Ensuring the predictability of emergency response: the DRC Rapid Response Mechanism
by Silvia Danailov and Steven Michel, UNICEF/DRC July 2008

For over a decade, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has moved in and out of the headlines as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, rivalling only Darfur and natural disasters such as the Indian Ocean tsunami and the Pakistan earthquake. Despite the official end to civil war and democratic transition, culminating in the first nationwide democratic elections in over 40 years in 2006, the era of conflict-related emergencies and the need for massive humanitarian response is sadly far from over. One has only to look at such situations as the current crisis in North Kivu, where hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes, to recognise how far parts of the DRC are from emerging beyond the emergency phase.

Within this context, a unique partnership and emergency response capacity arrangement called the Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM) was launched in late 2004. The RRM is designed to provide critical multi-sectoral assistance to victims of complex emergencies, natural disasters and epidemics in the DRC. To date, the RRM has assisted more than 2 million victims of rapid-onset emergencies, the majority of them internally displaced persons. Managed jointly by UNICEF and OCHA, and implemented together with three international NGOs – Solidarités, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) – the RRM is recognised by humanitarian actors, donors and external evaluators as the most effective multi-organisation, multi-sector, emergency response mechanism in the country. This article briefly presents the RRM’s operational modalities and institutional set-up, and the opportunities and challenges the mechanism offers in the context of the cluster leadership approach. We also highlight key lessons learned, drawing on past experience and an external evaluation of the RRM completed in early 2007 (Ed Rackley, ‘External Evaluation of the Rapid Response Mechanism in the DRC’, March 2007).

How the RRM works

Since the mid-1990s, humanitarian emergencies in the DRC have been concentrated in the east of the country, where conflict between and among a dizzying mix of armed groups threatens the lives and livelihoods of Congolese people living there. The crisis has been characterised by large-scale population displacement, abuses and lack of access to basic social services. Conflict and the effects of displacement aggravate already alarming rates of morbidity, mortality and malnutrition. Despite the recurrent and almost predictable nature, location and scope of the DRC’s emergencies and their impact on civilians, the capacity for a predictable, systematic or rapid response has been limited. In response, in late 2004, UNICEF and OCHA, with the initial support of donors such as DFID and OFDA, established a pilot initiative – the Rapid Response Mechanism (RRM) – with the endorsement of the DRC Humanitarian Coordinator. The RRM aims to guarantee standby capacity for four key activities:

      1. Rapid multi-sectoral assessments within 72 hours of news of a crisis, security and access permitting.
      2. Multi-sectoral response in three primary sectors (household family relief, water, sanitation and hygiene assistance and primary education). Two secondary areas are also covered: the provision of basic medicines and health supplies to partner organisations and health facilities, and the punctual distribution of BP-5 high-protein biscuits.
      3. Advocacy and coordination with other actors to promote complementary emergency activities in the fields of food security, health and protection.
      4. Systematic monitoring of activities and interventions.


RRM partners evaluate needs and provide assistance to vulnerable populations who have been internally displaced for less than three months, or who are newly accessible, as well as victims of natural disasters or epidemics (mostly cholera). The three-month criteria has been flexible. While the RRM’s geographic focus is eastern DRC, the response is triggered whenever and wherever there is limited capacity to address the needs of emergency-affected communities. RRM interventions with ad hoc partners have been carried out in every province of the country, in response to emergencies ranging from flooding and torrential storms to isolated population movements and ethnic violence.

In the four provinces most plagued by recurrent humanitarian crisis, long-term partnerships have been developed with the NGO focal points (IRC in South Kivu, Solidarités in North Kivu, CESVI and, since 2006, Solidarités in Ituri, and since early 2006 CRS in Katanga). Beginning in 2004, UNICEF has entered into agreements with these NGOs providing them with financial and material resources to meet the four core RRM activities. Each NGO partner has established operational bases within their zone of operation, with sufficient staffing and logistical capacity to fulfill their mandate.

