People with their registration cards for a food distribution in Jonglei State, Waat. People with their registration cards for a food distribution in Jonglei State, Waat. Photo credit: Pawel Krzysiek/ICRC
The South Sudan Level 3 designation: from policy to practice
by Julien Schopp January 2017

On 11 February 2014, the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC) declared that the humanitarian situation in South Sudan warranted classification as a system-wide Level 3 (L3) emergency. A little less than two months before, on 15 December 2013, fighting had broken out in the capital Juba between troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and those of the Vice-President, Riek Machar. The fighting quickly spread to other states in the newly independent nation. The sudden conflict caught civilians unprepared and caused the initial displacement of 646,000 people, with 85,000 seeking refuge in UN peacekeeping bases that would soon come to be known as Protection of Civilian (POC) sites. Needs were immense in a country already plagued by endemic food insecurity and very poor health services, and the capacity of the government and the international community, UN and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) was limited. Most actors had shifted their focus to development programmes following independence in 2011. In these circumstances, the declaration of an L3 emergency was supported by everyone operating in South Sudan.

L3: the Original Sin

It is worth noting here that, as with other elements of the second humanitarian reform process+The first humanitarian reform process was initiated in 2005 and resulted in the 2006 establishment of the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), a strengthening of the Humanitarian Coordinator system (leadership) and the implementation of the ‘cluster approach’ to ensure adequate response capacity, accountability and strong partnerships though enhanced response coordination. that became known as the ‘Transformative Agenda’,+ the Level 3 system-wide activation was designed to support humanitarian response in extreme natural disaster responses, such as the 2010 Haiti earthquake and Pakistan floods. In practice, however, of the first four humanitarian crises that were declared L3 – Syria (January 2013), the Philippines (November 2013), the Central African Republic (CAR) (December 2013) and South Sudan (February 2014) – only the response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines corresponded to the initial intent of the designation. It is possibly also not a coincidence that Haiyan is considered the most effective humanitarian L3 response, and the only one that was stood down in a timely fashion, six months after the initial declaration.

As with other current conflicts (Syria, Iraq, Yemen), designating the South Sudan response as an L3 and then focusing on the criteria describing the nature of the conflict as its main qualifier led to the problematic creation of a permanent crisis, a never-ending ‘state of emergency’. The scale and urgency of the crisis was always going to produce huge numbers of people affected directly or indirectly by the conflict. The layered complexities linked with access constraints, extreme food insecurity and protection of civilians considerations were always going to argue for the continuation of L3 status and staffing.

In South Sudan, perhaps more acutely than in similar contexts such as CAR, differing interpretations of the importance of the five L3 criteria relative to each other (see text box) led to sharp disagreement on the need to extend the designation, starting as early as six months in. Those in favour of standing down the L3 designation argued that its objective had been reached through the scaling up of response capacity, prioritised recruitment of experienced emergency personnel, strengthened leadership of the Humanitarian Coordinator and stronger funding streams. Others, focusing on the scale and complexity of the crisis as the primary rationale, argued that standing down the L3 designation would be perceived by the outside world as a downgrading of the importance of the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan, even though needs continued to escalate. Contrary to its initial intent, L3 thus became a designation of the severity of the humanitarian crisis and of the needs of affected people – not, as originally envisioned, a system-wide tool to force self-reflection and ensure that the humanitarian community at the country level was best equipped to respond effectively.

Box 1 Schopp
L3 in South Sudan: too little too long?

Following the L3 designation, a comprehensive response architecture was re-established: the existing Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) was revitalised and started meeting twice a week, and clusters devoted to sector coordination were well-staffed, at least in Juba. In the initial stages, these mechanisms allowed for better strategic alignment of all actors engaged in the response. An all-out effort began to convince agencies, NGOs, the media, donors and the wider diplomatic community that more resources (human, financial, logistical) were needed. The surge capacity of the UN Inter- Agency Rapid Response Mechanism was set in motion, and the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) allocated $30.3 million to the South Sudan response. The inner complexities of a UN integrated mission with political and peacekeeping responsibilities led to the creation of a Deputy Humanitarian Coordinator position to support the humanitarian response. Although it was recognised quickly, as in the Operational Peer Review (OPR), that ‘needs outstrip the available capacity of the system’, the impact of the immediate L3 humanitarian response was deemed as successful as could reasonably be expected, in terms of basic food security needs and support to civilians sheltering in UN bases.

The indirect consequence of the establishment of such a heavy architecture was a proliferation of meetings to service the document requirements of the L3 machinery, centring many actors and decisions in the capital and making it more difficult for staff to get to the field, where the needs were.+Please see the Humanitarian Programme Cycle reference module – module_2015_final_.pdf– for details. Throughout the response, the consensus was that the humanitarian community was not reaching people in need in less visible and insecure areas. The humanitarian system became absorbed by its own processes and priorities, including cluster funding requirements from the pooled funds mechanism and the production of the Humanitarian Needs Overview and Humanitarian Response Plan, as noted during an InterAction mission in November 2015.

