18 Jun 2015
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United Nations humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien held a lively debate on the future of the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) with representatives of the humanitarian community at the UN Economic and Social Council’s (ECOSOC) three-day Humanitarian Affairs segment in Geneva on 18 June.

The discussion was particularly timely in light of CERF’s upcoming 10-year anniversary (15 December) and important global discussions around the future of aid such as the High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing, the sustainable development goals and the World Humanitarian Summit.

Mr O’Brien, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC), said that CERF has long been a valued and reliable financial partner for the global humanitarian community but that growing global humanitarian needs and a rapidly evolving humanitarian landscape raised the question: “How can CERF maintain and build on its strengths to be fit for the future and stay ahead of the curve?”

Panelists included UN agency, Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), donor, private sector and academic representatives. Here’s what they had to say:

Keep what works

Panelists agreed that CERF was one of the most effective global tools available to ensure rapid humanitarian response to people affected by catastrophe and to support life-saving operations that might stall for lack of funding. They urged the Fund to build on its strengths. 

“CERF has allowed us to rapidly respond whenever there's an emergency ... and to get out there almost immediately,” said Barbara Noseworthy, Assistant Executive Director a.i. of the Partnership, Governance and Advocacy Department at the World Food Programme (WFP). “CERF needs to continue to be a flexible, nimble fund to remain successful.”

Elhadj As Sy, Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said that in situations of low funding, "CERF has made a huge difference."

Carsten Staur, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Denmark to the United Nations in Geneva, added the donor perspective: "CERF is an attractive option for donors because it is a quick, well-targeted and lean operation."

Panel members (from left to right): Elhadj As Sy,Secretary General IFRC; Stephen O'Brien, Under-Secretary-general for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator; Carsten Staur, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Denmark to the United Nations in Geneva and Barbara Noseworthy, Assistant Executive Director a.i., Partnership, Governance and Advocacy, World Food Programme. Credit: OCHA 

CERF is more than just money

“CERF is by far the biggest game changer [for humanitarian leadership] that I have seen in my 10 years in leadership roles in the field,” said Robert Piper, UN Deputy Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and UN Coordinator for Humanitarian Aid and Development Activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

Mr. Piper explained that CERF processes helped strengthen humanitarian leadership in the field by putting Humanitarian Coordinators firmly in the centre of coordination mechanisms. He added that "CERF helps achieve balance among humanitarian sectors, ensuring that important interventions are not overlooked by urgent needs.”

Denmark’s Mr. Staur added that “CERF plays a role in better linking together the different parts of the UN humanitarian system” while WFP’s Noseworthy said CERF played a critical role in “reinforcing coordination at the country level and brings decisions closer to the affected population.”

Mr. Sy suggested that in the future CERF should partner with all those who can respond effectively on the ground and not necessarily rule out direct funding to NGOs. Currently, CERF grants are allocated to UN programmes, specialized agencies and funds, as well as the International Organization for Migration.

Money is important, but it not the only answer

While some, including Robert Filipp, President of the Innovative Finance Foundation, said CERF’s US$450 million annual target is modest for a global central humanitarian fund and suggested there is significant potential to leverage innovative financing opportunities.

WFP’s Ms. Noseworthy said: “Humanitarian work is due to the failure of prevention - we must do more on preparedness.” Mr Sy added that preparedness activities should be viewed as “life-saving” and emphasized a need for more investment early action to help minimize the scale and magnitude of crises.

In closing, Mr. O'Brien pointed to the sharp rise in humanitarian needs around the world due to violent conflict and said that solutions to conflicts must be found through political means. As crises become protracted, humanitarians carry a disproportionate burden of the response and bridging the divide between humanitarian and development work is critical to protect communities from cycles of crisis.

  • More on the CERF event at ECOSOC can be found here.
  • Two recent studies about CERF’s role in the changing humanitarian landscape can be found here