testimonies of rape victims as evidence, calling media reports a “hype”.  The second round of audio leaks , Maureen Achieng IOM Chief of Mission to Ethiopia and Representative to the AU, UNECA and IGAD said “the TPLF are dirty and vicious” and  “I will never go back to that region [Tigray]”. 

    Three months after the start of the Tigray war, Assistant Secretary-General and Director of UNDP‘s Regional Bureau for Africa Ahunna Eziakonwa  and Administrator  of United Nations Development Programme Achim Steiner wrote a shocking note (see also this) to the secretary general where they justified the weakening of Tigray and the brutal ethnic cleansing in Western Tigray. They also repeated many government deceptions and talking points as facts, to the extent of referring to Tigray as “a 2-year old cancer in Ethiopia’s body-politic”.  

     On Jun 8, 2021, Dr. Catherine Sozi, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator,  speaking to Fana FBC (a government media)  when the conflict was in Tigray and the regime was using “Northern Ethiopia” to erase Tigray, she repeated government talking points using such terms as “Northern Ethiopia”, “law enforcement”, “solidify partnership with government, UN job is to help government, UN is on the same page with Ethiopian government”, etc. It was painful to watch.
    António Guterres taking Abiy Ahmed at his words “I confronted the Prime Minister with that question, and he guaranteed to me that they have not entered Tigrayan territory.”  

Gebrekirstos Gebremeskel is a researcher, runs (NLP resources & tools), and manages Tghat. He is interested in science, history of ideas and the politics of the Horn.

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