OCHA is responsible for bringing together humanitarian actors to ensure a coherent response to emergencies, such as earthquakes, typhoons or conflict, and to assist affected people when they most need relief or protection.
A key pillar of OCHA's mandate is to coordinate effective and principled humanitarian action in partnership with national and international actors. Humanitarian coordination seeks to improve the effectiveness of humanitarian response by ensuring greater predictability, accountability and partnerships. OCHA leads the international community's efforts to develop a better architecture for the humanitarian system, including strong in-country humanitarian leaders (Humanitarian Coordinators); representative and inclusive Humanitarian Country Teams; an effective and well-coordinated framework within which all humanitarian organizations can contribute systematically; and predictable funding tools.
Working through its regional and country offices, OCHA deploys staff at short notice to emergencies. It also supports several surge-capacity mechanisms and networks that enable the broader humanitarian community to respond rapidly to disasters and conflicts.
OCHA has a key role in operational coordination in crisis situations. This includes assessing situations and needs; agreeing common priorities; developing common strategies to address issues, such as negotiating access, mobilizing funding and other resources; clarifying consistent public messaging; and monitoring progress.
OCHA's role is to support the Humanitarian Coordinator’s leadership, and to ensure effective coordination, including strengthening data and information management and reporting. By supporting the right structures, partnerships and leaders, OCHA and its humanitarian partners can better prepare for and effectively coordinate humanitarian situations.
OCHA serves as the secretariat for critical inter-agency coordination mechanisms, such as the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC); rapid-response tools, such as the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) system; and the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG). OCHA also promotes efficient interaction between civilian and military actors in humanitarian operations, bridges gaps in environmental emergency management, and maps global emergency relief stockpiles on behalf of the whole humanitarian community.
OCHA’s preparedness activities aim to create favourable conditions for successful emergency response. The key to effective response is the state of preparedness before a crisis. Therefore, OCHA promotes the importance of preparedness in reducing the impact of disasters on vulnerable communities, especially in disaster-prone countries. OCHA works with national Governments, regional bodies and other agencies to implement and test measures that help save lives in an emergency.
As the coordinator of international humanitarian response, OCHA is responsible for strengthening the following areas:
- OCHA's internal response capacity.
- The capability of the humanitarian coordination system's in-country members to carry out a coordinated emergency response.
- The capacity of national authorities and regional organizations to request or help mobilize international humanitarian assistance, and to effectively use the in-country humanitarian coordination system.
OCHA delivers on these responsibilities by strengthening its Humanitarian Country Teams in order to build its internal response capacity, and by managing international response tools, such as UNDAC, INSARAG and civil-military coordination.
OCHA is also an active member of the Inter-Agency Sub-Working Group on Preparedness. The group aims to strengthen and promote inter-agency preparedness, contingency planning and early warning processes across the IASC.
OCHA also promotes inter-agency efforts to strengthen Governments’ capacity to better respond to disasters.
Governments are primarily responsible for strengthening national response capacity, but the humanitarian community must support Governments' efforts.
Many highly vulnerable settings are at risk of disaster and conflict. Therefore, the humanitarian community must continually avoid risk situations, such as establishing camps for refugees and internally displaced persons in disaster-prone flood plains, or being aware of possible causes of local conflicts, such as water scarcity.
The need for adequate emergency preparedness systems, and the importance of applying a multi-hazard approach, will continue to grow as global threats such as urbanization, food insecurity and climate change become increasingly important drivers of humanitarian need.
The value of OCHA’s preparedness work is demonstrated by understanding the link to positive response outcomes—the essential elements for well-coordinated, quick and effective response operations.
When responding to an escalating or new humanitarian crisis, OCHA can quickly deploy specialized humanitarian personnel to support efforts on the ground, particularly when local capacity is overwhelmed.
Response to new humanitarian emergencies may come from organizations and actors including Governments, the United Nations system, international and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement. They also include specialists in the different aspects of humanitarian response, such as search-and-rescue operations.
OCHA's primary role is to support the United Nations Resident Coordinator or Humanitarian Coordinator, who is usually the most senior United Nations official in the country. OCHA ensures coordination takes place so that the response is as effective as possible. In the most basic terms, this means ensuring a consensus view among the main responders as to what is the problem, what are the priorities, what are we going to do about it and how?
- Building a shared situational awareness: Ensuring needs assessments are coordinated, consolidated, analysed and communicated, e.g., through situation reports and maps.
- Building common approaches: Obtaining agreement among the key operational actors on policy dilemmas, such as how best to support vulnerable groups, or whether and how to coordinate with local or international military actors.
- Building a common strategy and implementation plan: Ensuring that resource mobilization and financing are handled collectively, such as through a Flash Appeal or the Central Emergency Response Fund. This also means ensuring that appropriate coordination mechanisms are established. They include the "cluster approach", which groups agencies with a shared operational interest, e.g., health, water and sanitation. This approach helps to avoid gaps and duplications. It also helps to ensure there is a clear lead organization in each sector in each country with corresponding responsibility and accountability, and which can serve as a more predictable partner for Governments.
When a devastating natural disaster occurs, such as an earthquake, cyclone or flood, OCHA can deploy response coordination specialists within hours. The OCHA-managed UNDAC system is a standby team of volunteer emergency managers with varied skills. These people are from over 60 developed and developing countries, international agencies and NGOs. Self-contained and fully equipped UNDAC teams can deploy within 24 to 48 hours of a disaster anywhere in the world.
During the search-and-rescue (SAR) phase, the key players are the international urban SAR teams that comprise INSARAG. INSARAG develops and promotes internationally accepted procedures and systems for sustained cooperation between international urban SAR teams operating at a disaster site.
To formally establish an OCHA presence or office in the affected country, or to reinforce an existing office, OCHA has several "surge" staffing options prior to the recruitment of regular longer-term staff. These options include:
- Rapid and temporary redeployment of internal staff from the field and headquarters, 35 of whom are on standby for such missions at any given time.
- Deployment of experts seconded from rosters managed by OCHA's 11 standby-partner organizations, and who may be seconded to OCHA.
- Rapid temporary recruitment and deployment of experts from the Associates Surge Pool.
Deployed OCHA personnel can include specialists in humanitarian affairs, information management, civil-military coordination, reporting and public information.