You are here: Alexandra Buskie on defining emergencies

Who decides what counts as a “humanitarian emergency”? Why does the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) list four major emergencies (Central African Republic, the Philippines, South Sudan and Syria) on its website, rather than five or 10 or 20?

The answer is complicated, procedural and surprisingly difficult to find out. Sift through the rather opaque information on the processes that lead to defining an emergency and you begin to get an idea of the challenges faced by the UN system in responding efficiently to humanitarian crises. The issue is wrapped up with the problem of coordinating the actors and resources involved in humanitarian relief efforts.

Starting at the top or the centre, depending which way you look at it, the head of OCHA, Baroness Valerie Amos is responsible for overseeing all humanitarian operations carried out by the UN. She acts as an international focal point for relief efforts and chairs the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), a forum that was set up by the General Assembly in 1992 and convenes key humanitarian organisations from both inside and outside the UN system (such as the World Bank and the International Committee of the Red Cross).

As the Chair of this group, Baroness Amos has the final say in establishing the shared policies and priorities for the sector’s variegated sea of humanitarian organisations, as well as allocating lead responsibilities amongst IASC members. Likewise, she receives the input of an alphabet soup of different networks, task forces and working groups with mandates like “preparedness and resilience”, “gender and humanitarian action”, “needs assessment” and “accountability to affected populations”.

In the most exceptional and pressing situations Baroness Amos activates a system-wide or “Level 3” response, which aims to effectively mobilise the resources, capacity and leadership of the entire humanitarian system for a preliminary period of three months. The activation of a Level 3 is judged on five criteria:

  1. the scale in terms of the potential number of people affected and the geographic size of the emergency
  2. the urgency of the crisis based on the significance of population displacement and mortality rates
  3. the complexity of the issue, including the number of countries affected and the ease humanitarian access
  4. the capacity of the national government to respond
  5. the reputational risk for OCHA and the UN in terms of media and public attention and expectations

By this definition, it is clear why South Sudan was upgraded to a Level 3 in February: recently in the spotlight of media attention, the conflict is complex with potential to escalate. Over eight per cent of the total population has been displaced since the start of the conflict on 15 December 2013 (716,000 are internally displaced with 166,000 refugees in neighbouring countries). South Sudanese state institutions – established since independence in 2011 – are struggling to cope with the crisis and both sides of the conflict have been accused of perpetrating ethnically motivated atrocities against civilians. Neighbouring Sudan has so far stayed out of the conflict, but its links to South Sudanese oil production means that it may yet choose to intervene if the crisis worsens.

The escalation to a Level 3 emergency was met with support from the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator in South Sudan, Toby Lanzer, and a number of the IASC’s member organisations immediately released statements saying they were scaling up relief efforts. . What is striking is the power that comes with Baroness Amos’s singular ability to mobilise resources for acute humanitarian crises in this way. It is both encouraging and troubling: there is a clear centralised point of management that can coordinate a diverse range of organisations in a complex and dynamic environment; but it also concentrates power into the hands of an official in New York, often removed from the local population and not formally accountable to those affected by the crisis.

What is clear is that defining the level of an emergency is partly a power game: it can significantly change the amount and intensity of resources focussed on that situation. As with any position of power, there should be clear and accessible information on how these decisions are reached in order to ensure that they are transparent and accountable firstly to those affected by crises, but also to donors, governments and their publics.

Alexandra Buskie is UNA-UK’s Responsibility to Protect Programme Officer. You can follow her on Twitter @alexbuskie.