The international community is faced with the growing challenge of preventing, mitigating the effects of, and providing humanitarian assistance to affected populations in crises that require rapid and effective response. The 1990s saw a dramatic increase in "complex emergencies" that often involved ethnic and civil strife. In mid-1994 more than 30 million people in 29 countries were in dire need of emergency assistance. Severe drought threatening over 20 million people in sub-Saharan Africa added an additional element of suffering to that already faced by millions in Burundi, Liberia, Rwanda, Somalia, southern Sudan, and Zaire. A study released at the World Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction, convened by the General Assembly in May 1994, showed that the previous three decades had seen a steady and rapid increase in the number of significant natural disasters—and in the numbers of people affected.
Office of the United Nations Disaster Relief Coordinator (UNDRO) Beginning in 1965, proposals were put forward in the General Assembly to increase the UN's ability to help people stricken by disasters, but it was the disasters of 1970 that brought international concern for emergency relief to a head. In 1971, the General Assembly established the Office of the United Nations Disaster Relief Coordinator (UNDRO), with headquarters in Geneva.
UNDRO was not designed to assume all the responsibilities of meeting disasters from its own resources. Its principal function is that of catalyst and coordinator of donors of aid and services. Its data bank and independent telecommunications system, supplemented by the worldwide UN system, give it the capacity to define the specific needs arising from a disaster and to respond rapidly by identifying potential sources of relief. It directs and mobilizes aid emanating from the UN system and coordinates aid from other sources.
UNDRO's mandate also includes assisting governments in preventing disasters or mitigating their effects by contingency planning, in association with similarly concerned voluntary organizations. It promotes the study, prevention, control, and prediction of natural disasters and gathers and disseminates information relevant to disaster relief.
Between its inception in 1972 and 1987, UNDRO helped coordinate relief and raise money for emergency aid in more than 380 major disasters.
The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affaris (OCHA) In December 1991, the General Assembly, by its Resolution 46/182, recognized the need to strengthen coordination for rapid response to humanitarian emergencies. Over the years ad hoc arrangements had sprung up in many of the UN departments and specialized agencies to deal with emergency relief. Sometimes these arrangements were found to be working at cross-purposes or competing for financial support from the same potential donors. The General Assembly requested the Secretary-General to designate an emergency relief coordinator, supported by a secretariat, to ensure that the entire UN system was better prepared for, and more capable of rapid and coherent response to national disasters and other humanitarian emergencies. The resolution also stipulated guiding principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality for the provision of humanitarian assistance. It also stressed respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and national unity of states.
In April 1992, the Secretary-General established the Department of Humanitarian Affairs (DHA), incorporating UNDRO, various UN units that had been dealing with specific emergency programs, and the secretariat for the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction. The Secretary-General appointed an Emergency Relief Coordinator to head the new department. The DHA has its headquarters in New York and an office in Geneva.
Resolution 46/182 gave the DHA three tools to speed up the response of the international community to emergencies: the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) to formulate and coordinate policy; the Central Emergency Revolving Fund (CERF) as a quick source of emergency funding; and the Consolidated Inter-Agency Appeals Process (CAP), which assesses the needs of a critical situations and prepares a comprehensive interagency response strategy.
With UN reforms in the late 1990s, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) was established to manage complex emergencies (through the Consolidated Appeals Process), natural disasters, and other humanitarian crises. OCHA replaced the Department of Humanitarian Affairs (DHA). For the biennium 2002–03, the New York and Geneva offices of OCHA were to be staffed by 60 regular budget posts and 87 extra-budgetary posts. In 2001, OCHA maintained 23 field offices in Africa, Asia and Europe as well as the offices of three regional disaster response advisors, three regional coordinators and the Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN), bringing its total number of field offices to 32. These offices are run by 151 international and 360 national staff. By comparison, in 1997 only 18 field offices were in existence. OCHA's 2001 budget was approximately US $71.5 million. As the successor organization to DHA, OCHA took over management and coordination of DHA's programs including IASC, CERF, and CAP.
The IASC is chaired by the Emergency Relief Coordinator and is composed of the executive heads of the following UN organizations: the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF); the World Food Program (WFP); the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO). Other humanitarian organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) also take part in the IASC. Representatives of relevant nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are invited to participate.
