Man welding at night with flashlight (c) UNHCR D. Fernandez Darfur Sudan 2005
© UNHCR D. Fernandez Darfur Sudan 2005

Humanitarian 101

A humanitarian crisis is an event or series of events which represents a critical threat to the health, safety, security or wellbeing of a community or other large group of people, usually over a wide area. Armed conflicts, epidemics, famine, natural disasters and other major emergencies may all involve or lead to a humanitarian crisis that extends beyond the mandate or capacity of any single agency.

Humanitarian crises can be grouped under the following headings:

  • Natural Disasters—earthquakes, floods, droughts, storms, volcanic eruptions, etc.
  • Health Disasters—famine, plague, AIDs, etc
  • Man-made Disasters—conflicts, fires, industrial accidents, etc.
  • Complex Emergencies—a crisis in a country, region or society where there is total or considerable breakdown of authority resulting from internal or external conflict and which requires an international response that goes beyond the mandate or capacity of any single and/or ongoing UN country program

Key Principles

Humanitarian response is guided by four key principles:

  • Humanity—Human suffering must be addressed wherever it is found. The purpose of humanitarian action is to protect life and health and ensure respect for human beings.
  • Neutrality—Humanitarian actors must not take sides in hostilities or engage in controversies of a political, racial, religious, or ideological nature.
  • Impartiality—Humanitarian action must be carried out on the basis of need alone, giving priority to the most urgent cases of distress and making no distinctions on the basis of nationality, race, gender, religious, belief, class or political opinions.
  • Independence—Humanitarian action must be autonomous from the political, economic, military or other objectives that any actor may hold with regard to areas where humanitarian action is being implemented.

Stages of Humanitarian Intervention

Humanitarian actors prepare for and respond to emergencies throughout three main stages: preparedness, response, and recovery. Each of these stages requires specific interventions to ensure that the needs of crisis-affected populations are met as efficiently and effectively as possible.

    Preparedness

    The preparedness stage is a continuous process that occurs before an emergency takes place, and includes planning, early warning, resource mobilization, training, and provision of standby supplies and equipment to build operational capacity. This phase ensures that when a crisis happens, agencies and organizations are prepared to respond in an organized, cost-effective, and coordinated manner.

    Response

    The response stage consists of immediate actions to save lives, protect the environment, and meet basic needs during the emergency. It includes rapid needs assessments, community mobilization, government engagement, resource mobilization, operations planning, implementation, coordination, and monitoring and evaluation.

    Recovery

    The recovery stage begins the transition from emergency response to longer-term support, building a community-based approach and durable solutions. It includes strengthening and coordinating government, private sector, NGOs, and others to promote long-term solutions and transition to non-emergency development.

Key Agencies in Humanitarian Assistance

    Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA)

    OCHA is the division of the United Nations Secretariat responsible for bringing together humanitarian actors to ensure a coherent response to emergencies. OCHA ensures that there is a framework within which each actor can contribute to the overall response effort, manages rapid deployment solutions, and maintains an emergency response roster.

    Through OCHA, humanitarian partners generally develop two types of appeals: Consolidated Appeals (CAPs), produced annually, and Flash Appeals, developed following a sudden-onset emergency. In addition, OCHA helps manage 3 types of pooled funds—Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), Common Humanitarian Fund (CHF) and Emergency Response Fund (ERF)—provide rapid funding for life-saving activities.

    Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC)

    The IASC is a unique inter-agency forum for coordination, policy development, and decision-making involving the key UN and non-UN humanitarian partners. It was established in June 1992 in response to United Nations General Assembly Resolution 46/182 on the strengthening of humanitarian assistance. General Assembly Resolution 48/57 affirmed its role as the primary mechanism for inter-agency coordination of humanitarian assistance.

    The IASC develops humanitarian policies, agrees on a clear division of responsibility for the various aspects of humanitarian assistance, identifies and addresses gaps in response, and advocates for effective application of humanitarian principles. It operates under the leadership of the Emergency Relief Coordinator.

Cluster System

The cluster system was one of the many elements born out of the 2005 humanitarian coordination reform known as the Humanitarian Reform Agenda. Clusters are groups of humanitarian organizations, both UN and non-UN, in each of the main sectors of humanitarian action, e.g. water, health, and logistics.

Clusters and their lead organizations are designated by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC). They have clear responsibilities for coordination. The Resident Coordinator and/or Humanitarian Coordinator and the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) manage a humanitarian response through the clusters.

All clusters have lead organizations, known as Cluster Lead Agencies, which operate at the global and country level. Globally, Cluster Leads are responsible for strengthening system-wide preparedness and coordinating technical capacity to respond to humanitarian emergencies in their respective sector. In specific countries, Cluster Leads serve as the main contact for a government and the RC/HC. They ensure that humanitarian activities are coordinated and do not duplicate efforts. They also act as a provider of last resort in their respective sector.


Humanitarian Program Cycle

The humanitarian program cycle refers to a series of actions undertaken in the management of international humanitarian response operations. These must be conducted, to the extent possible, in collaboration with and in support of national and local authorities. The actions in the cycle, described below, are inter-related and should be managed in a seamless manner using a coherent approach and a common set of tools. Learn more here.

Emergency preparedness

Actions taken to enhance the readiness of humanitarian actors, both national and international, to respond to a crisis by implementing the component parts of the cycle.

Assessment

Timely, coordinated assessments and analysis identify the needs of affected people and provide the evidence base for planning the response.

  • Multi-cluster rapid assessment (MIRA)—IASC-endorsed approach to undertaking a joint, multi-sector assessment during the first two weeks of a new emergency or a rapid deterioration of an existing emergency.
  • Harmonized assessment—Used most frequently in protracted crises in alignment with planning and review cycles. Agencies or clusters undertake separate assessments in a way that ensures temporal and geographical coherence. The data is then aggregated and analyzed to produce a shared picture of the humanitarian situation.

Strategic Response Plan

The strategic response plan is an HCT management tool that guides the international response to a humanitarian emergency, informing sectoral/cluster/organisation planning and interventions. The development of the strategic response plan is led by the HC, with the full participation of the HCT, and the support of OCHA and the relevant sectoral/cluster groups. The HC/HCT should seek to engage the government of the affected state, national aid organisations and affected people in all appropriate aspects of the planning process. Based on the output of the assessment exercise, the strategic response plan will outline what the HCT is trying to achieve where and will indicate what resources are required to implement it.

Resource Mobilization

The Consolidated Appeal Process (CAP) is the mechanism and the platform for HCTs to develop and publish their strategic response plans. Consolidated Appeals and Flash Appeals have also historically been used as tools for mobilizing funding or other resources for the humanitarian system. They are intended to complement and not duplicate or replace the fundraising efforts of individual organizations.

Monitoring and Accountability

The strategic response plan sets out a limited number of collectively agreed output and outcome indicators. These indicators will form the basis of a monitoring framework that clearly presents which indicators are to be reported by whom, and how often. Relevant clusters and sectoral groups will play a critical role in helping to collect and compile the strategic-level reporting data.

Information Management

The humanitarian program cycle is to be supported by standardized information management processes, systems and tools. These include a common web platform (humanitarianresponse.org), the Common Operational Datasets (CODs) and Fundamental Operational Datasets (FODs) registries, the Financial Tracking Service (FTS), and the On-line Projects System (OPS), as well as cluster and/or agency specific systems. Information systems will also support information sharing with national authorities and affected people.