July-August 2010: The importance of coordination

The importance of coordination

By Ross Mountain

Welcoming Valerie Amos, Incoming UN Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC) and Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs

Coordination is sometimes seen as a series of meetings bringing people together to discuss and share information. It is that too. But above all, it must be about charting the most effective course using all available resources to address the lifesaving and other humanitarian needs of victims.

For years everybody thought that coordination was easy – “anybody can do it.” Yet in recent years, effective coordination is being recognized as indispensable in the humanitarian field for the speedy and efficient relief and support for victims of conflicts and natural disasters. OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) was born as UNDRO (United Nations Disaster Relief Organization) in the wake of the realisation of the importance of making the most effective use of resources in the aftermath of the Armenia earthquake in 1988. UNDRO then became DHA (UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs) under Jan Eliasson as Under-Secretary General (now Member of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals Advocacy Group and DARA Board member). In 1998, it was rechristened as OCHA.

OCHA worked hard to bring coherence to a largely dysfunctional system led by strong sectoral actors. Now, more than ten years later, when a crisis breaks out, it is not only donors who ask for OCHA’s leadership but the agencies themselves in the countries concerned request their analysis, coordination, reporting and –yes, through effective Humanitarian Coordinators, their leadership.

Today the vital role of ensuring effective coordination of humanitarian response to the growing list of crises is fully recognized in the Security Council and the UN Secretariat – and the public at large and the media look to the UN to ensure this role. It is thus important that qualified staff and resources are available rapidly in crisis countries. The world has been traumatised by the immense loss of life and damage in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. The UN also lost staff. Despite massive pledges of resources, this has not been the international humanitarian system’s finest hour.

The task confronting the new Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC), Valerie Amos, is to reinvigorate OCHA so that it can meet the expectations of UN and NGO partners, as well as populations at risk.

Many of the changes needed have been identified by key international NGOs whose members are the indispensable players in the international humanitarian system and who call for greater access, safety and disaster preparedness. Much needs to be done within the structure itself to improve results-based coordination, humanitarian advocacy and the finding of good leaders.

Efforts to reform the office itself must take place so that the headquarters in New York and Geneva provide the necessary support to its staff and other humanitarian colleagues who work every day in dangerous circumstances. This task is substantial and urgent. All humanitarians wish Ms. Amos well in her new assignment.