The Broader View: “Never before had the importance of a well-coordinated response been so clear”

12 December, 2011
Former Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan Ameerah Haq greeting Southern Sudanese who have fled their homes during raids by Lord’s Resistance Army rebels, September 2009. Credit: IRIN/Peter Martell
Former Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan Ameerah Haq greeting Southern Sudanese who have fled their homes during raids by Lord’s Resistance Army rebels, September 2009. Credit: IRIN/Peter Martell

Twenty years ago, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution, 46/182, to establish a global humanitarian system. The resolution called for governments and aid agencies around the world to work together to deal with the rising number of crises.  Two decades on, that system is more important than ever.

Ameerah Haq, currently the UN's special representative in Timor-Leste, reflects on the importance of coordinated action after the expulsion of aid agencies from Darfur.

On 4 March 2009, in the wake of the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, the Government of Sudan expelled 13 international and dissolved 3 national NGOs working in Darfur.

The NGOs, which included some of the biggest humanitarian organisations in the area, had been providing food aid to 1.1 million people, health care to 1.5 million people, and water and sanitation services to 1 million people. I was the Humanitarian Coordinator in Sudan. Never before in my career had the importance of a quick and well-coordinated response to a dramatic change in our operational environment been so clear.

In coordination with the Government, UN agencies and remaining NGOs mustered all their reserve capacities to fill the gaps left by the expelled organisations. We called on the government – both in Khartoum and the capitals of the three Darfur states – to evaluate with us the impact of the expulsions.

After intense negotiations we agreed to field joint assessment teams. Once on the ground in Darfur, our staff worked around the clock to get access to the areas where the expelled NGOs had worked. In poor security conditions and often working with limited information, UN agencies and NGOs proposed how to cover gaps created by the expulsion, especially in the critical areas of food, water, and shelter.

These findings were endorsed in Khartoum, and aid agencies then scrambled to deliver the most urgently needed assistance. The strong inter-agency response to our joint assessments, and contingency planning before the expulsions, allowed us to prevent a large-scale loss of life.

The experience highlighted the need to have joint systems in place to set priorities and take well-founded decisions on how to make the best possible use of scarce financial, human, and logistical resources.

Humanitarian coordination has come a long way since the creation of OCHA. We have formed stronger and more equitable partnerships between donors, NGOs, and UN agencies. With appeals grounded in better analysis and the creation of pooled funding mechanisms, we have improved the link between identifying priorities and allocating money.

The demands and expectations on Humanitarian Coordinators have grown, leading in many cases to more professional and experienced leadership in complex emergencies. Finally, there is broader recognition of the importance of national ownership in making sustainable progress. As we saw in Darfur, these achievements have helped us save lives.

Humanitarians – today in particular – face a two-fold challenge. First, the scale and number of crises, often occurring simultaneously, is unprecedented. Second, new emergencies are often caused and compounded by long-term phenomena, such as extreme poverty, growing populations, and climate change, requiring much closer links between humanitarian action and development cooperation.

In this context, OCHA’s role in helping Humanitarian Coordinators lead principled and effective humanitarian action, which also kick-starts recovery and lays the groundwork for addressing the root causes of suffering, is more important than ever.