In addition to coordinating overall policy on humanitarian assistance, the IASC addresses issues such as: access to victims, security of personnel and relief supplies, ensuring humanitarian imperatives in conflict situations, examining special needs arising from application of UN sanctions, demobilization of combatants, de-mining, resource mobilization, assistance to internally displaced persons, field coordination of international humanitarian responses, and ensuring transition from relief to development.
The Central Emergency Revolving Fund (CERF) of US $50 million was created under the terms of Resolution 46/182 as a cash-flow mechanism for use by operational organizations, especially during the critical initial stages of emergencies. The CERF is financed by voluntary contributions and managed by the Department of Humanitarian Affairs. Agencies draw on the CERF and repay the advances they receive as donors respond to their own fundraising efforts. From its establishment in 1992 until 1998, the CERF was utilized on 51 occasions, providing operational humanitarian organizations with a total of about US $128 million.
The Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP), coordinated and monitored by OCHA, is an interagency exercise by which UN system organizations and other humanitarian organizations assess the full range of requirements for responding to emergencies. The CAP helps the international community to identify the most critical needs of affected people and to determine the most appropriate ways to provide assistance. This process enables donors and agencies to concentrate their efforts where they are needed most and eliminates wasteful competition among agencies for donor funds. From 1995 through 2002, appeals were launched for countries including Afghanistan, Albania, Angola, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Burundi, Colombia, Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Croatia, Ecuador, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Fiji, Georgia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Japan, Kenya, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Lebanon, Liberia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Occupied Palestinian territory, Pakistan, Russian Federation, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Tajikistan, Uganda, United Republic of Tanzania, and Yugoslavia. Appeals are often made by region as well—including for the Caucasus, Great Lakes Region of Africa, and Southeastern Europe (including the Kosovo province of Yugoslavia).
OCHA's work takes place where the fields of international security, political affairs, and humanitarian concerns converge. An important responsibility entrusted to OCHA involves humanitarian diplomacy in efforts to prevent emergencies and in negotiation with parties to conflicts aimed at ensuring access to those in need. OCHA's staff is involved in policy planning and early warning functions, emergency operational support and relief coordination, and disaster mitigation. The OCHA maintains close contact with the UN Departments of Political Affairs and Peacekeeping Operations in order to coordinate the security, political, and humanitarian aspects of complex emergencies.
To help manage its efforts, OCHA set up Relief Web, available at http://www.reliefweb.int . The Internet site provides up-to-date information on complex emergencies and natural disasters collected from over 170 sources. Users from over 150 countries access an average of 200,000 documents each month. In addition, OCHA runs the Humanitarian Early Warning System (HEWS), which identifies crises with humanitarian implications. Through analysis of field-based information and the evaluation of trends, HEWS informs decision-makers at headquarters about the likelihood and extent of crises. An extensive database of information for more than 100 countries supports this activity. The Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN), at Nairobi, was set up in 1995 to analyze and synthesize data on developments in Africa's Great Lakes region. It issues daily reports and thematic studies for over 2,000 primary subscribers in more than 50 countries. IRIN at Abidjan was set up in 1997 and began providing similar reports covering West Africa. IRIN coverage was expected to be expanded in the late 1990s to cover southern Africa, Central Asia and the Caucasus region, as well as the Balkans.
Between 1960 and 1990 deaths from natural disasters rose by a factor of 10, with 90% of casualties occurring in developing countries ill prepared to respond to natural disasters. Although the World Meteorological Organization has shown that each dollar spent on disaster preparedness is equivalent to 100 dollars spent after a disaster, no mechanisms existed to transfer the huge body of knowledge on disaster preparedness and prevention from the industrialized countries to developing countries. For example, an earthquake of 6.6 magnitude on the Richter scale in California in January 1994 caused fewer than 100 deaths. An earthquake of6.4 magnitude in India's Maharashtra State in September 1993 caused 10,000 deaths. Most of the deaths in the Indian tragedy were caused by the collapse of homes while people slept. By contrast, California has long been a proving ground for earthquake-resistant architectural innovations.
