Issue 39 - Article 8

Understanding surge capacity within international agencies

July 15, 2008
Ben Emmens, People In Aid, and Rachel Houghton, consultant

Sudden-onset humanitarian emergencies are, by definition, difficult to predict and plan for. Although much can be done by way of preparing and strengthening an organisation’s capacity to respond at both international and local level, emergencies still present organisations with many challenges. This article looks at how agencies might overcome some of these challenges through developing various capacities which, combined, constitute their surge capacity. This article is the first in a series of three shorter pieces based on People in Aid’s research ‘Surge Capacity in the Humanitarian Relief and Development Sector’. This can be downloaded from the People in Aid website: The research was initiated by, and carried out in partnership with, the Inter-Agency Working Group, under the auspices of the Emergency Capacity Building Project. For more information go to:

Surge capacity defined

Major emergencies require international organisations to rapidly and effectively increase their resources – of people, money and materials – in the countries affected by an emergency. This ability to scale operations up (and down) swiftly, smoothly and productively – ie ‘surge capacity’ – is vital for fulfilling the humanitarian mandate and ensuring scarce resources are used efficiently and with maximum impact.

People In Aid’s research has found that effective surge capacity is a pre-requisite for effective emergency response. Developing this capacity requires many different parts of an organisation (programmes, human resources, logistics, fundraising, communications, finance) to work collaboratively, coherently and consistently together, without losing focus on quality, accountability and longer-term impact. This is complex, and necessitates a clear strategic vision of how it can be achieved.

The need for a clear strategic vision cannot be underplayed. One of the key findings of People In Aid’s research is that surge capacity is not just an organisation’s ability to mobilise an emergency response or rapidly deploy staff. Rather, it is the result of a continual process, from preparedness planning through to response, and on to transition/recovery programming. Consequently, it requires a holistic or ‘whole organisation’ approach, one in which agency mandate, structure, culture and leadership are just as crucial as protocols, processes and systems.

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Analysing surge capacity

Surge capacity requires a collaborative, coherent and consistent combination of many inter-related components. During the course of its research, People In Aid identified ten critical ‘enablers’ of surge capacity:

    1. The adoption of a ‘whole organisation approach’ to developing surge capacity. If this does not happen, capacity to respond is compromised.
    2. Matching capacity to mandate and structure, within the context of a wider strategic vision. This has significant implications for the quality of an agency’s programming as well as its accountability to affected populations.
    3. Pre-positioning of funds. This is critical, and emergency units need to find ways to leverage greater amounts of unrestricted and other funds so that they can scale-up when required, respond to less visible emergencies, as well as build, and maintain, capacity between emergencies.
    4. Investment in HR as a strategic function and not just an administrative one. This is necessary not only at HQ but also at regional and country level.
    5. Well-trained and experienced staff, in particular strong and competent leadership. There needs to be long-term investment in staff development, including in career development. Focusing on behavioural as well as technical competencies is important.
    6. Recruitment for second-wave and longer-term deployments needs, starting at the beginning of an emergency. If an emergency response is to be sustainable beyond the initial surge, counterparting between international and national staff at this stage in a response is vital.
    7. Development of surge capacity at country and regional level, as well as at HQ. Strategic integration of aspects of emergency and development programming will help, as will the mainstreaming of disaster risk reduction (DRR) across relief, recovery and development programmes.
    8. Investment in rosters (and registers). More investment is required if rosters are to remain the preferred model for rapid deployment. If agencies opt to develop these tools, it is imperative they invest in adequate HR capacity to make them effective.
    9. Development of standard operating procedures governing all aspects of an immediate response. This is especially important as being able to rapidly deploy will inevitably compromise ordinary agency policies and procedures.
    10. The adoption of more systematised learning practices. This is vital in order to avoid making the same mistakes year on year.


Clearly, none of these ten elements just ‘happens’, hence the conclusion that developing surge capacity is in fact a continuous process which will require agency-wide planning, the matching of capacity with an agency’s mandate, integration into its wider ways of working, and ongoing learning and performance improvement. Typically, surge capacity has been related to the point of emergency response, but People In Aid’s research suggests it should be a consideration at every point of an agency’s intervention.

