Ms. Stephanie Bunker, who works for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) at UN Headquarters, gave an introduction to the work of the United Nations in the area of complex emergencies and natural disasters. OCHA has two headquarters, one in New York and the other in Geneva, but is relatively small with only 1140 employees worldwide in 2006. In addition, there are regional offices in Kenya, Senegal, South Africa, UAE, Bangkok, and Panama and field offices in over 30 countries. OCHA had a total annual budget of US$ 152 million in 2006.
OCHA works to help coordinate prompt help for affected people by crises, and also provides support and guidance to local institutions. The main crises in which OCHA works are complex emergencies and natural disasters, which overstrain the capacity of the affected countries and regions. Humanitarian assistance, which the office coordinates, has to be impartial and given in accordance to need. This means that religion, gender or ethnicity are not considered while granting humanitarian help.
In her introduction, giving the example of Afghanistan, Ms. Bunker demonstrated what the term “complex emergency” meant for OCHA. It included different kinds of problems at the same time, as in Afghanistan, where the infrastructure had been destroyed, where the economy had been devastated, and where there was no recognized government; in addition there were problems caused by drug cultivation and trade, refugee streams and war. Complex emergencies often occurred in ongoing conflicts or in post-conflict areas. Therefore, she described her tasks as an enduring challenge.
However, in the case of disasters, the UN office is only able to act upon request of the affected countries, she explained. During the past few years, missions had taken place in tsunami-affected areas, such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, as well as those areas in Pakistan that had been devastated by the earthquake in 2005. Ms. Bunker thought it could be problematic that assistance was only carried out upon the request or the consent of the concerned government. At this point, some students started to ask how the United Nations would be able to fulfill its duties when it had to face the ambiguous barrier of national sovereignty. She strongly condemned the fact that some countries gave priority to national sovereignty instead of necessary humanitarian interventions. Asked how the UN dealt with this problem, Ms. Bunker highlighted that they had to accept the principles of the UN Charter.
Alongside limited political accessibility, it was also difficult to physically access crisis-ridden areas, for example in Sudan, where it had not been possible to get aid to 300,000 people in need. Oftentimes, it was impossible to sufficiently guarantee the safety of the workers. To decide who needed support or where help was needed, the office depended on the cooperation of the national governments, the International Society of Red Cross and Red Crescent, and non-governmental organizations. The latter were the office’s most important partners, since they had local expertise und resources at their disposal, which made effective aid intervention possible, she said.
In the case of an intervention, the office had several tools; however, they were only able to provide the basic needs of the suffering population. This included food, basic health care, water supplies, as well as the construction and management of emergency camps. Moreover, OCHA was only able to offer humanitarian aid, not development aid. Ms. Bunker referred to this as “bottom-line intervention.” Sometimes the aid community also provided basic education for children and juveniles in order to promote education, and to help them to overcome their trauma. OCHA coordinates the actions of other institutions in the UN system, like the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) or the World Health Organization (WHO), who work in the same areas with similar aims. According to Ms. Bunker, it was important to avoid inefficiencies and duplications, which could cause donor countries to reduce their financial support. As she pointed out, the coordination of the interventions in the affected countries was the most important task for OCHA. She perceived as especially enriching the fact that, in affected areas, often the poorest of the poor would help people affected by the crisis until they themselves needed help. In contrast to this, she criticized the politics of those developed countries that were more likely to provide help if the crisis had received a lot of publicity in the media, for example the tsunami catastrophe or the war in Iraq, or would give money for special interventions, so that the office was not able to meet prioritized needs. Ms. Bunker regretted that projects or interventions in less publicized areas of crisis in the world were often neglected.
Lena Marie Boers, Dominik Duell