As the L3 designation entered its second year, the initial benefits of the deployment of high-calibre staff on short rotations of three to six months started to be outweighed by the traditional downsides of high staff turnover. This was particularly felt at the cluster coordinator level, where post-holders spent the first month getting to grips with the context, the second understanding their responsibilities and the last implementing, with an eye on their next posting. For both the UN and NGOs, this revolving door of staff made it very difficult to maintain continuity in terms of strategy, style and consistency. In this sense, while the L3 designation allowed UN agencies to boost their capacity, it also created a fear that revoking L3 status would weaken this capacity, with the best staff being plucked away by other L3 responses such as Syria or Iraq. Rather than consolidating the benefits of the designation, agencies thus began to over-rely on surge capacity, sanctioning a system of high turnover with limited institutional memory.

Despite its aim to reinforce collective action and strategic alignment, another unintended consequence of the L3 designation in South Sudan was that the centrality of bilateral donor investments allowed a couple of UN agencies to grow to the point that they were not accountable to the collective. Controlling most of the financial resources, and more importantly essential logistical assets and information on access, these behemoths became too big to challenge. Under the rubric of assisting populations, they sidestepped the system-wide decision-making structures set up after the L3 designation, often prioritising their own institutional interests over those of the collective. This was particularly noticeable with the implementation by the World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) of rapid response mechanisms that lacked coordination and transparency in their implementation. This was underscored in the OPR conducted in June 2014: ‘concern was expressed that the over-prioritization of large-scale actors and large-scale “life-saving” operations – rightly undertaken in the initial stages of the response – has undermined the quality of aid’.

However, the main fear expressed during discussions on the potential deactivation of the L3 designation were related to funding and the consequences for the resourcing of a very expensive humanitarian operation. While no evidence was available to substantially link an L3 designation with significantly increased funds – for example, the L3 designation in CAR never really produced an increase in funding commensurate with the gravity of the situation, while the Ebola epidemic and Nepal earthquake response, not designated as L3s, both enjoyed robust funding – the argument was raised again and again, eventually prevailing as all agreed that the possible loss of funding was not a risk worth taking. It is important to note that humanitarian donors in Juba themselves strengthened the funding argument by stating that the L3 designation gave them more leverage with their capitals to maintain the highest funding levels possible.

As a result, the L3 designation – interpreted as an indicator of the severity of the humanitarian crisis, rather than as a mechanism to boost the capacity of the collective to respond – became a tool to bolster funding and justify the (unfortunately mostly legitimate) scope and cost of humanitarian funding appeals. The fact that the L3 is not seen as a simple technocratic tool to enhance internal and collective response capacities but an outward-facing communication instrument has also led to unintended consequences in subsequent large-scale humanitarian crises. In 2016, neither the drought in Ethiopia nor the food security and displacement crisis in north-eastern Nigeria were designated as L3 at least partly because of concerns from these two governments about what such a qualification might infer about their own capacity to respond to humanitarian needs.

L3 in South Sudan: deactivation and beyond

The Level 3 designation in South Sudan was finally stood down in May 2016. It is still unclear if this has had any adverse effects on the response to needs in the country. Not being an L3 any longer did not appear to hamper the humanitarian response that followed the resumption of open conflict in Juba in July 2016. The needs of newly displaced and conflict-affected people were tended to swiftly – testament to a humanitarian community that was ready to respond to the unexpected, and which, unlike in 2013, overwhelmingly decided to ‘stay and deliver’.


The Level 3 designation was designed to address weaknesses in collective humanitarian response capacity in the face of exceptional circumstances. As demonstrated first and foremost in South Sudan, by becoming the de facto indicator of the severity of a crisis it paradoxically became a desirable designation for Humanitarian Country Teams. L3 became synonymous with global attention and enhanced means to respond to a crisis, possibly something that would look good on a résumé – an acknowledgment of the complexity of the job. Unfortunately, the very legitimate aim of gearing up the collective response through a system-wide designation of a Level 3 emergency has been tarnished by its implementation in extremely complex protracted conflicts such as South Sudan. Many of those working on defining the objectives and realistic impacts of an L3 declaration within the IASC system have attempted to refocus the attention of decision-makers at the global and field level on the necessity to get back to a narrower, operationally focused and time-limited collective mechanism, as originally intended. It appears, however, that the genie will not get back in the bottle, maybe because, in an environment of ever-growing need and scarce financial and human resources, the L3 designation became a convenient moniker that appeared to capture the complexity of current humanitarian interventions, as well as the patchy system built around them.

Julien Schopp is Director of Humanitarian Practice at InterAction.