Issue 39 - Article 10

UN humanitarian reforms: a view from the field

July 10, 2008
Katharine Derderian, Eric Stobbaerts, Iesha Singh, Simone Rocha and David Melody

From July 2006 to July 2007, a Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) working group undertook a field-based study on the UN’s humanitarian reforms. MSF has long been concerned about UN and donor policies of ‘coherence’, mission integration and the politicisation of aid in contexts such as Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Sierra Leone and Afghanistan (See, for example, Penny Harrison, ‘The Strategic Framework and Principled Common Programming: A Challenge to Humanitarian Assistance’, Humanitarian Exchange, no. 19, September 2001; and MSF, Angolans Left To Die, October 2002). The UN humanitarian reforms have generated renewed interest in how coherence translates into field reality, prompting MSF to gain a field-based understanding of the reforms.

Our study reviewed the reforms through three interlinked issues: 1) implementation; 2) impact on humanitarian response; and 3) influence on the humanitarian working environment. To reflect a range of different contexts and types of humanitarian response, MSF teams conducted research in Darfur, South Sudan, the DRC, Haiti, Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire, as well as carrying out interviews on issues relating to Iraq, Somalia and Uganda. This study aimed to gain a field-based perspective across diverse contexts, and to draw practical conclusions about the impact of the reforms.

Our findings suggest that the UN humanitarian reforms represent an extension of integrated UN missions, whose structure and activities aim to align political, military and aid objectives. As such, the reforms foster an environment conducive to the breaching of humanitarian principles of independence, impartiality and neutrality. As the reforms introduce coordination and funding tools aimed at increasing coherence, the imperative to arrive at joint analysis and response stands in tension with the inherent diversity and complementarity of humanitarian action, based on independence of analysis and intervention. Within integrated UN missions, the reinforced role of the Humanitarian/Resident Coordinator/Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General in both coordination (clusters) and funding (the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) risks further conflating political and humanitarian aims. In this highly politicised atmosphere, serious questions arise about how the reforms impact on perception of humanitarians in the field, and on their ability to provide timely and appropriate assistance to those most in need.

The reforms: an overview

Launched in early 2006, the UN reforms consist of three interrelated measures aimed at improving humanitarian response:

  • The introduction of nine thematic ‘clusters’ for coordination at field and ‘global’ levels, with each field-level cluster led by a UN agency functioning as ‘provider of last resort’, and accountable to the UN Humanitarian Coordinator.
  • The relaunch of the CERF as a financial instrument for rapid response and under-funded emergencies, followed up by the UN HC in-country, where priority-setting for response may occur through the clusters.
  • Strengthening of the HC role as the hub for both clusters and the CERF, often with a simultaneously political and humanitarian function.

Analysis of the reforms has raised significant concerns, including:

  • Whether they have achieved their stated goals of improving humanitarian response, including effectiveness, timeliness and accountability. Both the clusters and the CERF have been criticised for increasing layers of coordination and funding, while lacking accountability and consistent evaluation of their impact. Concurrently, cluster ‘accountability’ to the HC raises the question whether NGOs should be accountable to the UN system. 
  • The extent to which the reforms address broader problems in humanitarian response, including the lack of skilled staff, gaps in analysis and failure to fund and offer political support to humanitarian action. Clusters and the CERF are limited tools in addressing cross-cutting issues or long-term and transition contexts.
  • The shape UN–NGO relations will assume. With UN agencies acting as cluster leads, or with direct access to CERF funding restricted to UN agencies, the UN wields significant influence over NGOs through the reforms – in stark contrast to the majority of aid capacity and activity, which is provided by field-based NGOs.

Most analysis evaluates the reforms according to their own logic, rather than examining the interconnected objectives of the different reforms and their impact on humanitarians’ operational environment. Drawing on field-based examples, this article examines the ongoing policies of coherence and integration as furthered by the UN reforms, and their impact on the humanitarian environment and the provision of assistance.

Implementation of the reforms

The humanitarian reforms represent a positive attempt to address gaps in assistance and to improve humanitarian response. They have not, however, achieved this, and have only reluctantly been accepted, even within the UN system. Yet the clusters are becoming standard issue for UN missions, particularly in quick-onset crises.

The cluster approach has resulted in a proliferation of coordination platforms. In Liberia, for example, the WHO-led health cluster doubled up with the government’s Health Services Coordinating Committee and an NGO-headed health forum, on top of disease-specific working groups and the general bi-weekly UN–NGO Humanitarian Aid Coordination Committee. Belying the reforms’ aim of increased effectiveness, the UN clusters pre-empted existing government coordination bodies. Likewise, while the reforms’ development of a systemic UN response to IDP needs has been a positive step towards assigning clearer responsibilities among UN agencies, increasing (technical) coordination is no substitute for a lack of political will, responsiveness, effectiveness and/or accountability in humanitarian aid. In Somalia, despite increased coordination meetings and a greater willingness to share information, cluster output is negligible, and there are still too few concrete interventions being implemented in-country for coordination to have any real meaning.

