Coordination in Complex Emergencies

A complex emergency can be defined as a humanitarian crisis in a country, region or society where there is a total or considerable breakdown of authority resulting from internal or external conflict, and which requires an international response that goes beyond the mandate or capacity of any single agency and/or the ongoing UN country programme.

Likely characteristics of complex emergencies include:

  • A large number of civilian victims, populations who are besieged or displaced, human suffering on a major scale;
  • Substantial international assistance is needed and the response goes beyond the mandate or capacity of any one agency;
  • Delivery of humanitarian assistance is impeded or prevented by parties to the conflict;
  • High security risks for relief workers providing humanitarian assistance;
  • Relief workers targeted by parties to the conflict.

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is the UN body charged with strengthening the coordination of humanitarian assistance of the UN in complex emergencies. OCHA has three main functions in this field: coordination of the humanitarian response, policy development, and advocacy on humanitarian issues. It is OCHA that normally coordinates the preparation of the Consolidated Appeals of the UN system for such situations.

OCHA discharges its coordination function primarily throughout the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) which is chaired by the Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC), with the participation of humanitarian partners.

The full members of the IASC are OCHA (convenor), FAO, IOM, UNDP, UNHCR, WFP, UNICEF, WHO, and there are a number of standing invitees, including the Red Cross movement and NGOs.

The IASC ensures interagency decision-making in response to complex emergencies, including needs assessments, consolidated appeals, field coordination arrangements and the development of humanitarian policies.

Where there is a complex emergency an individual or agency is appointed to be responsible for the coordination of the UN system response at field level - this individual or agency is designated the "Humanitarian Coordinator".

The decision on who to appoint as Humanitarian Coordinator is made by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC). The agency appointed as Humanitarian Coordinator will depend on the nature of the emergency, and comparative existing agency capacity in the region.

There are four possible options which are normally used for the coordination of UN assistance in a complex emergency. These are:

  • Resident Coordinator

The Resident Coordinator is the leader of the United Nations country team and is normally the head of UNDP in a particular country. In a complex emergency, the Resident Coordinator may also be designated as the Humanitarian Coordinator.

  • Lead Agency

One of the UN agencies may be selected to coordinate and this is often the agency which provides the majority of the assistance;

  • Humanitarian Coordinator

If the emergency is of considerable size a Humanitarian Coordinator may be appointed distinct from the office of the Resident Coordinator and lead agency. The Humanitarian Coordinator normally phases out once the emergency reaches recovery phase and any residual tasks are returned to the Resident Coordinator;

  • Regional Humanitarian Coordinator

If the emergency affects more than one country a Humanitarian Coordinator having regional responsibilities may be appointed.

Role of UNHCR and Other UN Agencies in a Complex Emergency

In complex emergencies involving refugees, UNHCR will be responsible for protection and assistance activities on behalf of the refugees. UNHCR may also be appointed lead agency, and therefore be responsible for the coordination of the UN response.

Whether or not UNHCR is lead agency, the UNHCR Representative remains directly responsible to the High Commissioner on all issues related to the UNHCR country programme as well as policy matters and issues related to UNHCR's mandate.