OCHA can quickly deploy specialized humanitarian personnel to support efforts on the ground, particularly in situations where local capacity is overwhelmed, in response to a new or escalating humanitarian crisis.
Response to new humanitarian emergencies may come from a range of organizations and actors. These include 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 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: Getting 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 in a common way, such as through a Flash Appeal or the Central Emergency Response Fund. This also means ensuring that appropriate coordination mechanisms are established. Those mechanisms 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 United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) system, managed by OCHA, is a standby team of volunteer emergency managers with varied skills. These individuals are from over 60 developed and developing countries, international agencies and NGOs. Self-contained and fully equipped UNDAC teams can deploy within 24-48 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 make up the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (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 staffing. 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 and public information.