UNICEF’s role is to provide technical programmatic guidance, ensure overall coordination, procure and dispatch all relief supplies to the partner’s provincial warehouses, monitor and document the interventions and negotiate with donors. OCHA helps coordinate the RRM interventions with other key actors to ensure a complementary response in other non-RRM sectors, as well as managing the complementary Rapid Response Fund (RRF), which enables other organisations to respond to emergency needs in non-RRM sectors, or to complement the standard RRM partners’ interventions when needed. In Ituri in mid-2006, for instance, the crisis was on such a scale that support from water and sanitation specialists, particularly Oxfam, was required.

In addition to daily interactions amongst the RRM actors, OCHA, UNICEF and the NGO focal points have weekly meetings in each of the four regions. The outcomes of these meetings are systematically shared with the Provincial Inter-Agency Committees attended by all UN agencies and key NGO humanitarian partners.

UNICEF received $17.6 million in 2006 to manage the RRM, and about $11m for the period January–September 2007. On average, RRM partners assisted an average of 100,000 people per month in 2006, and about 70,000 a month in 2007. The cost-effectiveness, quality and scope of interventions, and the rapidity of the RRM response, have been acknowledged by numerous organisations in the DRC and beyond, including the donors which continue to fund the RRM. An external evaluation of the RRM finalised in early 2007 highlighted the simplicity of the model and the economy of scale it provides.

The RRM and the cluster approach

Since early 2006, the DRC has been one of the pilot countries for the introduction of the IASC cluster leadership initiative. UNICEF has been given the lead in five out of ten clusters established in the DRC – water and sanitation, nutrition, education, non-food items/emergency shelter and emergency tele/data-communications (as co-chair with WFP). As the cluster approach aims to ensure a predictable and effective humanitarian response, the RRM and the operational partnerships with stand-by NGOs are at the heart of UNICEF’s approach to cluster leadership in the DRC. Indeed, the RRM can be considered as the operational arm of UNICEF as the cluster lead and provider of last resort in the sectors of watsan, NFI/emergency shelter and education. UNICEF has established provincial clusters and sub-clusters in the emergency-affected provinces, most of which are co-chaired and convened by key international NGO partners. In effect, UNICEF retains the cluster accountability at the national level, with NGOs sharing the convener and facilitator role for clusters at provincial level. In all four provinces where RRM has a stand-by partner agreement, the NGO focal point shares cluster leadership as co-chair of the provincial NFI/emergency shelter cluster and, in some provinces, also as co-chair of the watsan and education clusters.

Lessons learned

Although both the RRM and the cluster approach are relatively new, UNICEF and its partners have been able to draw out some key lessons from the experience so far.

1. Non-RRM sectors.While the RRM has been relatively successful in ensuring coverage in its three core areas of response – NFI, watsan and education – the lack of a parallel or complementary mechanism to meet immediate and acute needs in non-RRM sectors – particularly food security, health and protection – has meant that needs in these areas have not always been adequately addressed. The external evaluation highlighted this as a primary concern. The punctual assistance the RRM can provide in the fields of health (with pre-positioned medicines and medical supplies) and BP-5 high-protein biscuits has not been able to compensate for this shortcoming. RRM partners have neither the capacity nor the mandate to implement the whole spectrum of emergency interventions in any given crisis.

A central recommendation from the external RRM evaluation was that the RRM concept of stand-by partnerships, staff and supplies should be adopted by the cluster lead agencies in the food, health and protection sectors. As an example, UNICEF – as the cluster lead for nutrition – has established, together with the NGO ACF-USA, a form of rapid response mechanism for nutrition in under-served provinces, called the RPN (Strengthened Nutrition Programme), to provide last-resort capacity assistance. While there have been significant improvements in complementary responses with other humanitarian actors, particularly in food assistance, significant work remains to ensure better coverage across all sectors of the humanitarian response in the DRC.

