Lessons from an ecumenical humanitarian consortium: the ACT/Caritas Darfur emergency response operation
by John Borton, ACT/Caritas DERO, Erik Johnson, Danchurchaid, and Anne Masterson, ACT/Caritas DERO November 2006

This article reports on the lessons so far identified from a large, multi-sectoral humanitarian relief effort implemented through a multi-agency ecumenical consortium. It is hoped that the sharing of this experience will enable other agencies to draw on such lessons and stimulate further sharing of experience on the merits and challenges of operational humanitarian consortia.


Catholic and Protestant church agencies have a distinguished history of collaborating in their response to humanitarian need. For instance:

  • In the late 1960s, a group of Protestant and Catholic agencies combined to form Joint Church Action (JCA), one of the main channels for international humanitarian assistance to Biafra during the Nigerian Civil War. Between August 1968 and December 1969, JCA airlifted over 60,000 tonnes of relief materials to the Biafran enclave.
  • In the famine operations in Ethiopia in the 1980s, a group of Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic organisations formed the Joint Relief Partnership (JRP), which distributed over 400,000 tonnes of food between 1985 and 1986. JRP continued to distribute relief food until 2004.
  • In South Sudan, collaboration between Protestant and Catholic churches dates back to the 1980s, including the Sudan Ecumenical Operation Consortium (SEOC) and its successor, Church Ecumenical Action Sudan (CEAS).

One feature of such collaborations is that they take place in areas where the participating churches have some sort of prior presence on the ground – congregations, churches, administrative offices, etc. Another common feature is that there is typically a geographical or functional division of labour between the participating agencies.


The ACT/Caritas Darfur Emergency Response Operation

For the last two years, a large ecumenical consortium formed by Action by Churches Together (ACT) and Caritas Internationalis has been making a significant contribution to the international relief efforts in Darfur. The ACT/Caritas Darfur Emergency Response Operation (DERO) differs in two main respects from the earlier collaborations:

  • It is working in an area where the population is almost entirely Muslim, and the operation has had to build up its infrastructure almost from scratch
  • The collaborative effort of its international elements is organised within a ‘single management model’ so that staff seconded from an ACT member agency may report to a person recruited from a Caritas Internationalis member agency, and all report to a single director.

The scale of the collaboration is impressive: DERO provides a broad range of services (primary health, environmental health, nutrition, non-food items, agriculture, education, psychosocial, protection and peace-building) to approximately 325,000 internally displaced people, host communities and affected populations in 37 separate locations in South and West Darfur. Funding for these operations is provided by 60 ACT and Caritas member organisations around the world (six also channel funds from ‘backdonor’ bilateral and institutional funding sources), and expenditure was $31 million during the operation’s first 18 months. Although the reduced availability of funding for humanitarian agencies in Darfur has meant some scaling back of the programme in 2006, planned expenditures during the current year remain substantial, at $15m. In addition to the provision of funding, 13 ACT and Caritas member agencies have seconded international personnel to the operation.

Operationally, DERO is a consortium comprising:

  • Norwegian Church Aid (NCA), which has been working in Sudan since the 1970s and serves as the lead agency for ACT in DERO.
  • The Catholic Fund for Overseas Development (CAFOD), which serves as the lead agency for Caritas Internationalis within DERO.
  • The Sudan Social Development Organisation (SUDO), a northern Sudanese relief, development, human rights and advocacy NGO.
  • The Sudan Council of Churches (SCC), comprising 14 member churches undertaking relief and development work.
  • Sudanaid, the relief and development department of the Sudan Catholic Bishops Conference and national member of Caritas Internationalis.

Since October 2005, governance of the consortium has been provided by a 13-member board comprising representatives of the five partner agencies, the CI General Secretariat and the ACT Coordinating Office, and other ACT and CI member agencies supporting DERO. The chair rotates between the CI General Secretariat in Rome and the ACT Coordinating Office in Geneva.

