World Vision’s emergency team responding to the South Sudan crisis. World Vision’s emergency team responding to the South Sudan crisis. Photo credit: Jeremiah Young/World Vision 2016
Organisational resilience and scaling up during a crisis: World Vision’s experience in South Sudan
by Jeremiah N. Young January 2017

The violence that broke out in the South Sudanese capital Juba in July 2016 resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people and the displacement of close to 40,000 within the city. In addition to the increased insecurity, Juba’s strategic location as the primary transit point for all humanitarian and non-humanitarian goods and services into and across the country meant that the violence not only impacted people in Juba, but was also a shock to the country’s humanitarian response system, resulting in significant setbacks to the provision of basic services country-wide in what was already considered one of the most urgent humanitarian crises in the world.

Despite the challenges, many humanitarian agencies, including World Vision (WV), maintained and, where possible, scaled up operations to address both the new needs of Juba’s urban population and the needs of people indirectly affected across the country. On 14 July, WV and its partners began their initial response in Juba, which included providing emergency nutrition screening and treatment to over 1,000 children under five on the first day, as well as other assistance, including the provision of shelter and non-food items, child protection services such as child friendly spaces and, when necessary, family tracing. Two weeks into the response, 40,000 people within urban and peri-urban Juba had been reached with lifesaving interventions, including the 28,000 already seeking shelter in the Juba Protection of Civilians (PoC) site prior to the outbreak of the violence.

This article uses an operational lens to reflect on and share WV’s experiences from the July 2016 crisis in Juba. The main reflections focus on an organisation’s ability to simultaneously leverage the separate and distinct benefits provided by organisational structure and flexibility, not only to withstand and adapt to new circumstances brought on by a crisis, but also to scale up operations to address new and growing needs. The term ‘spontaneous agility’ is used to describe this ability, reflecting the links and dynamic interdependences that can be institutionalised prior to the onset of a crisis to equip organisations like WV to respond better in similar circumstances.

Structure and flexibility

WV’s response in Juba was in part predetermined by several organisational approaches and structures mandated within the WV Global Partnership. The first was the organisational requirement for staff to undertake hostile environment awareness training (HEAT), and for their activities to be informed by a full-time security manager located in the Juba office. This anticipatory approach to security management meant that informed decisions specific to security could be made by WV management at the national, regional and global level, for example to decide whether or not to evacuate staff. A second example was WV’s Emergency Management System (EMS), which provides a uniform, adaptable framework for structuring the functions, roles, responsibilities and performance requirements necessary for an emergency response. In the case of WV’s response in July, the EMS was supplemented by sector-specific guidelines such as the Food Resource Manual (FRM), which provided guidance on assessing and responding to food needs with a variety of interventions. Having multiple staff experienced with the procedures for these interventions, as per the guidance in the FRM, allowed WV and its partners to mount a swifter, multi-location and often multi-sector response within urban Juba. However, this sometimes came at the cost of poorer monitoring and evaluation, including the ability to accurately count beneficiaries due to a lack of staff.

However, WV also found that its global systems, structures and processes can reduce flexibility to address issues that that are context-specific and outside of WV’s control, such as increased insecurity, bureaucratic impediments and general logistical challenges associated with working in a conflict zone. It was, for example, difficult to apply global processes and guidelines that had originally been designed for operations in less fragile contexts to mitigate against the risk of fraud, ensure value for money and be accountable to beneficiaries. This was particularly evident with regard to the procurement process, which requires three bids prior to contracting services such as drivers, buying equipment and supplies or chartering flights. However, WV’s offices located in the most fragile contexts allow senior management the ability to waive or circumvent some systems and processes which can slow down activities in what are very fluid situations, thus making them more flexible to the changing context.

Spontaneous agility

While recognising the need for both institutionalised structure and flexibility, WV’s ability to go beyond withstanding the July 2016 shock and display the agility to scale up despite having to face new and more difficult circumstances largely emerged organically and, to some degree, spontaneously. WV South Sudan identified four specific aspects that would enable even more agile programming during crisis situations if invested in further.

A holistic approach to emergency programming

WV South Sudan maintained a broad and holistic approach to emergency programming in the lead-up to the July response, allowing the organisation to engage different sector advisors across a large spectrum of needs. At one of WV’s first responses, at St. Terresa Kator in urban Juba, the focus was on providing emergency nutrition screening and treatment for under-fives. However, having sector leads for child protection at the National Office provided an opportunity to provide some family tracing services, set up child-friendly spaces and distribute non-food items (NFIs) at the same time, which was more efficient and effective than doing this separately and/or in different locations.

Building and leveraging strategic relationships

For WV one key aspect of the response in Juba was the ability to work with partners with whom the organisation had pre-established, strategic relationships. This included longstanding relationships with the World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), both in the country and globally. Both WV and WFP had prior knowledge and experience of each other’s abilities, systems and processes, enabling quicker access to each other’s resources during the crisis. For example, food and nutrition supplies from WFP and UNICEF were more quickly handed to WV as a pre-existing partner, eliminating what would have otherwise been a steep learning curve and contributing to significantly faster response times.