Yet even if an agency has each of these ten critical elements in place, evidence suggests that the challenge of bringing these different capacities ‘to scale’, in parallel, remains. Furthermore, the research found that developing surge capacity is also about collaboration between organisations, and that agencies are more likely to achieve certain goals more quickly and effectively if they work together. This is returned to in the second article of this series, and is explained in further detail in the concluding chapter of People In Aid’s report on surge capacity.

Resourcing surge capacity

Effective surge capacity requires access to resources: human, financial and material. People and money are undisputedly the core elements, and the availability of human resources for swift deployment is the anchor of any response.

How much surge capacity is required?

Within the context of their particular mandate, many organisations use indicators to classify the scope and extent of an emergency and to determine how much surge capacity is required. Larger agencies support their regional and country offices to develop emergency preparedness plans; some go beyond this, as in the case of Oxfam GB, which uses Emergency Management Plans to identify the individual who will assume the leadership role for each of its three categories of emergency response across its different regions. Oxfam considers leadership to be the vital component to the success of any emergency response, a finding echoed by all agencies interviewed for this study.

Human resources

When deploying human resources as part of an emergency response, agencies typically draw on one or more sources of staff:

  • specialist emergency staff, for example from an emergency unit or full-time standing team (such as World Vision’s Global Rapid Response Team);
  • general staff, with appropriate skills and experience;
  • externally sourced staff that are unknown to agency;
  • externally sourced staff that are known informally to the agency.

Preparing and retaining emergency response staff is of paramount importance, and agencies utilise a number of different staff development tools to do this, such as regular training and workshops for those deployed as well as, for example, simulation training and performance appraisal. All of these help to build staff capacity, as do tools specifically designed to enhance organisational learning, such as Real Time Evaluations and post-response review workshops.

During People In Aid’s research, Save the Children UK emphasised that the ‘receptiveness of existing programmes for external surge’ is also crucial. Thus, an agency’s ability to respond quickly and effectively in times of increased need is fundamentally about meaningful national capacity-building. This is borne out by the research findings, which note that emergency units among the Inter-agency Working Group member agencies typically have a dual function: (1) to serve as part of the organisation’s emergency response team; and (2), to provide capacity strengthening support to national offices in the development standard operating procedures (including emergency preparedness plans).

The type of human resources and the way in which they are deployed is also critical. This as well as other research by People In Aid suggests that certain behavioural and attitudinal competencies – such as flexibility, of systems as well as people – are essential when it comes to enabling rapid response. Many agencies agreed that their best responses came when different tools, procedures and practices worked in parallel, with the implicit need for staff to accept non-linearity in times of crisis.

Financial resources

Having the financial means to initiate a response is a critical component of surge capacity, whether that be money in the bank, special relationships with key donors or some other substantial source.

Each of the ECB member agencies has an emergency response fund which they use to support, to varying degrees, both their capacity development between emergencies and their ability to deploy rapidly when required. The extent to which they do this is based on the amounts available at any given time, and the level of commitment of the organisation. The funding arrangements work in different ways, with two models predominating – central coverage from unrestricted funds, and the use of funding on a ‘revolving’ basis, with expenditure reimbursed through subsequent grant funding.

Surge capacity mechanisms

A ‘surge capacity mechanism’ is invariably a complex system of different but inter-related components. It includes not only the different standing capacities described above – ie, people, money and materials – but also the tools, policies, procedures and resource configurations that an agency adopts when mobilising that capacity.

How an agency develops and deploys its surge capacity is a topic in itself, but at the heart of any surge capacity mechanism lies the need for preparedness and flexibility. Flexibility in particular is critical because enabling a ‘surge’ often compromises existing ways of doing things. For the purpose of this article, surge capacity mechanisms are grouped into two categories: planning mechanisms and recruitment mechanisms

Planning mechanisms

A credible surge response is usually preceded by some anticipation of staffing needs (workforce planning). This requires a productive partnership with the HR function, and agencies that respond most successfully to emergencies are typically those that have recognised the strategic importance of human resource planning and management in emergencies. This is particularly important to the sustainability and judicious financial management of any response.