Within the consortium, NCA provides the legal basis for the operation in Sudan as well as taking lead responsibility for logistics and financial management. CAFOD takes lead responsibility for the recruitment of international personnel. The ACT Coordinating Office in Geneva takes lead responsibility for pledging and fundraising within the ACT Alliance, whilst CAFOD has this responsibility within the CI Confederation. Funds are channelled to DERO via NCA in Oslo and Khartoum.

The planning, implementation and monitoring of activities in Darfur are undertaken by staff from the ACT/Carias programme, SCC, Sudanaid and SUDO, working in close collaboration. During 2006 and 2007, ACT/Caritas staff will gradually hand over directly implemented activities to the three national partners, so that the role of the ACT/Caritas ‘programme’ becomes a support office providing funding, logistical and capacity-development support.

As well as enabling the ACT Alliance and the Caritas Internationalis Confederation to mount a substantial and effective ecumenical response to the humanitarian needs in Darfur, DERO is also seen as having symbolic value for the two networks by demonstrating solidarity with people of different faiths. As the ‘north’ and ‘south’ of Sudan attempt to rebuild and achieve reconciliation and lasting peace following a long civil war, the coming together of the three Sudanese partner agencies demonstrates shared values despite the different cultural and religious backgrounds of the organisations involved.


Lessons identified and learned

Recognising the uniqueness of the operation and the need to learn during its implementation, DERO’s initial governing body implemented a learning process involving a consultant ‘Learning Support Adviser’, an independent evaluation and three Learning Reviews. Among the mid-course modifications made to DERO as a result of these mechanisms, probably the most significant was the October 2005 replacement of the loosely structured initial governing body with the DERO Board, with its wider representation, greater transparency and clearer lines of accountability.

Taken together, these learning mechanisms have yielded valuable insights. An important area for lesson-learning was the start-up phase from July 2004, which was over-ambitious, rushed and, as a result of difficulties in recruiting and retaining good managers, poorly managed. A steep increase in the number of IDPs in South Darfur in late 2004, and the arrest of four key national staff at the beginning of 2005, apparently as part of government harassment of NGOs involved in protection work, exacerbated the difficulties. So severe were the problems experienced during the start-up phase that, by the end of 2004, at least one funding member agency had withdrawn its funding. The arrival of a new director and new senior managers in January 2005 restored confidence. Implementation rates and the quality of reporting were quickly improved, and funding that had been withdrawn was reinstated.

Whilst the operational context was extremely demanding, the principal lesson from the start-up phase was that building up infrastructure, staffing and programmes should have been phased, so that both sectors and geographical areas of intervention were added successively as organisational infrastructure was developed.

However, the experience points to other important lessons for both ACT and Caritas, whether considered separately or jointly. These other lessons include the following:

  • Capacities to undertake effective emergency set-up were inadequate. This points to the need for the Caritas and ACT networks to establish emergency set-up teams consisting of specialists in a range of areas, including general management, finance management, HR and personnel management, logistics management, IT and communications and administrative support. Caritas Internationalis is in the process of identifying and training rosters of specialists from its member agencies.
  • Both networks need to recognise that they have very few individuals among their staff with experience of providing leadership in large operations. This might be addressed through more effective staff development programmes or the deliberate recruitment into particular member agencies of individuals who have gained such experience with some of the large operational humanitarian NGOs or with UN agencies.

In large part, these two lessons reflect the fact that the majority of ACT and Caritas organisations implement primarily though local partner organisations. Whilst this offers significant benefits in the longer run, it also presents particular challenges for the rapid establishment of large, operational programmes in difficult operating environments. In 2004, a programme on the scale of DERO was an ambitious venture for the two networks to take on. Both have since been taking steps to improve their capacity to rapidly establish operational programmes, and have acknowledged the need to improve their human resource capacities and procedures.