Within the clusters, political considerations enter into operational exchanges through funding mechanisms implicitly or explicitly linked to common operational policy or positioning, as well as through the ‘inclusive’ participation of political, military and aid actors. In such a context, coordination tends towards collective positions, rather than facilitating independent operations, analysis and/or advocacy. In Uganda, ECHO required ‘partners’ to fit their proposals into existing cluster strategies before granting funding. The British government is also focusing on funding clusters rather than individual NGOs. In the DRC, the clusters channel significant amounts of humanitarian funding from different multilateral mechanisms, including the CERF. Despite some checks and balances (such as the Pooled Fund Board, on which NGOs and donors have a presence), UN cluster leads wield significant power in inviting participants to meet¬ings, submitting proposals and disbursing CERF funding.

Despite its goal of supporting life-saving activities and/or responding to (under-funded) emergencies, our study found that the CERF is often used in a politicised manner. Between March 2006 and November 2007, $574 million was committed: $376m for ‘rapid response’, and $198m for ‘under-funded emergencies’. Since the CERF covers emergencies under-funded by the UN Consolidated Appeal Process (CAP), it frequently risks becoming an emergency sticking-plaster to cover chronic under-funding of often non-emergency UN programmes. CERF-funded activities have also often focused on facilitating the eventual saving of lives and/or livelihoods, rather than direct emergency interventions.

In several cases, assistance to specific regions or populations served (inter)national political interests, instead of prioritising immediate need. Thus, three-quarters of the three CERF instalments for Haiti in 2006 focused on infrastructure and rehabilitation projects in insecure areas of Port-au-Prince which the UN mission MINUSTAH was trying to control. Although Haiti was categorised as an under-funded emergency, these were structural, longer-term and high-visibility projects that seemed to fulfil a security objective, more than a humanitarian one. Likewise, Côte d’Ivoire’s three CERF ‘tranches’ in 2006 all focused in and around Guiglo, a town that saw anti-UN riots and widespread destruction of UN and NGO infrastructure in January 2006. The CERF covered ‘emergency’ needs in Guiglo, including ill-defined IDP ‘protection’ activities ($950,000); the return of Liberian refugees to relieve strained assistance capacities ($1m); and vaguely-defined ‘life-saving’ activities in the region ($3m). CERF-funded activities included political, non-emergency elements, such as ‘social events to improve inter-community relations and promote peace culture … bring[ing] together … all communities during the football world championship’.

In an integrated mission setting, the reforms’ reinforcement of the HC position simply strengthens the role of the many-hatted HC/RC/DSRSG, negotiating between global UN objectives (peacekeeping, state-building, development) and the imperative of humanitarian action. Even if UN agency heads are now supposed to be accountable to the HC in-country, questions are already emerging around the definition of humanitarian crisis and need for ‘last resort’ action, prioritisation among different fields of intervention, accessibility to CERF funds, the type and scope of operations and the imposition of restrictive security rules. Although too early to be sure, the results could include delays in response and the further politicisation of aid.

Finally, within the reforms and in integrated UN missions, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has been abolished altogether, left under-funded or relegated to a diminished role of general coordination and interfacing with NGOs, without any significant influence to further humanitarian action within the UN system.

Impact on people in need

Our study found some optimism about the reforms’ potential to mobilise increased resources, but the results have been question¬able. Extra layers of administration and coordination provide cause for concern, while UN security rules sometimes bar UN agencies and their implementing partners from accessing insecure areas. Thus, in the DRC the Pooled Fund and the CERF increased funding overall, but it is unclear how much actually reaches people in need. Security restrictions make it difficult to assess, monitor and evaluate project quality, effectiveness or timeliness. Although the UN mission, MONUC, implements Quick Impact Projects (QIPs) through NGOs, these high-visibility projects seem to lack evaluation of their impact on the target population – let alone their implications for NGO neutrality and security. In Haiti, the resources poured into insecure areas of Port-au-Prince rarely translated into proper assistance programmes based on accurate needs assessments. Strict UN security rules were said to hamper UN agencies’ capacity to assess needs and respond to them.

Despite new reform initiatives, it appears that the safe, dignified return of IDPs to areas with sufficient security and infrastructure is still secondary to the organisation of logistics and the overall political objectives connected with return. In Côte d’Ivoire, for example, the protection cluster planned to facilitate IDP return through support to infrastructure and basic services in the west of the country, despite the fact that no UN agencies had a permanent presence inside the volatile buffer zone to which IDPs were to return. Due to insecurity, MSF health structures were treating high levels of violent trauma in the same region. Other plans developed under the protection cluster included vaguely defined activities such as peace-building and peace education in schools, police training on IDP guidelines and programmes for women and children. In conflict settings, such activities raise questions about the UN definition of protection, and about the effectiveness of such approaches in ensuring physical security and the upholding of human rights and the right to assistance.