In 1989, the General Assembly declared the 1990s the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction to reduce loss of life and property damage resulting from natural disasters. It established a high-level council of 10 internationally renowned personalities, a scientific and technical committee of 24 scientists from around the world, and approximately 120 national committees to promote the decade and the formulation of disaster preparedness programs. 13 October was declared "International Day for Natural Disaster Reduction," and observed by public gatherings and publicity to raise awareness of the need to implement disaster preparedness.
In May 1994, the World Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction was convened in Yokohama, Japan. Representatives from 147 countries and 37 nongovernmental organizations and observers from UN specialized agencies participated in the conference, which both reviewed implementation of the General Assembly's recommendations during the first half of the decade and adopted the "Guidelines for Natural Disaster Prevention, Preparedness and Mitigation," also called the "Yokohama Strategy." It noted that the first half of the decade had seen some improvement in the field of disaster response, but that the goals for disaster prevention and preparedness had not received wide publicity.
The conference document stated that, while natural phenomena that cause disasters are outside human control, vulnerability of populations was a result of human activity (or nonactivity). In its "Strategy for the Year 2000 and Beyond," the conference called for a global culture of prevention and a policy of self-reliance in each vulnerable country and community. Other elements of the strategy included education and training in disaster prevention, strengthening research and development for disaster reduction and mitigation, and improving awareness in vulnerable communities through more active use of media. Finally the conference called on all countries to express the political commitment to reduce their vulnerability by means of legislation and policy decisions at the highest levels to mobilize domestic resources, develop risk assessment programs, and emergency plans and to design projects for subregional, regional, and international cooperation. It also recommended an improvement in communications capabilities on natural disasters among countries for preparedness and early warning systems.
Perhaps the thorniest problem for OCHA (then the DHA) was the increase in and complexity of humanitarian disasters caused by internal civil strife in places like Angola, the former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda. In the largest exodus ever known, 2 million people in Rwanda abandoned their homes in one week during the resumption of a civil war and the organized slaughter of thousands of civilians in that country in the summer of 1994. The exodus overwhelmed the capacity of international aid organizations to deal with the crisis, and thousands of people died of cholera, dysentery, and other diseases in makeshift camps hurriedly set up along Rwanda's border with other countries. In August 1994, the UN agencies appealed to member states for US $470 million to respond to the disaster. The initial response to the appeal yielded US $137 million. In his report to the 49th General Assembly on "Strengthening of the coordination of emergency humanitarian assistance" (A/49/177), the Secretary-General stated:
"Complex emergencies are presenting serious new challenges to humanitarian organizations and others involved in providing relief assistance. Disregard for fundamental humanitarian principles, serious violations of humanitarian law and threats to the safety and protection of relief personnel have underscored the need for enhancing awareness of all involved in complex emergencies—including the Security Council—of humanitarian concerns and objectives and for appropriate measures to protect humanitarian mandates in conflict situations. While the new generation of multifaceted United Nations operations require close interaction between the political, military and humanitarian dimensions, it is important, at the same time, to ensure that the humanitarian component can preserve its unique identity by maintaining neutrality and impartiality. " (emphasis added).
In this connection, the IASC established a set of guidelines for humanitarian missions in conflict situations:
Another UN undertaking in disaster relief developed in response to the desiccation of the Sudano-Sahelian zone of West Africa. Many years of drought in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Senegal had, by 1973, resulted in a crisis and the threat of mass starvation in the region. In May, the Secretary-General, acting under resolutions of the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council, designated FAO as the "focal point" of an emergency operation of the UN system to provide and transport rations, seeds for sowing, animal feed, and vaccines to victims in the six countries. The following month, the UN Sahelian Office (UNSO) was created to promote medium- and long-term recovery in cooperation with the Permanent Interstate Committee on Drought Control in the Sahel, known by its French acronym CILSS and composed of nine affected states—Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Chad, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Senegal.
In 1977, UNSO's mandate was expanded to assist the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in implementing the Plan of Action to Combat Desertification in the Sudano-Sahelian Region. From 1995 to 2002, UNSO managed US$18 million to support 29 countries in Africa, 22 in Asia and 19 in Latin America and the Caribbean to develop national action plans to combat desertification and drought. UNSO mobilizes general and earmarked contributions to promote sustainable management of the natural resources in arid and semi-arid lands. It helps governments plan and coordinate natural resource management and implement field projects on soil and water conservation and integrated land management.