  • It should be recognised that newly created consortia face significant challenges over ownership, identity and the allocation of responsibilities. Such issues need to be specifically addressed. To achieve this would probably require the implementation of the following two lessons.
    • Governance mechanisms need to be established before key decisions are taken. In DERO’s case, several critical decisions had been taken even before the initial governing body had been formed, and some six weeks before its members physically met together. With the benefit of hindsight, decisions on such critical matters should have been taken by a group that was more inclusive of the key stakeholder organisations and which, given the scale of the commitments being taken on, involved more senior managers within the organisations.
    • In any new consortia, the organisations involved need to undergo a structured process of ‘getting to know’ each other at the outset. As the two lead agencies, CAFOD and NCA accept that they should have taken earlier and more conscious steps to understand each others’ values, policies, ways of working and areas where their capacities were well developed and less developed.
  • National partners must be involved from the beginning in key decisions and governance mechanisms, and the commitment to develop their capacity should be monitored by the governing body. In DERO’s case, the national partners only came to be included in the governing body once the new Board was established in October 2005. In retrospect, DERO would have benefited greatly from the earlier creation of posts with specific responsibility for ‘Partner Support’ and the undertaking of formal capacity assessments of all partners. In addition, local partners’ institutional knowledge of the local context was not fully captured by the consortium during this stage. Formal capacity assessments should be undertaken during the first few weeks of all new operations by a person/team working separately from any ‘set-up’ team.

In addition to the lessons that flow directly from the challenges experienced during the start-up phase, there are other, more general, lessons emerging from DERO’s experience. These include reflections such as:

  • Both networks have only limited capacity to provide effective backstopping to key operational sectors and organisational functions. One way in which this might be addressed would be for selected agencies within the ACT and Caritas networks to commit themselves to developing expertise and capacity in relation to specific sectors.
  • The current appeals systems followed by both ACT and CI, which consist of appeals covering 12 months, or in DERO’s case 18, are problematic. The lack of funding certainty and the tendency for donated funds to arrive over several months of the implementation period, rather than being concentrated at the beginning, limits the ability of programme managers to undertake forward planning, which in turn limits their ability to be cost-effective and places heavy demands for timeliness and accuracy on financial management systems. A suggested way of achieving greater certainty for planning would be for a proportion of the funding target to be underwritten by some sort of revolving fund, so that that proportion would be guaranteed to the programme regardless of the amounts eventually raised.
  • Accommodating the accountability requirements of institutional donors is inherently difficult in a consortium with a single management structure. Institutional donor funding is generally more predictable than privately raised funds, and can provide valuable longer-term support when large-scale emergencies have faded from the headlines and privately raised funds diminish. The consortium approach requires contract holders for particular donor grants to delegate implementation responsibility to the consortium, whilst retaining reporting and contractual responsibility to the institutional donor. This challenge is often a critical factor deterring agencies from participating in consortia.

DERO’s experience has been that it is possible to develop structures and systems that provide the required level of accountability, whilst respecting the consortium’s line management structure. A good example was ECHO funding channelled to DERO’s environmental health activities by Danchurchaid, which seconded a staff member to DERO to ensure that DCA’s responsibilities to ECHO were fully met. The relationship with the institutional donor requires careful management, and DERO’s experience has been that this is best provided by channelling all relations with a particular institutional donor through the member with the most experience of working with that donor. Where necessary and appropriate, the costs of the administrative contribution involved in such ‘single channel’ arrangements can be shared with other agencies’ headquarters.


Conclusions and a look to the future

DERO proves, once again, that ACT and Caritas can collaborate effectively in running a large joint operation. However, DERO takes previous collaborations a step further by proving that such operations can be undertaken in areas where the existing church infrastructure is virtually absent, and that the model of a single management structure can work as a means of achieving effective ecumenical operational programmes.

Whilst a number of the lessons from DERO’s experience are already feeding through into the policy and practice of ACT and CI and their respective members, it remains to be seen whether the DERO model, with its single management structure, will be replicated in other contexts. Initial work is underway to identify contexts where the structures and relationships between ACT and Caritas members are conducive to joint humanitarian operations. It is hoped that ACT and Caritas will build upon their and DERO’s experience, and that other combinations of lead agencies will be able to provide the necessary leadership and support to future ecumenical consortia.


John Borton (johnborton@ntlworld.com) is Learning Support Adviser, ACT/Caritas DERO. Erik Johnson is Emergency Relief Coordinator, Danchurchaid. Anne Masterson is Director, ACT/Caritas DERO.