The past year saw significant new humanitarian challenges against a backdrop of dramatic global events. As the food crisis, the effects of climate change, and the global financial crisis placed new strains on the international humanitarian system, OCHA was called upon to use its various tools to support response to some 55 emergencies, including natural disasters, armed conflict and epidemics. The exceptional damage caused by Cyclone Nargis, the repeated hurricanes in Haiti and Cuba, the cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe, and drought and counter-insurgency operations in Ethiopia were among the major crises calling for coordinated response.

With these challenges came new opportunities, and insights into how OCHA and humanitarian work need to be shaped in the future. The global food crisis and our engagement on climate change showed how acute vulnerability can be generated outside traditional crisis triggers. The crisis in Myanmar demonstrated the critical importance of engagement with regional bodies. As in the past, these new challenges prompt us as an organization, and the humanitarian community as a whole, to adapt and to remain flexible.

The year was also one of significant improvements within the international humanitarian system. Humanitarian reform is now the standard way we work, though there is room for continued strengthening. The cluster approach has been implemented in nearly every country with a Humanitarian Coordinator, and was rolled out in five new sudden onset emergencies that arose in 2008. Humanitarian coordination leadership was strengthened through increased accountability and clarity of roles. Partnerships between the UN and non-UN parts of the humanitarian system were reinforced further. And pooled funding at global and national level made an ever more significant contribution to humanitarian relief and coordination.

Following a major overhaul undertaken at the start of 2008, flash appeals are now being published and revised much faster. Consolidated appeals became more inclusive strategies as well as more comprehensive barometers of humanitarian requirements — for the first time, the majority of projects included in the CAPs are those of NGOs. Humanitarian partners requested over $7 billion through consolidated and flash appeals in 2008, representing an almost 40 percent increase in funding requirements over 2007. Furthermore, OCHA’s concerted resource mobilization efforts at field and headquarters levels resulted in a 22 percent increase in resources for the CERF, CHFs, and ERFs over those obtained in the previous year. With eight new countries covered by the CERF in 2008, the total number of countries benefiting from the fund since inception reached one-third of the globe. Despite the increases in OCHA’s reach around the world, our field and regional presence cost less than two percent of the coordinated $7 billion in common humanitarian plans and appeals in 2008.

There was much emphasis within OCHA on making improvements on the management front. As a major initiative to address OCHA’s perennial human resources challenges, a new roster system was launched, aimed at establishing a pool of qualified and competent candidates available for deployment to the field. Significant steps were taken to improve budgeting and planning procedures. At mid-year, OCHA adopted a zero growth policy with a view to better utilizing current resources, once it became clear that, despite increased demand for existing activities, additional requirements would not be feasible in 2008.

Other major challenges in 2008 include growing humanitarian access problems in complex emergencies, increasingly unsafe operating environments in some places, and rising bureaucratic obstacles in others. On the policy side, OCHA’s role in response preparedness needs further clarification, and work on clearer guidance for transition out of the emergency relief phase needs to be intensified.

If I have dwelt on the challenges, that should not hide the fact that 2008 was in many ways a positive and successful year for OCHA and the humanitarian system as a whole. We are becoming steadily better, and better organized, at responding to crises, and the world is a better place for that. Of course none of this would be possible without the continuing generous support of our donors, both for the financial resources provided, and their engagement as key stakeholders in improving the humanitarian system. They have OCHA’s warmest thanks for that.

John Holmes
May 2009