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Briefing on Humanitarian Assistance

During our Study Tour, we were fortunate enough to receive a briefing on the topic of humanitarian assistance, a major area of focus within the United Nations system. The talk was delivered by Mr Nicholas Reader, the deputy spokesperson for the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), who pursued his ambition of working for the UN on completion of his law studies in the United Kingdom. He demonstrated both dedication and passion for his work, which was clearly evident through his fascinating and informative talk.

Mr Reader began the session with a general introduction to OCHA’s role and continued to discuss the importance of co-ordination, OCHA’s work in Haiti, funding and the importance of contingency planning.

OCHA is an organ of the United Nations Secretariat, which unites and works together with other humanitarian organs in order to be able to respond more effectively and in a more co-ordinated manner to emergency situations and crises. It is headed by the Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs & Emergency Relief Coordinator and has several offices located all over the world in countries such as Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and also in Palestine. As there are so many humanitarian organisations and actors who share a common goal, it is far more efficient if they work together in order to reduce unnecessary and wasteful overlap in work. OCHA therefore collaborates with international as well national actors such as NGOs to create a unified effort to provide humanitarian assistance in areas, which have been struck and devastated by disaster or conflict. Generally, OCHA focuses 70% of its efforts on countries, which have been affected by conflict. For example, OCHA and other organisations recently provided food, water and improved sanitation facilities for persons displaced by Al-Qaeda in Pakistan. The remaining 30% of efforts are focused on countries affected by natural disasters. Last summer, there were several cyclones and other natural disasters mainly in the Asia-pacific region, which caused immense destruction, and thus humanitarian response was needed.

OCHA was a direct result of Resolution 46/182, which was passed by the General Assembly in 1991 as a means of making the international community’s response to humanitarian crises more effective. The resolution contains the main principles of humanitarian assistance as being humanity, neutrality and impartiality.

The principle role of OCHA is to co-ordinate all of the different aid and support efforts. Examples include military, logistics, equipment and staff. Through communication and a concerted effort with other humanitarian organisations, OCHA can ensure that resources are allocated proportionately and that for example certain regions are not over or under supplied with equipment due to a lack of co-ordination. Mr Reader explained that this is done through developing ‘common strategies’, ensuring that all of the humanitarian actors, both within and outside of the UN system, co-ordinate, work together, share information and allocate different responsibilities among each other in order to successfully achieve their common goal. Such a collective strategy is called the ‘Common Humanitarian Action Plan’. Ensuring such co-ordination is particularly important as a failure to do so can have major financial implications as well as jeopardise the effectiveness of the aid provided. Proper allocation of resources and knowing what each organisation is doing and where they are operating can save money, time and most importantly lives. There are approximately 600,000 field workers in total from the UN and non-governmental organisations employed at present.

A recent area of focus for OCHA has been in Haiti after the devastating earthquake which struck the country in January 2010. Co-ordination among humanitarian actors was crucial and assessments needed to be made in order to be able to see which areas were the worst affected. Co-ordinating ensures that the same tasks and assessments are not repeated by different organisations, as this would be a major waste of time and resources. It was very important that the different bodies discussed with one another who was dealing with which area, for example who would be sorting the goods that arrived at the airport and which NGO’s would be conducting the search and rescue efforts. ‘The Cluster Approach’ is used by OCHA and involves analysing what capacity each agency has and then allocating the different tasks accordingly.

Only a small percentage of OCHA’s funding comes from the UN budget and so it therefore depends heavily on contributions from the Member States. OCHA’s funding is comprised of different sub-funds each set up for different purposes which Mr Reader went on to describe. OCHA is also a provider of funds to humanitarian agencies. First is the Emergency Response Fund, whose funds are disbursed directly to NGOs to allow them to address unforeseen circumstances. It allows prompt action to be taken in the case of sudden emergencies, however is only intended to fund initial aid responses and not the entire humanitarian effort. The second main type of fund administered by OCHA is the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) and was an outcome of the Millennium Summit which aims to provide expeditious financial assistance at the initial stages of a humanitarian crisis to the most necessitous and vital ‘humanitarian response operations’ which are direly underfunded. Mr Reader explained how the UN prefers humanitarian aid be funded by multilateral funds. This enables funds to be distributed in an equitable manner as opposed to ‘ear-marking’ which means that donors can choose to donate or refrain from donating to a particular cause or country, which can result in countries that are in desperate need of assistance not receiving it as donors have restricted how their contributions may be used because of their own political or economic interests. ‘Pooled funds’ such as the CERF are thus encouraged as they prevent this from happening by distributing funds fairly and proportionately among different areas making humanitarian assistance far more efficient.

Mr Reader also emphasised the importance of ‘Contingency Planning’ within OCHA. This involves planning in advance what to do if a disaster were to strike and working with countries where they are likely to strike to ensure that they are well prepared for example by ensuring that the necessary stock piles are available and that there is a Red Cross committee on the ground. For OCHA, ‘prevention is better than cure’ and so everything is done to ensure that vulnerable areas are identified and measures are taken to reduce the need for humanitarian aid in the future.

Mr Reader’s talk on OCHA and its work was very informative and gave us a clearer insight into what working at OCHA entails and what measures are taken when a humanitarian disaster strikes. We are very grateful to Mr Reader for taking the time to share his knowledge and experiences with us.

Sheena Purohit