emergency response coordination

Focus on Assessment and Classification of Emergencies

The growing frequency, intensity and changing nature of disasters is challenging the capacity of the humanitarian
community to act effectively. Large numbers of people – particularly in poor and middle income countries – face
increased risks to their lives, livelihoods and security because of the combination of climate change, population
growth, natural resource scarcity, communicable diseases and economic and political turmoil. Since the global
resources to help deal with catastrophes are limited, it is increasingly imperative for humanitarian actors to target
their assistance strategically, taking into account severity, scale and underlying causes.

Many recent studies have highlighted that humanitarian funding is not always allocated in ways that are impartial,
equitable and transparent. One major reason for this is the lack of standard, universally accepted ways to measure
and classify the severity of disasters and the resulting vulnerability of affected populations. This information,
combined with knowledge of the response capacities of governments and communities, is essential to be able to
determine whether and what type of humanitarian action is warranted. A second reason is that emergency assessments
conducted by different actors usually focus on one specific topic, such as nutrition, health, education or food security,
and are not sufficiently comprehensive or integrated. This fragmentation limits the potential to develop an overall
understanding of the relative priorities for action.

Of particular note, the humanitarian community has not agreed on common indicators and definitions to be used
to diagnose the overall severity of a situation, such as what represents a ‘situation of humanitarian concern’, a
‘vulnerable group’, or an ‘affected population’. Moreover, the data on the indicators that does exist is not always consistently collected, used or consolidated into a strategic analytical document. This absence of a common language and approach can impede effective and timely humanitarian action; for example, the inability to consistently measure needs was identified as a constraint to equitably allocating humanitarian resources through the CERF.

A number of assessment initiatives have been launched to address these issues, including efforts to develop pre-crisis ‘baselines’ in risk-prone countries to measure changes, improve data collection and analysis in specific sectors, establish frameworks to consolidate and link the analysis from several sectors, and classify the overall severity of crises between and within countries. For example, the World Food Programme’s Strengthening Emergency Needs Assessment Capacities project is conducting food security vulnerability baseline studies in several countries to complement information from other sources. Another example is the joint initiative of the health, nutrition, and water and sanitation clusters to develop tools to encourage cross-sectoral data collection and analysis, including an Initial Rapid Assessment (IRA) tool. Progress on classifying emergencies includes the Integrated Food Security and Humanitarian Phase Classification (IPC) system developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Food Security Assessment Unit in Somalia, which combines information from a range of sources to analyse and monitor the food security and livelihood situation in different regions of a country.

The 2007 evaluations of the cluster approach and the CERF have highlighted continued problems in needs assessment practice, flagging three main areas: the lack of standard ways to measure needs across different contexts; excessive fragmentation which impedes the use of comparative, strategic analysis of humanitarian conditions; and the ‘over-assessment’ of communities because agencies do not coordinate their assessment missions and approaches. It is clear that the various assessment activities need to be better linked and organized in order to improve understanding of humanitarian issues and trends.

OCHA has a mandate to facilitate standardized and consolidated approaches to assessing vulnerability levels and developing appropriate responses. OCHA is currently participating in several related projects, including the IRA, the IPC, the Health and Nutrition Tracking Service and the Post-Disaster Needs Assessment work of the early recovery cluster. The IASC has requested OCHA to map these various initiatives and outline best practices and gaps, and to facilitate the development of a common framework for needs assessments. In the context of Good Humanitarian Donorship, some donors have also urged OCHA to take the lead in coordinating the initiatives, in line with their goals, to identify best practices in the standardization and harmonization of assessment approaches.

OCHA’s senior management adopted the development of ‘a common approach to needs assessment’ as one of its strategic priorities for 2008 and beyond, and preparatory work has begun to advance this goal with the launch of the Assessment and Classification of Emergencies Project in late 2007. Through this project, OCHA is committed to engaging in a consultative process with United Nations and non-United Nations actors and donors to improve the standardization, coordination and consolidation of sectoral information. The first task towards developing a common approach will be to select and pilot the use of a limited number of humanitarian indicators for each cluster or sector, capitalizing on work previously completed by the agencies. The agreed indicators and definitions will then be used to develop and pilot a common humanitarian classification system in two countries in 2008, building on the experience of the IPC. The aim is to test the potential for expanding the IPC beyond its main focus on food security, to serve as the classification system for the wider humanitarian community. OCHA also plans to develop an internal tool to improve its ability to rapidly assess the severity of the humanitarian situation after a sudden onset-crisis.

Due to the complexity of this work, it will be essential to use the experience gained in 2008 to further refine the classification system through additional country-level pilots. OCHA plans to develop this three-year strategy in 2008, which will ideally draw upon and expand the work of a multi-partner project to replicate the IPC approach in several countries during 2008–11. Inter-agency cooperation and donor support will be crucial for the success of this endeavour, the ultimate goal of which is to support more effective, prioritized and equitable responses to future crises.