Views from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

Sir John Holmes helps launch the Public Health in Humanitarian Crises Group

By Musa Yousuf, research student

Tuesday 20 November saw the official launch of the Public Health in Humanitarian Crises Group – a research group focussed on improving the public health of populations affected by armed conflict or natural disasters.

The launch event was well attended by staff, students and guests. Sir John Holmes delivered a speech on “Humanitarianism in the 21st century” to mark the occasion.

Sir John held a number of key posts in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office before becoming advisor to John Major and later Tony Blair. He also served as UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.

Sir John shared his experience going back to the early 90s and highlighted the pace and advancement of humanitarian crises and responses around the world.

He then gave a brief overview of the patterns of humanitarian crises and the growing problems associated with them, both in terms of impact and response. I was particularly interested to hear about his predictions for the future and the need for better preparedness.

He talked about the fact that natural catastrophic disasters, such as the Haiti tsunami, are going to become more prevalent. Patterns of drought in the horn of Africa will increase and this is attributable to sustainable development and climate change.

Sir John also gave practical case studies and examples when the humanitarian community responded well. He highlighted the key characteristics of these in terms of better coordination, the protection of civilians, and the use of technological advancements to respond and develop affected communities.

I was interested to learn how the humanitarian response needed to balance the acute response with development, and how important it is to support the rebuilding of local infrastructure. He mentioned many key features of an effective response, including better communication between partners and making use of the private sector.

A very lively question and answer session followed, facilitated by Professor Martin McKee. The evening concluded with some networking. I asked Sir John about his view of British government policies in relation to peace building in Somalia. It was a very interesting conversation.

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