How can we improve disaster response? Reforming the reforms

In 2005 reforms in the humanitarian sector attempted to improve global responses to disasters. What have these reforms achieved? How useful are they now? Ron Waldman addresses these questions in the light of recent humanitarian experiences in Pakistan and Haiti. He argues that three reforms have not worked as well as they were intended to and need to be revised urgently.

The past eighteen months have been difficult ones for those involved in disaster response. The earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, devastating floods in Pakistan, political upheaval in the Middle East, civil war in Cote d’Ivoire, and the combined earthquake/tsunami in Japan have all taxed the ability of donor governments, the United Nations system and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to respond efficiently and effectively and, in some instances, to respond at all. More localised and less publicised humanitarian emergencies such as those caused by volcanic eruptions in Indonesia, flooding in other parts of South-East Asia, and ongoing political crises in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Darfur and elsewhere have contributed to a major strain being placed on the humanitarian system as it currently exists. In late 2005 a series of reforms were implemented in an attempt to improve the system as it existed then. Have they achieved their purpose? The events of the recent past give one ample opportunity to discuss the usefulness of those reforms and to determine to what extent they have, or have not, been helpful.

Internally Displaced Persons camp near to Muzaffarabad, Pakistan. Photo: Philip Stewart, Merlin

The humanitarian reforms discussed briefly here are:

1) The designation of a Humanitarian Coordinator (HC) by the UN system when appropriate.
2) The establishment of the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF).
3) The development and implementation of the cluster approach.

Much can be and has been said about each reform elsewhere. Here, I would like argue that these three aspects of the current humanitarian system have not worked as well as they could.

Humanitarian Coordinator (HC)

Different problems have arisen with regard to the HC. When an HC is also serving as the head of a UN agency, there is potential for conflicts of interest, real or perceived, to arise. Perhaps even more importantly, in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, it is clear that both of these positions are critical and demand full-time attention. If one person is serving in both capacities, neither job can be done satisfactorily. Also, when an HC has been serving in a country where a rapid-onset natural disaster occurs, the individual may be traumatised ñ particularly if loss of life among the UN family has occurred, or if personal losses have been suffered. Because coordination, however slow and difficult it may be to ensure, is so important (some have suggested that lack of coordination among the various humanitarian actors is the leading cause of death in emergency settings), provisions should be made for replacing any HC who is, for whatever reason, incapable of devoting full-time attention to the job at hand.

Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF)

The CERF has performed reasonably well over the years, but there are three substantial constraints that require attention. First, there appears to be reluctance on the part of some UN agencies to accept that their activities may not satisfy the CERF criterion of ‘life-saving’ to the same extent as other agencies. During the Pakistan floods, for example, where the UN consolidated appeal was substantially under-funded, a proposal to obtain CERF funds for the implementation of what was termed the ‘survival strategy’, interventions which implicated World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and World Food Programme (WFP) (and their implementing partners), was held up because some officials felt that any available funds should be distributed proportionally among those agencies suffering from the shortfall.

Second, there continues to be dissatisfaction among some NGOs that all CERF funds are disbursed through UN agencies and cannot come to them directly. The hands of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) (which administers the CERF) are tied in this regard by the UN General Assembly authorising rules that govern the Fund. When NGOs are not satisfied with the direction of the work of the UN agency which heads the cluster with which they are involved, their discontent is understandable. Third, the CERF, initially designed to be a streamlined tool whereby the Emergency Relief Coordinator can rapidly allocate substantial sums for lifesaving interventions in a relatively unfettered manner, has grown to the point where it has its own more rigid, more bureaucratic processes that complicate and slows the process. Accordingly, the survival strategy mentioned above, an innovative, multi-cluster approach to on-the-ground programming that was adapted to the particular circumstances of the situation, was subjected to intense scrutiny by OCHA headquarters and had to be revised numerous times at the cost of many person-hours and several weeks because it did not fit the conventional mould.

The Cluster Approach

This brings us to the cluster system itself. Intended to create a ‘humanitarian community’, with all players in, for example, the health sector (or water and sanitation/nutrition/logistics etc.) working together to implement a common plan for the delivery of humanitarian assistance. Cluster performance has been quite variable from cluster to cluster and from crisis to crisis. Three particular issues deserve highlighting.

First, cluster leads are usually representatives of UN agencies. This can lead to a situation where the ‘vertical’ forces that bind the work of a cluster to the particular agency that has been assigned the lead (WHO for health, UNICEF for nutrition and water/sanitation, WFP for food security and logistics, etc.) are considerably stronger than the ‘horizontal forces’ that bind the cluster members (UN, host country government where applicable, donors, NGOs, etc.). In other words, there is considerable potential for a cluster work plan to represent the views of the lead agency rather than those of the humanitarian community as a whole. An interesting example of this can be found in the Haiti experience of the nutrition cluster, as described in the Emergency Nutrition Network’s publication Field Exchange, which features a description of the cluster work from those responsible for leading it in the field and a ‘rebuttal’ by UNICEF.

Second, as currently constituted, the cluster system divides humanitarian work into small technical areas according to the remits of UN agencies (see above) ñ but these do not necessarily reflect the needs of the population. Health services, provision of water and sanitation supplies and the delivery of food can all be undertaken separately from each other, leaving no one with a full complement of what is needed to sustain life. The Pakistan survival strategy specifically promoted joint programming among these (and other) clusters at field level and it was considered innovative!

Finally, and importantly, cluster membership is usually open to all comers. The health cluster in Haiti, for example, had over 300 attendees at its meetings and could only, at best, be used for the exchange of information rather than for the coordinated development of an effective strategic plan. NGOs without prior experience and without qualified personnel were all welcomed as members of the cluster. There are times when the answer to the question ‘What can I do to help?’ should be ‘Go home’. But the current cluster system encourages inclusivity and not the enforcement of a minimum standard of performance. A solution to this problem is not obvious, but a good start would be to recognise that it is, indeed, a problem.

This short article cannot do justice to the many positive changes in the delivery of humanitarian assistance that can be attributed to the humanitarian reforms. Still, one would be remiss to not recognise that the large disasters of the past few years have exposed many of their remaining weaknesses. Although some have called for their abolition and for a new way of doing business, it seems more appropriate at this time to undertake a series of clear, specific and, where indicated, sweeping reforms of the reforms.

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