Issue 13 - Article 4

OCHA One Year On: Is Humanitarian Coordination any Better?

June 5, 2003
Sarah Longford, Policy Section, World Food Programme, Rome, Italy Based on an interview with Ross Mountain, Assistant Emergency Relief Coordinator and Director, OCHA-Geneva

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) was created within the UN Secretariat as a part of Kofi Annan’s reform programme in January 1998. It replaced the widely-criticised and short-lived Department of Humanitarian Affairs (DHA) which had in turn replaced an ailing coordinating disaster relief office (UNDRO).

Under the new leadership of Sergio Vieira de Mello, OCHA is again trying to find the right profile. Focus has been reduced to three main themes: coordination of humanitarian response, policy development, and advocacy. Essentially, OCHA’s mandate is ‘to mobilise and coordinate the collective efforts of the international community, in particular those of the UN system, to meet in a coherent and timely manner the needs of those exposed to human suffering and material destruction in disasters and emergencies.’ [1] A tough call, considering the institutional boundaries of the UN agencies, politics within the Secretariat, the whims and interests of donors, and the proliferation of organisations now involved in the aid business.

So what has changed in humanitarian coordination apart from the name of the coordinating body? Is OCHA making a difference? To be fair, these questions are a little premature given the relative youth of OCHA. However, a look at some of the main elements of humanitarian reform will give an idea of the current direction and challenges.

Structural reorganisation

A clear change was the transfer of responsibility for mine action, demobilisation programmes and disaster mitigation to the Department of Peace-Keeping Operations and UNDP, allowing OCHA to shed most of its so-called operational responsibilities. Still in process is a handover of its relief storage facility in Pisa to the WFP.

Less clear has been the rearrangement of functions and division of labour between OCHA’s offices in New York and Geneva: the ‘political and humanitarian capitals’. The New York office now consists of a revamped but sadly under-staffed policy, advocacy and information division, the IASC/ECHA [2] Secretariat, and an emergency liaison branch. The latter, given its proximity to the heartbeat of the UN’s political, military and security decision-making authorities, is key in feeding the leadership with the latest cross-cutting policy issues for the Secretary General and the Security Council. On the other side of the Atlantic the Geneva office, led by Ross Mountain as Assistant Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, has been re-established as the principal focal point for emergency response, field coordination support and day-to-day contacts with ‘the field’. Its Complex Emergency Response Branch is responsible for strategic field-based planning and consolidated appeals, while the Disaster Response Branch (essentially the UNDRO of old) is responsible for natural, environmental and technological disaster response. An IASC liaison unit is attached to Ross Mountain’s office and, as an anomaly, the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction Secretariat, in its last year, still reports directly to the office in New York.

A question not addressed in the reform process was the potential benefit of merging the natural disaster and complex emergency response branches. This could have built up institutional memory – especially for countries which are both prone to recurring natural disasters and suffer protracted conflict – and brought more coherence to the abundance of preparedness and response mechanisms that co-exist but don’t necessarily interrelate. For example, OCHA’s Emergency Telecommunications Project, the UN Disaster and Assessment Coordination team, the Military and Civil Defence Unit, and the Emergency Stockpile Register, while all worthy projects in their own right, still need to be rationalised in the context of overall standby and response capacities.

The creation of OCHA has also required a painful staffing regularisation exercise to bring it in line with standard UN rules and procedures. Despite some new agency secondments, Ross Mountain admits that ‘OCHA is not a new creation and not based on new recruitment, but on existing personnel.’ He also highlights the continuing unstable funding base: ‘Of the 137 core posts at OCHA, 60 per cent still need extra-budgetary financing, something we highlighted at the ECOSOC special session. But despite support in principle from donors and developing countries, more long-term financial support has not been translated into reality.’

Field coordination and response

OCHA now has field coordination offices or integrated information networks in 23 countries, with a Moscow office reopened recently. The offices, mostly inherited from DHA, have met with varying degrees of success, and the quality has often been dependent on funding levels and the ability to recruit field staff as and when needed. Of fundamental importance, Mountain stresses, is that ‘OCHA’s humanitarian coordination units report to the UN resident coordinators and humanitarian coordinators (RCs/HCs) and don’t act as a headquarters outpost with a separate function. This was perhaps not understood in the past.’ But field coordination depends not only on the provision of adequate, timely and experienced support by OCHA to RCs/HCs. It also depends very much on the standard of leadership and preparedness of the coordinators themselves.

A UNDP–OCHA consultation with RCs/HCs took place in December to discuss how to improve field coordination. The coordinators made a number of basic recommendations for follow-up by UNDP and OCHA, including ways to strengthen in-country coordination, relate to headquarters, improve strategy and programming, and the relationship between humanitarian principles and political action. The central role of NGOs was acknowledged given that they ‘are not only indispensable partners but are also important channels of resources’. Additionally, recognition was given to the current inadequate standards of security coverage for humanitarian staff and the need for more funds to be made available for supporting field security.

One of the main coordination tools for complex emergencies at the field level is the Consolidated Appeal Process (CAP). In the past these have been criticised for being ‘shopping lists’ of aid projects with no prioritisation. Together with IASC members, OCHA invested much effort in 1998 to strengthen each stage of appeal preparation and has made significant steps forward. In line with UN reform, the CAP is now supposed to be ‘the principal mechanism for collective programming and resource mobilisation for the UN system’ and it seems generally accepted ‘to have a set of agreed principles as basic guidelines for any humanitarian operation’.

Each document will also include a common humanitarian action plan, or CHAP. This is an articulation of goals and objectives of the humanitarian community for the period covered. Another interesting development is that there is recognition that security components need to be included systematically into the appeal documents. The culmination of these efforts was the first ever launch of 13 UN consolidated inter-agency appeals, together, in December.

Advocacy and policy priorities

Although sometimes lacking focus and impact in its policy work in the past, OCHA has begun, based on more extensive consultation with the IASC, to identify specific humanitarian issues of common concern and use its voice at the highest levels as well as in conjunction with political, peace-keeping, human rights and development actors. At the top of OCHA’s policy and advocacy agenda is the need to build greater respect for humanitarian principles and international humanitarian law – a theme addressed by de Mello at the Security Council recently. The relationship between human rights and humanitarian action as well as the humanitarian impact of sanctions regimes are two other major areas for continued work in 1999, as well as the need to facilitate a coordinated strategy to address internally displaced persons issues. Little progress was made by DHA on this latter issue.

With regard to the issue of ‘from crisis to recovery’, and how to stimulate interest from development actors at early stages of a relief effort, Mountain recognises that ‘this is a real problem and a tortuously long process’. As an example of a recent initiative to try and address this problem in countries affected by Hurricane Mitch, OCHA worked closely with UNDP to launch a transitional appeal drawing attention at an early stage to mid- and long-term needs.

Clearly OCHA differs from DHA in the way it takes on a more prominent advocacy role and proactive approach to coordination. But the main problem that faced DHA will continue to test OCHA – that is, the buy-in from others. Many aid agencies are totally unaware of OCHA and its potential role. Many that are aware still question the expertise and authority of non-operational ‘coordination staff’ and the additional layers. In sum, OCHA’s true potential in contributing to humanitarian coordination can only be achieved with the active, rather than just verbal, support of donors and all operational agencies. As Mountain says ‘the proof will be in the pudding’.


[1] Excerpt from OCHA’s mission statement

[2] Inter-Agency Standing Committee/Executive Committee for Humanitarian Affairs. 

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