The briefing held by Ms. Stephanie Bunker from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), was an exciting example of UN activities. Before joining OCHA, Ms. Bunker had already worked in the office of the United Nations Coordinator for Afghanistan as well as for the UN World Food Programme for Afghanistan. After having lived in Afghanistan and Pakistan for quite some time, she came to the Headquarters in New York City in 2002.
OCHA has headquarters in New York and Geneva as well as regional offices in Kenya, Senegal, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, Thailand, and Panama and field offices in over 30 countries. Its mission is to help coordinate assistance to people affected by crises, for example famine or natural disaster, and to provide support and guidance to local institutions. While other organizations remain for long periods or permanently in a region, OCHA-teams can be deployed within hours and usually do not stay longer than necessary, i.e. until the most basic needs of the population have been met. The strategy is to get specially trained personnel on the grounds as fast as possible so that they can assist and instruct local staff in order to cope with the situation as the latter are sometimes neither trained nor equipped for the occasion. While the interplay between OCHA crisis specialists and regional staff has proved to be very successful, there is one major obstacle: OCHA may only deploy personnel upon the request of the affected country – i.e. the consent of the government is a precondition to any action by OCHA.
According to Ms. Bunker, OCHA’s first task is usually to establish very basic infrastructure facilities such as shelter or sanitary resources and to provide nutrition. When we asked how OCHA identifies and finds people in need, Ms. Bunker admitted that a difficult part of OCHA’s task is to find the people that need help most urgently. Unfortunately, OCHA cannot help everybody in need and usually resources have to be saved for the poorest of the poor. Moreover, sometimes those needing help most urgently cannot be reached. She told us that for example in Sudan, it had not been possible to physically access crisis-affected areas in order to help people in need.
In total, the office has 1140 members working in New York, Geneva and as field staff. Surprisingly, only ten percent of OCHA’s budget is financed by the United Nations. The rest (about 126 million US $ in 2006) is donated by governments. This poses problems to OCHA, as money inflow is hardly predictable and often provided for a special purpose only. For example, the generous donations made by governments, companies and private donors for the tsunami victims in 2005 could not be used to help the victims of the earthquake in Pakistan.
During our 60 minute briefing Ms. Bunker made us understand OCHA in a very practical way. It deals with emergencies so it is about deciding and acting quickly. She herself seemed very experienced and determined and is probably a good example of what it takes to work in that field. All in all, the briefing was very impressive and it has definitely broadened our knowledge on the role of the UN in the field of humanitarian aid.