Impact on the humanitarian working environment

The launch of the clusters and the CERF has raised concerns about increased NGO dependence on UN context analysis and security, and/or on UN or donor strategies, such as linking IDP return with service provision, or cost recovery for healthcare. Such conditionalities politicise humanitarian assistance, risking negative perceptions towards the UN and international NGOs, potentially impacting on NGO security and humanitarian access and so diminishing timely and appropriate response to people in need. In Côte d’Ivoire, for instance, there is general agreement that the riots in Guiglo in 2006 were the result of the UN’s simultaneous involvement in both the Ivorian political process and the provision of aid. After the African Union and the UN-led international monitoring mission declined to extend the mandate of the National Assembly, rioters besieged the UN Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) compound in Guiglo and the local radio station encouraged young people to destroy ‘all the symbols of the UN, including humanitarian organizations present in the town’. UN and NGO offices were looted and damaged, but MSF was unmolested, and MSF and the ICRC restarted their activities the day after the unrest.

In the DRC, protection clusters have called for MONUC deployments, launched human rights fact-finding missions, written letters and physically followed up on behalf of cluster members with the military and judicial authorities in response to troop movements, indiscipline or impunity. It is unclear what is done with this highly sensitive information, and what might happen should the local authorities respond by seeking out those behind the resulting cluster initiatives.

Some access and security problems for humanitarians predate and are not necessarily linked with the UN reforms. Still, perception is fragile, and crucial to humanitarian access and security. Access and security for humanitarians and populations seeking assistance can decline where humanitarians are perceived as pursuing political goals through politicised or regionally biased assistance. During 2007, for instance, OCHA spearheaded a joint humanitarian plan of action for Iraq, with the participation of some Jordan-based international NGOs. For Iraqi actors, local NGOs and beneficiaries, this exercise risked reinforcing the already negative perceptions of a pro-Western agenda promoting reconstruction and democracy over the response to emergency needs.

Ultimately, if UN and/or international donors focus on particular regions or populations, NGOs may find themselves unable to intervene, even in response to independently identified needs, leaving populations in already marginalised areas without vital assistance. By further advancing the policies of coherence already present in UN integrated missions, the reforms threaten the diversity, complementarity and independence of humanitarian action.


References and further reading

Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, Politics and Humanitarianism: Coherence in Crisis?. February 2003,

Joanna Macrae and Nicolas Leader, Shifting Sands: The Search for ‘Coherence’ Between Political and Humanitarian Responses to Complex Emergencies, HPG Report 8, August 2000,

Nicolas de Torrenté, ‘Humanitarianism Sacrificed: Integration’s False Promise’, Ethics & International Affairs, 18(2), 2004,

Nicolas de Torrenté, ‘Humanitarian Action Under Attack: Reflections on the Iraq War’, Harvard Human Rights Journal, 17, Spring 2004,

Greg Hansen, ‘Taking Sides or Saving Lives: Existential Choices for the Humanitarian Enterprise in Iraq’, June 2007,

Fabien Dubuet (MSF), United Nations: Deceptive Humanitarian Reforms?, December 2006,

International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), ‘Special Issue: Humanitarian Reforms’, Talk Back, October 2005,

ICRC, Strengthening of the Coordination of Humanitarian and Disaster Relief Assistance of the United Nations, November 2005,

IASC, Guidance Note on using the Cluster Approach to Strengthen Humanitarian Response, November 2006,

Dennis McNamara, ‘Humanitarian Reform and New Institutional Responses’, Forced Migration Review, December 2006, .


Although the reforms’ implementation is moving fast and in divergent ways, our study found that the logic of integration is as strong as ever across the contexts reviewed. To date, the tensions between the humanitarian and political-military arms of the UN, generated by different views of operations, funding and coordination roles, have not always strengthened the humanitarian response. With the continued blurring of lines between political and humanitarian objectives, the aid architecture established by the UN humanitarian reforms is simply not conducive to upholding humanitarian principles in practice. As an impartial and neutral response to the needs of the most vulnerable, humanitarians must remain vigilant or risk losing ground in the UN and donors’ search for coherence. The present reforms risk further reinforcing these tendencies, and seriously hampering humanitarians’ ability to sustain and defend independent, impartial humanitarian action both inside and outside the UN framework. Meanwhile, the potential risks of negative perceptions and loss of security for both humanitarians and their beneficiaries persist.

While demonstrating a quantifiable causal correlation between the UN’s humanitarian reforms and a loss of humanitarian space remains challenging, it is clear that the reforms do impact indirectly on people in need through the failure to increase resource mobilisation, further appropriate, timely and effective responses and translate the significant time, energy and funding being channelled into the reforms into an impartial and concrete response to need. In the end, our study underlines the need for humanitarians to continue to pursue independence and critical engagement with the UN and other political actors in the field. Humanitarian independence demands intensive reflection about the concrete impact of ‘coherent’ policies, and above all an active engagement to preserve humanitarian space, with the aim of serving those most in need.

Completed in December 2007, this article represents the results of a field-based study conducted by MSF sections in Belgium, Holland and the UK, as well as the MSF-Brazil office. It does not aim to provide a comprehensive, global over¬view of the reforms, or an institutional MSF position on them. The authors would like to thank Nouria Brikci (MSF-UK) and Sarah Martin (MSF-Holland) for their input.


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