Issue 45 - Article 1

Implementing humanitarian reform in Colombia

January 4, 2010
Bruno Moro, Humanitarian Coordinator in Colombia

The Humanitarian Reform (HR) process, initiated three years ago in Colombia, has significantly improved the quality of humanitarian coordination and response. Although much is still to be done to fully consolidate the reform, Colombia has made great progress towards its ultimate objective, which is ‘to improve the effectiveness of humanitarian response by ensuring greater predictability, accountability and partnership; and to reach more beneficiaries, with more comprehensive needs-based relief and protection, in a more effective and timely manner’.[1]

Why Colombia?

Back in 2006, a number of reasons for selecting Colombia as one of the reform’s roll-out countries were considered. First and foremost was the need to better address the humanitarian problems of those most affected by the longstanding internal armed conflict in the country, and by increasingly severe natural disasters. With different armed actors locked in constant fighting, and two yearly rainy seasons that recurrently flood vast areas of the country, rural communities remain extremely vulnerable.

The second factor was the increased international humanitarian presence, which required improved coordination mechanisms to ensure a non-duplicative and value-added humanitarian response. It appeared necessary not simply to improve coordination within the international humanitarian community, but also between international organisations and the national authorities. The government of Colombia is by and large the main provider of assistance to internally displaced people ($500 million yearly since 2004). However, local institutional response capacities are often insufficient or overstretched by the magnitude of emergencies, either because municipal budgets leave narrow margins for humanitarian assistance or because there are gaps in technical knowledge. In certain cases, such as displacement caused by the eradication of illicit drug crops, no assistance is provided by the central government and local response capacity is rapidly overwhelmed. While the Constitutional Court has established a solid legal framework for attention provided to IDPs and vulnerable groups, and the government’s commitment is significant, adding value to national response capacity required a major shift in the way humanitarian organisations worked, increasing humanitarian presence on the ground; setting up effective coordination mechanisms at the local level; conducting sectoral, geographic and demographic needs analysis, with evidence-based plans for humanitarian response; developing resource mobilisation strategies; and establishing a consolidated Humanitarian Country Team.

Finally, it was acknowledged that implementing HR in Colombia represented an opportunity to develop a context-based framework for humanitarian action. Inasmuch as global policy guidelines outline the main components of HR, in Colombia – as in many other countries – from the outset the objective was that new structures and mechanisms should be reflective of and adjusted to the local context.


Humanitarian Reform in Colombia

In September 2006, a group of delegates from the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), led by Dennis McNamara, UN Special Representative on Internal Displacement, visited Colombia. The delegation made nine recommendations to the Humanitarian Coordinator and the UN Country Team, recommendations that still serve as benchmarks against which to measure progress in implementing HR:

  1. Consolidate the Humanitarian Country Team (or IASC CT) as the primary mechanism for coordination, policy formulation and decision-making on issues related to the international response.
  2. Ensure a coherent approach to humanitarian action and a common vision.
  3. Coordinate with government authorities, state institutions and civil society.
  4. Develop an IASC CT strategy and yearly work plan.
  5. Establish three IASC Thematic Groups to promote common approaches and avoid introducing too many coordination mechanisms (the groups are Protection, Assistance and Basic Services and Early Recovery).
  6. Strengthen field presence.
  7. Promote area- and community-specific approaches.
  8. Strengthen local institutions through capacity-building programmes.
  9. Improve information management to ensure that information on the humanitarian situation and the response is available at any given time.

An IASC CT was established with the participation of 11 UN agencies and nearly 80% of all humanitarian INGOs operating in the country, plus the ICRC, IFRC and ECHO as observers. The monthly meetings of the IASC CT (chaired by the HC) serve to share information and facilitate planning and decision-making on strategic issues. The three Thematic Groups, with their sub-groups, correspond to areas of focus within the Cluster approach at the global level. These groups take the lead in developing and implementing sectoral plans. An Inter-Thematic Group was also created to ensure coherence among the three groups and their sub-groups. The first objective of the IASC CT and the Thematic Groups was to conduct a country needs assessment – which has been kept updated ever since – and, in accordance with its findings, establish local IASC coordination mechanisms (LCMs). Figure 1 illustrates the current humanitarian coordination architecture.

Today, there are nine local ‘IASC-like’ coordination mechanisms in ‘hot-spot’ regions/provinces. In these regions, specific communities are prioritised. Humanitarian workplans formulated at the beginning of each year have helped in bringing together the combined capacities of UN agencies and INGOs on the ground to address protracted and sudden emergencies. In addition, through the LCMs, the humanitarian community has conducted advocacy designed to integrate humanitarian and development issues in Departmental and Municipal Development Plans and other policies, such as contingency planning, protection of civilians, preparedness and disaster risk reduction. The objective of this process is to ensure a strong field presence and coverage in areas prone to humanitarian emergencies. LCMs are facilitated by OCHA. Thematic Groups have provided technical assistance and work jointly with the LCMs in order to ensure sector- and area-specific approaches. OCHA compiled information and conducted research for selecting the nine prioritised regions. Among other initiatives carried out by the LCMs are joint field missions and follow-up reports on humanitarian situations, support for the implementation of projects funded through the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) and wider advocacy activities conducted with regional Ombudsmen and Governors.