The other key aspect was regular communication between peers, including through regular involvement in the Cluster System. While the national and sub-national Cluster System helped provide a platform for collaboration to some degree ahead of the July violence, the crisis has shown the need for more intentional and strategic bilateral relationship-building with other organisations seeking to improve supplementary and develop complementary interventions.

Similar, but distinct from, the more formal relationships described above were partnerships with the local community, specifically community-based leadership structures and faith leaders. WV’s position as a faith-based organisation with pre-existing relationships with churches and community-based groups within Juba provided a level of trust that enabled more efficient and effective interventions during the crisis. As the vast majority of displaced people were in urban Juba, churches and other faith-based and community-based locations were key sites for those seeking shelter. During the early days of the fighting, WV staff remained in close contact with a network of individuals in those locations, which provided key information to track the flow of displaced people. These relationships were again leveraged to expedite the first needs assessments and organise, plan and carry out interventions at these locations. Relationships with key community stakeholders also helped WV to manage beneficiary expectations; for instance, church leaders understood that WV did not have enough supplies for everyone, and as trusted figures relayed this message on to prospective beneficiaries in order to manage expectations.

Information management for decision-making

The July crisis showed that managing the flow of information is essential, so that all staff, but particularly senior leaders at the national, regional and global levels, were provided the opportunity to make informed decisions as rapidly as possible. An individual dedicated to this task was considered ‘essential staff’, and was therefore not evacuated. This is important in that, despite having institutionalised this position to some degree, factors outside of WV’s control meant that senior leadership had to act outside of the systems and structures in place and create a more ad hoc function when the crisis broke out. Their role was to engage with sources of information, compile needs assessments and provide analysis of the context, which was used first and foremost to keep WV’s senior leadership informed of the evolving situation, while also engaging with external stakeholders such as the media and donors. This was a crucial element recognised by the leadership as a low-cost high-impact mechanism for making difficult decisions more quickly and with more confidence, such as decisions regarding who, when and where to evacuate staff from Juba and other field locations, and if, when and where WV could expand operations.

Flexible funding mechanisms

Despite having contingency plans in place, WV’s ability to operationalise them and also scale up a response to address new needs in urban Juba had more to do with the organisation’s ability to access fast and flexible funding (both internal and external). Several WV National Offices located in the most fragile contexts have access to at least one of two different internal flexible funding mechanisms. The Fragile Context Special Fund provides an annual allocation of funding to cover the higher operational costs associated with an established presence in a fragile context. However, during the violence in Juba this fund was also used to support costs associated with the evacuation of non-essential staff, thereby releasing other funds to cover costs associated with the evolving crisis, including the scaling up of WV’s operations.

WV South Sudan was also able to draw on private funding raised from across the WV Global Partnership. This funding was made available quickly, allowing the office to cover unpredictable costs that went beyond existing grants and the Fragile Context Special Fund. This enabled WV’s Emergency Response team to move quickly to provide emergency nutrition screening and treatment and food distributions with the resources they had at their disposal at the time, secure in the knowledge that other more restricted funding could be recouped and even leveraged later to acquire additional finance from external sources such as the START fund.

Whilst the internal funding sources available to WV during this and other crises may be unique and often not available to other organisations, the START Fund, managed by the START Network, proved a good example of a ‘middle ground’ approach to providing flexible funding for rapid emergency response. This multi-donor pooled fund disburses to responding agencies within 72 hours of a crisis alert through a peer reviewed mechanism. Once approved, the fund gave WV South Sudan and other applicants 45 days’ worth of funding to carry out emergency nutrition, child protection and NFI interventions.

Conclusion

While the ‘tyranny of the urgent’ almost always takes precedence, not enough time is spent on reflection. The exercise of writing this article has made us within WV consider how we can leverage both structure and flexibility to withstand and bounce back from shocks, for instance by investing in holistic programing, a more centralised mechanism for information management for decision-making, increasing the availability of flexible resources (particularly funding, but also time) and strategic partnerships. All of these steps should be institutionalised so that, in the near- and long-term, WV’s staff are better able to maximise their ability to improve the wellbeing of their beneficiaries during times of crisis.

At the same time, operational organisations like WV are significantly affected by other stakeholders, structures and flexibilities – or a lack thereof. For example, our ability to respond would be greatly enhanced if more external, flexible funding mechanisms were built into emergency and relief grants as standard, giving more organisations the capacity to respond and scale up in crises, and thus contributing to a more robust response across the humanitarian community. At the same time, the international donor community seems to be paralysed by bureaucracy and political interests that work against efforts to create more coordinated political and operational responses.

In sum, the humanitarian community in South Sudan did well during the crisis, given the time, funding and staff available in such a fluid and uncertain environment. However, we can do better. By recognising and intentionally addressing the issues identified above, stakeholders will be better equipped to maximise their ability to address the vulnerabilities experienced by children, families and communities in South Sudan, and beyond.

Jeremiah N. Young is Policy and Peacebuilding Advisor, World Vision South Sudan.

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