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Coordination and the Indian Ocean Tsunami
Evaluations at Work
OCHA Women and Men: Working Towards Gender Equality
Information Management and OCHA
Coordination Snapshot: OCHA in Sudan
Humanitarian Response Reform


Evaluations at Work

There are lessons to be learned from our humanitarian response: mistakes not to be repeated; successes to be built upon; and paths not taken to be examined. Ensuring that these lessons are translated into actions that improve the system is a key aspect of OCHA’s work. In 2005, OCHA and its partners redefined the role of evaluations in improving the response to ongoing crises. They also encouraged aid organizations to look beyond their individual mandates at the broader issues underpinning humanitarian response, and even more broadly, to the situation of the humanitarian action within the political and peacekeeping spheres.

Until recently, the humanitarian community’s approach to self-study has been primarily to do now, learn later. As a result, lessons are learned after the response, and while they may generate improvements in future crises, they come far too late to make an immediate difference. For this reason, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator in 2004 asked a team of external consultants to evaluate an ongoing humanitarian response in the Darfur region of Sudan – where civilians were being targeted by government forces attempting to quell a rebellion – with the aim of making immediate operational improvements. The challenges to such an approach were immense. At the time, the Darfur crisis was one of the most serious acute humanitarian situations the world was facing, and was worsening by the day while the humanitarian community, by all accounts, struggled to launch an adequate response. Efforts to respond to massive needs in all sectors were hampered, among other challenges, by violence and armed conflict, lack of access, obstruction of aid, delayed funding, low staffing levels and the logistical challenge of providing assistance in an expansive geographic area with limited to no infrastructure. In situations such as these, responders’ first responsibility is to save lives and get aid to those who need it most, making them understandably reluctant to take time out to pause and reflect on shortcomings.

But, by working in close consultation with all actors, OCHA and the team were able to design an exercise that would not overly tax responders but allow the evaluators to observe the response first hand and make recommendations for immediate course corrections. Through three field visits and extensive consultation with UN, non-governmental organizations (NGO) and Red Cross Movement responders, donors and beneficiaries in the field and headquarters, the team provided advice that helped local actors to: 1) identify and correct unnoticed weaknesses in the response; 2) strengthen strategic and forward looking planning; and 3) focus attention on and accelerate efforts to solve ongoing but unresolved issues. Lessons learned from this exercise will also help OCHA and other responders further develop real-time evaluation as a tool to help strengthen not only future but ongoing humanitarian responses.

A second innovation that OCHA helped foster in 2005 was the coordination of evaluations of the response to the tsunami which struck in December 2004. Within two months of the disaster, OCHA and WHO began meetings together with the ALNAP Secretariat to discuss the need to (1) promote a sector-wide approach to evaluations of the tsunami response in order to optimize learning, and (2) develop procedures that would facilitate a coordinated approach to organizing and conducting evaluations.

The Tsunami Evaluation Coalition (TEC) was born of these efforts and in eight months has a membership of over 30 donors, NGOs and UN agencies. It has also garnered financial support that has enabled the launching of five joint thematic evaluations in the following areas:

  • Coordination (including civil-military issues) – lead by OCHA
  • Needs assessment – lead by WHO and SDC
  • Impact on local and national capacities – lead by UNDP
  • Linking relief rehabilitation and development – lead by SIDA
  • Donor funding – lead by DANIDA

These topics were chosen as they address macro, policy-related and systemic issues which transcend the concerns of any single institution involved in working in the humanitarian sector. The TEC is above all about learning broad policy lessons for application in future operations.

All these evaluations are currently ongoing with reports expected to be produced around the first anniversary of the tsunami. A Key-Message report will be published in December 2005.