In February 2009, the HC and OCHA organised a national retreat to evaluate the implementation of these reforms, as well as to outline priorities and goals for the year. One important result of this retreat was the preparation of a joint paper on impact criteria and indicators to better measure progress. In particular, participants agreed on the need to increase humanitarian response in areas where there was no field presence, to mainstream disaster response within the IASC structure and to strengthen humanitarian advocacy in Bogota and in the field.

The overall capacity of the IASC CT to address humanitarian needs has been boosted through the mobilisation of additional resources since 2007. In particular, $11 million from the CERF Rapid Response Window has been allocated to address disaster-related emergencies, and an additional $5 million from the Under-Funded Emergencies Window has been used to address protection and assistance needs among Afro-descendant and indigenous communities along Colombia’s Pacific coast. Meanwhile, in 2009, an Emergency Response Fund (ERF) – a local pooled fund mainly for NGOs – was established, under the supervision of the HC and managed by OCHA. Delegates from the Thematic Groups make up a review board that vets projects submitted to the fund.

Colombia does not have a Consolidated Appeal Process (CAP). While the government argues that national capacities make this mechanism unnecessary, it also acknowledges that UN agencies and their NGO partners need more coherent and strategic planning and funding mechanisms. The government and the Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes, who visited Colombia early in 2009, agreed that the IASC CT would develop local humanitarian frameworks or plans for the most affected regions of the country.

It is also worth mentioning that the UN Emergency Technical Team (UNETT), which includes INGOs, the Colombian Red Cross and national authorities, has developed a Flood Response Plan to address the immediate humanitarian needs caused by severe floods across the country, and to mobilise resources for early recovery and actions oriented towards more durable solutions, particularly in the areas of water and sanitation and income generation. The UNETT and wider Humanitarian Reform structure, while broadly divided into natural disaster and complex-emergency themes, interact on a number of levels, and involve many of the same members.

What has been achieved?

Implementation of HR implied learning a new language and rationale, organising numerous meetings to establish common ground on strategic and operational guidelines, (re)thinking terms of reference for Thematic Groups, undertaking the collective production of common action plans and sustaining the required level of commitment and engagement among key actors. Three years in, an overall improvement in humanitarian coordination and response effectiveness has gradually been observed. Information costs have dropped significantly through a common information-sharing and coordination platform. Logistical costs are also being reduced as a result of enhanced coordination. Joint field missions over a period of nearly three years have become a distinctive and standard characteristic of the international humanitarian response, involving UN agencies and their international NGO partners. More importantly, implementing HR is increasing the ownership of common strategies, plans, interventions and actions, and enabling the international humanitarian community to better interact with governmental authorities.

However significant the overall improvements might be, challenges remain. The international presence on the ground is still insufficient and greater efforts are needed to strengthen the protection of civilians. As Colombia is a vast and diverse country, and protection by presence is essential, humanitarian partners must increase their presence to assist and advocate for communities affected by conflict and disaster, and better respond to specific needs at the local level. It is also important to emphasise that all humanitarian interventions should be framed and implemented such that they reflect protection concerns. A differentiated approach is needed which recognises differences according to gender, age and community (afro-Colombian and indigenous). This includes supporting efforts to prevent displacement, such as the Ombudsman Early Warning System, looking at ways to develop a strategic and systematic dialogue with the military and other parties to the conflict and the implementation of a strategy to reduce sexual and gender-based violence, as an integral component of humanitarian work.

Finally, in the absence of a CAP it is necessary to find ways to secure funding for humanitarian operations in Colombia that allow flexibility and rapid response to regionalised conflicts and disasters. It is particularly important to continue the dialogue with the Colombian government on a framework to mobilise resources, and for the government to increase its own allocations for humanitarian interventions. A possible way forward could be the definition of local humanitarian action plans, one of which is currently being prepared for the Pacific coast. In this regard, the recent approval of $5 million through the Under-Funded Emergencies Window is a significant step forward. Donors are increasingly interested in pooled-funding mechanisms, and supported the establishment of the ERF for Colombia. It is essential that humanitarian funding is linked to issues related to early recovery and preparedness, and that humanitarian and relief work is linked to durable solutions.

Bruno Moro is Humanitarian Coordinator in Colombia.

[1] See


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