In the context of the tsunami response, a number of evaluations and lessons learned exercises were conducted. During 2006, OCHA will address the specific recommendations and lessons learned that can be taken on board as well as considering the wide range of evaluations conducted in the service of strengthening the broader humanitarian response to crises.
OCHA’s internal tsunami lessons learned exercise revealed that the time taken to put out a Flash Appeal for the tsunami, at 11 days, was too slow, given the rapid peak of media interest and the fact that donors generally expect an idea of the funds required to respond in the initial days after a disaster. However, the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition (TEC) needs assessment report stressed that even this appeal was not based on solid needs assessment and that it should be acknowledged that many donors and the public took funding decisions not based upon the appeal but upon the information provided by the media. In hindsight, an earlier appeal probably would have been just as effective and more timely, while a more substantive needs assessments could have follow later. An internal lessons learned review has suggested that OCHA review the timeliness and the content of future Flash Appeals in the context of this experience.
The tsunami lessons learned review also found that internal coordination mechanisms between New York and Geneva needed “fine tuning”, a matter that was improved upon but not resolved in the earthquake response in Pakistan. Issues were also identified in relation to the speed and ease of staff deployment, the need for an enhanced emergency roster system, standardised reporting lines and procedures, and the division of tasks between different providers of UN Common Humanitarian Services.
Strong public information and advocacy support, especially in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, New York and
Geneva, a strengthened relationship with external partners, the private sector, effective standby arrangements and the rapid deployment of senior, experienced OCHA managers and UNDAC staff, and the rapid deployment of the HIC were found to have been important, although there were concerns raised in relation to the handover from UNDAC staff after the completion of their missions.
OCHA was also instrumental in setting up the TEC during the first half of 2005. The coalition, which continues to be chaired by OCHA, now includes over 40 UN Agencies, NGOs, donors and non-profit organisations that have agreed to jointly evaluate sector-wide performance. The overall funding for the TEC was well over US$ 1 million.
OCHA was the lead actor in managing and evaluating coordination efforts, which was undertaken by a team of external and independent evaluators, with the support of a steering committee composed of donors and agencies.
By the end of the year, the TEC had identified six critical findings:
- The relief phase was effective in ensuring that the immediate survival needs were met, through a mixture of local assistance in the immediate aftermath and international assistance in the first weeks after the disaster, but these were not based on joint needs assessments and were not well coordinated;
- The scale of the response was unprecedented, which allowed an early shift to rehabilitation and the use of cash assistance programmes, but the scale of funding also created coordination problems since it increased the number of agencies while removing some of the normal incentives for agencies to coordinate activities;
- Local capacity was underestimated, undervalued and possibly undermined;
- The capacity of the international humanitarian system is not sufficiently elastic to be able to scale up with ease to respond appropriately to a large emergency such as the tsunami;
- Agencies focused too much on brand promotion and not enough on the needs of affected populations;
- The recovery phase is a far bigger challenge than the relief phase.
A key challenge for this innovative initiative will be to ensure that the findings and recommendations result in concrete action and improvements for future emergencies.
The TEC evaluation found that the role of OCHA was pivotal in the tsunami response. Once deployed, OCHA staff did well to set up offices and coordinate humanitarian response efforts. However staff turn over was generally high and experience varied between countries and field posts.
The coordination constraints identified in the evaluation revolved around issues that tend to fall outside OCHA’s direct control and are indicative of systematic failings of the humanitarian response community as a whole. The humanitarian system is fragmented into separate UN Agencies and organisations, all of which have their own mandates, governance structures, administrative procedures and reporting lines. It proved difficult at times for the UNCT to reach a consensus on who should coordinate and where.
The proliferation of actors, including NGOs, coupled with the lack of incentives of many of these to coordinate in what was a uniquely resource-rich environment, also affected OCHA’s effectiveness. To succeed, OCHA needs full support from partners and authorisation, where due, to insist on minimum standards. Efforts to create an intra-NGO mechanism by ICVA in Indonesia failed because NGOs were unable to reach collective agreement on the proposal. The concept of an OCHA regional coordination from Thailand did not fully succeed, in part because OCHA’s UNDAC team had not been invited to assist from the outset. The Thai authorities had the situation there under control very early on. This raises the broader question of whether or not OCHA should deploy UNDAC into a country where there is existing expertise and adequate national/local capacity. In contrast, coordination was relatively straightforward in the Maldives and UN organizations were based together in one compound. OCHA’s role was clearly to support the RC/HC there. The recruitment of an OCHA-funded NGO liaison officer in Colombo/Sri Lanka was instrumental in bringing the UN together with its partners. The concept has been praised and should be considered elsewhere too.
The traditional coordination structures also presented problems. As a rule, they were fragmented into sectoral groups, which inhibited integrated planning within any specific geographic area and did not adequately enough address cross-cutting issues such as gender.
OCHA’s coordination experience during the tsunami confirms that it should ensure that it focuses on facilitating an effective transition to recovery at the outset of any humanitarian response.