2. Intervention criteria and triggers.The RRM has tried to maintain its focus on rapid-onset emergencies, with response within three months of displacement or disaster (and in most instances much, much quicker). The challenge has been in considering response in three areas: a) vulnerable communities who have been displaced, but with minimal assistance, for significantly longer periods of time; b) chronic health emergencies such as cholera in endemic zones of South Kivu and Katanga; and c) situations of protracted displacement in host family settings or collective sites, where displaced populations remain for several months and more, and where other more medium-term assistance mechanisms have not yet kicked in.

For the most part, the answer has been to be flexible, but to try to avoid being ‘all things to all emergencies’. The first situation has been the subject of considerable discussion among UNICEF, OCHA and the RRM partners. Over the course of the RRM, we have become increasingly aware that the temporal criteria of assistance (those displaced for less than three months) is not always an appropriate indicator of vulnerability. While the assumption that coping mechanisms have started for people who have been displaced for more than three months is valid, this is not always a sound reason in itself for according such communities a lower priority for assistance. In certain situations, the opposite has been true. Displaced families from the western shores of Lac Albert lived relatively comfortably with host families during the first months of displacement in the village of Lisasa in northern North Kivu province. As the welcome wore thin, however, these families became more vulnerable and more in need of RRM assistance. The assistance they received, in the form of non-food items, allowed these families to vacate host homes and establish makeshift settlements on land made available by local leaders. With operational partners on the ground able to examine the particularities of each situation, the RRM has been able to be flexible in its approach, while not being compelled to assist all vulnerable populations all the time.

3. Information management.As highlighted in the external evaluation, one of the short-comings of the RRM programme has been a lack of comprehensive and comprehensible information. Robust information management has been a casualty of limited resources, and of the focus by partners on response over information-sharing and reporting. While operational partners produce numerous reports detailing their evaluation missions, interventions and post-intervention monitoring visits, UNICEF and OCHA have not been able to compile information on the range of activities undertaken in forms that are easy to aggregate and analyse. Nor has much emphasis been placed on providing guidance or leadership to partners in this area. Important steps have been made to remedy this, but in retrospect it was acknowledged that much more attention should have been given to information management from the beginning of the RRM.

4. Impact monitoring.Another area highlighted by the external evaluation was impact monitoring. Emphasis has been placed on process and output – numbers of IDP families reached with NFI kits, numbers of people using water facilities rehabilitated by RRM partners, number of displaced school children attending class in classrooms rehabilitated by RRM partners. Partners also invest in post-intervention monitoring, and this has been useful in adapting the content of NFI kits. Nevertheless, until recently there was little attempt to understand – let alone measure – the impact of RRM interventions. As with information management this has not necessarily been an oversight, but a programmatic choice given limited human and financial resources. Although UNICEF acknowledges this as an area for improvement, and with its partners has started to study ways of looking at impact monitoring, time and resources must continue to be devoted to strengthening capacity.

5. Evidence-based advocacy.RRM focal point teams have often been the first, and in some cases the only, humanitarian actors to assess and assist certain disaster-affected communities. The question has been asked: are we losing an opportunity for advocacy on displacement and civilian protection? While partner reports systematically include background and contextual information on the origins of disasters and population displacements, it was acknowledged that more effort needs to be invested to leverage this information in advocacy or dialogue on protection issues with combatants, governments and the wider international community. Efforts to address this are being made, including additional RRM staffing capacity on protection advocacy and systematic linkages with the protection cluster with regard to information-sharing and follow-up.

The key role played by UNICEF in the implementation of the RRM and the cluster approach for the emergency response in the DRC has enabled the organisation to fulfill its main humanitarian commitments on behalf of the most vulnerable conflict-affected populations, in particular children and women, who account for the vast majority of the RRM beneficiaries.

Silvia Danailov (sdanailov@unicef.org) is Head of Emergency Section, UNICEF/DRC. Steven Michel (smichel@unicef.org) is Emergency Specialist, UNICEF/DRC.