Issue 17 - Article 20

Contingency Planning in the Balkans: From Lessons Learned to Emergency Readiness

June 4, 2003
Chris Sykes
6 min read

In the wake of the Kosovo crisis, CARE International has taken several steps to improve its readiness capacity in the Balkans. This has not been an easy process, and a number of fundamental problems have been encountered. These have been both internal and external to CARE, and are probably shared by most organisations carrying out preparedness-planning exercises. How the humanitarian-assistance community deals with these difficulties could define how ready we are to respond to the next complex emergency.

Developing a regional strategy

The humanitarian response to the Kosovo crisis was made less effective by the lack of regional preparedness. As a federation consisting of many different members, CARE’s first step was to create a Balkans Coordinator position at the Secretariat office in Brussels to coordinate the many actors within CARE in the Balkans. The Balkans Coordinator has improved communication between the different offices in the region, which has resulted in an increasingly harmonised approach. This has helped create a more coherent regional strategy.

As a second step, CARE retained the services of a Balkans analyst to provide in-depth analysis of events in the region, and their possible humanitarian implications. These steps have led to several regional contingency-planning meetings to discuss emerging trouble-spots, and CARE’s probable response. As an example, following the rise in tensions along the eastern border of Kosovo and southern Serbia, representatives from several offices in the Balkans met in Skopje in early April. With facilitation by the Balkans Coordinator and background analysis from the Balkans analyst, the various offices came up with a plan for an orchestrated response to several potential scenarios.

Another output was the commissioning of a regional preparedness plan that anticipates the possible consequences of the most recent political events in the Balkans. During the planning process, the different country offices in the region evaluated their current response capacities in relation to some possible emergency scenarios. As a result, CARE has made a number of strategic decisions as to how it would respond in the event of another regional crisis. These decisions are based on a number of considerations:

  • the type of humanitarian crisis;
  • CARE’s geographical presence;
  • the presence and capacity of other international agencies;
  • competing global priorities;
  • available resources;
  • current and future capacities of each mission;
  • staff security; and
  • donor relations specific to each office in the region.

Based on these criteria, a framework for responding to a crisis has been established. This has enabled the Balkans missions to identify both human and material resources that can be shared within the region, thereby enhancing overall readiness. The preparedness process is by no means complete, and will continue as long as the potential for another humanitarian crisis in the Balkans remains.

Obstacles to contingency planning

Despite the progress made in analysis and planning, CARE has encountered a number of obstacles to preparedness planning. These difficulties are by no means exclusive to CARE, and they need to be addressed by the broader humanitarian-assistance community if we are to become better prepared for complex emergencies.

Political sensitivity

A number of the lessons-learned reviews identified the sensitivity of local authorities to emergency preparations as a major deterrent to access, sharing of information and operational preparations. A number of agencies were reluctant to divulge the contents of their contingency plans, or even acknowledge the existence of a preparedness-planning process with other agencies, the concern being that, in many cases, local authorities are sensitive to any mention of the domestic and regional political instabilities which are at the root of many of the problems concerning aid agencies. However, a way must be found to enable agencies to coordinate their contingency planning without negative ramifications in terms of the local authorities.

Political sensitivities also impede attempts to survey the local population as to their options in the event of a crisis. Although one always has to be cautious not to raise alarm in potentially affected communities, gathering information on where families would move and the coping mechanisms at their disposal is vital to preparedness planning. The political climate in parts of the Balkans has prevented this sort of information-gathering, making it difficult to predict the choices at-risk populations will make. This makes inter-agency collaboration, in the form of coordinated planning, ever-more critical for piecing together potential emergency scenarios.


Thorough contingency and preparedness planning requires financial resources which are often difficult to find, particularly when agencies face a number of competing priorities. Resources are essential for information-gathering, analysis, training, procurement and the pre-positioning of materials. Committing these resources is especially difficult when it comes to the pre-positioning of both human and material assets in anticipation of a potential crisis. Often the rationale for taking these steps is speculative in nature and based on imperfect information, which tries to predict the consequences of events that are not easy to forecast. This in turn makes it difficult to justify taking such steps to donors.

Once again, there is a need for greater information-sharing and joint preparedness in order to achieve efficient economies of scale. NGOs also need to advocate for greater donor commitment towards preparedness planning as a critical step to more timely and effective emergency response.

Competing global priorities

Humanitarian agencies are usually faced with a number of competing global priorities, and have to make difficult choices in terms of time and resource commitments. When deciding to carry out the contingency planning exercise for the Balkans, the question was asked: why the Balkans and not the Horn of Africa, Indonesia or Sierra Leone? In an ideal world, the means would exist for comprehensive preparedness planning to address any number of emergency scenarios simultaneously. None of these areas was excluded from some level of planning, but ultimately CARE was faced with having to make practical strategic decisions based on factors such as donor support, regional presence and capacities. A confluence of these factors was present in the Balkans, which afforded CARE the opportunity to invest in a more comprehensive planning exercise (fortunately not at the financial expense of other regions, since the resources were identified in the region itself).


CARE is better prepared than it was before the Kosovo crisis to respond to a number of potential emergency scenarios in the Balkans. However, there are still improvements to be made. CARE’s continuing capacity review will seek to better identify some of the internal impediments, and recommend structural changes in order to improve CARE’s overall emergency-response capability. Lessons learned from the Kosovo crisis are making a valuable contribution to improving CARE’s regional and global response capacities.

Chris Sykesis CARE International Balkans Coordinator.































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