Planning is only meaningful if it is accompanied by an understanding of available staff capacity, from two perspectives: first, the size of the pool of skilled and experienced people, be they at international, regional or local level (ie, the level of staff capacity); and second, the quality of staff capacity, particularly personal and technical competencies, but also the extent to which they are trained or mentored. The research also found that deploying specialist HR personnel at the beginning of an emergency greatly enhances the effectiveness of the response.

Successful and smooth deployment depends on clear policies, procedures and systems that allow staff to be mobilised and managed in the required timeframe. It also requires a vision for how international and national staff will work together, which includes how an agency seeks to promote continuity in programming beyond the immediate rapid response.

Recruitment mechanisms

The foundation of most emergency responses consists of pre-existing staff capacity at country level. A number of agencies prefer to focus on building their country-level capacity as a way of mitigating the need for a large international response. However, the need for additional capacity is common and, as a result, recruitment mechanisms play a key part in enabling an effective surge response.

Recruitment mechanisms might be internal or external. Internal recruitment (or mobilisation) tends to involve either employing dedicated emergency response staff on permanent contract (so called ‘standing teams’) or redeploying/seconding staff from one location to another (generally people named on internal registers or rosters). External recruitment tends to involve either hiring people who are unknown to the agency or, commonly, recruiting people through an informal network of contacts, including registers.

Rosters and registers

Rosters and registers are, at their most basic, tools such as spreadsheets or databases to manage information concerning deployable staff. For People In Aid, the key difference between a roster and a register is that a roster contains information about a person’s availability as well as their qualifications and skills, while a register tends to contain only the entry’s contact details and an overview of their skills and competencies.

Sourcing staff for internal rosters and registers requires special attention, but external recruitment is equally, if not more, challenging. Creativity in both respects is required to ensure that staff of the highest calibre are deployed as part of an emergency response. Methods include maintaining lists of available staff, deploying promising staff into non-acute emergency settings, retention rosters and fellowship and training schemes. In addition, the ability to truncate procedures in an emergency context is desirable.


Surge capacity represents an entire system of policies and procedures; it is as much about an organisation’s philosophical approach as it is about any single mechanism, such as a roster or register.

Developing an effective surge capacity rests on an agency’s ability to make progress on many fronts, for example staff quality and capacity, flexible pre-positioning of funds and equipment, the development of operational management tools and strengthening capacity in countries and regions, as well as identifying the most useful partner organisations for development and incorporating DRR into longer-term and recovery programming.

Finally, it is clear that single agency scale will, at some point, become finite. To meet the challenge of increased need and limited resources, developing surge capacity is about leverage within organisations, and collaboration, as a form of leverage, between organisations. In working together, agencies are likely to achieve their goals more quickly, and there are examples of successful collaboration that has achieved just that (such as the Inter-agency Working Group member agencies in Sumatra in early 2007). Moreover, given signs that donors seem to be moving towards pooled funding arrangements at country level, this, together with pressure from policymakers and practitioners, provides an additional imperative for agencies to collaborate.

However, the shared humanitarian imperative provides an even more compelling case for collaboration: we know that the quality and outcomes of both relief and longer-term recovery and development are directly related to how well agencies work together in the immediate response phase, so our record has to improve in this respect, for the sake of the individuals and communities with which we work.


Further reading

S. Braun, Report on Emergency Capacity: Analysis for the Interagency Working Group on Emergency Capacity (New York), 2004,

R. Choularton, Contingency Planning and Humanitarian Action, Network Paper 59 (London: HPN, 2007).

R. Houghton and B. Emmens, Understanding Surge Capacity in the Humanitarian Sector (London: People In Aid, 2007).

D. Loquercio, M. Hammersley and B. Emmens, Understanding and Addressing Staff Turnover in Humanitarian Agencies, Network Paper 55 (London: HPN, 2006).

A. Stoddard, ‘You Say You Want a Devolution: Prospects for Remodelling Humanitarian Assistance’, Journal of Humanitarian Assistance, 2004,

S. Swords, Behaviours That Lead to Effective Performance in Humanitarian Response (London: People In Aid, 2007).


Ben Emmens can be reached at Independent consultant Rachel Houghton’s email address is:


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