Paper prepared for meeting at Pocantico Conference Center of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund

The Center on International Cooperation was established in 1996 with funding from the Ford Foundation to conduct a program of policy research and development on the management and financing of multilateral commitments. As global integration accelerates, the world faces unprecedented transnational problems resistant to resolution by individual states. Governments that once assumed responsibility for a wide range of multilateral activities today lack the political will or fiscal capacity to sustain the array of international organizations, development aid programs, humanitarian assistance efforts, environmental agreements, and other global public goods that they have agreed to support. At the same time, important non-state actors, including corporations and not-for-profit groups, are gaining importance in the conduct of world affairs. The cooperation of all of these stakeholders is essential to develop appropriate strategies and mobilize the financial resources necessary to meet global challenges in the years ahead.

The Center seeks to inform public debate on these broad issues by clarifying the economic, political, legal, and institutional foundations of effective multilateral action. Our current work focuses on four critical sectors: international law; humanitarian assistance; reconstruction aid; and reproductive health and population. A fifth initiative examines the comparative advantages of regional and global multilateral organizations in the provision of socially relevant public goods. In each case, the Center’s multidisciplinary staff assesses current needs and financing sources and, as necessary, explores the feasibility and appropriateness of alternative funding and institutional arrangements. Research results and practical recommendations will be published in a policy paper series, “Paying for Essentials,” and a database on multilateral commitments will be made available on-line. Consulting with a broad range of international policy-makers, scholars, service providers and other interested parties, the Center hopes to build political consensus on essential multilateral activities and on the means to implement and sustain them.

This paper was prepared as background for the meeting on “Resources for Humanitarian Assistance,” which was held on September 11-12, 1997 at the Pocantico Conference Center in New York. It reflects the aggregate set of responses of the primary intergovernmental and non-governmental humanitarian service providers to an inquiry regarding their financial, managerial, and staffing concerns, as well as discussions with them and with other experts in the field. Without denying the importance of longer term development assistance and its interconnectedness with humanitarian relief, this paper’s focus has intentionally been limited to humanitarian assistance in complex emergencies, with the recognition that effective emergency aid must be understood within the broader humanitarian framework. The paper briefly analyzes the overall financial situation facing the humanitarian enterprise; examines the ways in which patterns of funding, as well as gross amounts, affect the delivery of assistance; and identifies several options which could strengthen the capacity and performance of the humanitarian system, including investment in preparedness measures and in staff recruitment and training.


The difficulty in mobilizing resources for humanitarian assistance belies a seeming consensus regarding the legitimacy and necessity of international action for alleviating human suffering in emergencies. The years since the end of the Cold War have witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance, resulting primarily from an unprecedented surge in armed conflict within states.(1) In 1996, over 40 million people were dependent on humanitarian aid, an increase of 60% since the mid-1980s.(2) Their suffering has become a common sight on television newscasts, often stimulating demands for assistance among the citizens of donor countries in the West, the so-called “CNN effect.”

Spending on humanitarian assistance has increased substantially over the past decade. The proportion of official development assistance (ODA) which the industrialized countries spend on emergency aid has quintupled since the early 1980s. Since 1990, over $30 billion has been spent on humanitarian assistance, with more than 80% coming from OECD governments.(3) Annual aggregate funding levels peaked at around $7 billion in 1994, and have since leveled off at $3-4 billion per year.

Despite this impressive growth in emergency expenditures, humanitarian assistance still constitutes a very small portion of spending in the world economy. Even at its peak in 1994, global spending on humanitarian assistance represented only .03% of world GDP, or less than 1% of world defense expenditure for the same year. While it is impossible to put a cash value on human life, the cost of humanitarian assistance is remarkably inexpensive on a per capita expenditure basis.(4) Most importantly, it is generally agreed that the loss of human life would have been much greater had the humanitarian response not been forthcoming.

The intergovernmental agencies and United Nations departments most active in humanitarian relief–the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Food Programme (WFP), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the UN Department for Humanitarian Affairs (DHA)–often struggle to obtain funds from governments more concerned with identifying national interest rationales for their response. The coupling of security demands with the provision of humanitarian assistance further complicates the appeals process. For their part, the private voluntary agencies that implement and program the majority of humanitarian aid spend increased staff time and financial resources raising donations from the public and find themselves increasingly dependent on government funds for their activities. Furthermore, governmental efforts to privatize humanitarian assistance have encouraged a proliferation of voluntary aid agencies which now compete openly with each other for funds.

Without systematic and transparent needs and impact assessments, it is difficult to determine whether existing levels of aggregate expenditure are adequate to meet current needs. What is clear is that political considerations guiding government decisions seriously compromise the equitable distribution of humanitarian assistance, rendering it insufficient in many cases. Moreover, there is a strong sense of resource constraint among the community of aid providers.

The widespread perception that dwindling resources for development assistance are being diverted to short term emergency relief only exacerbates this sense of resource constraint. Many intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations have felt forced to shift their focus to emergency relief. Development organizations, such as CARE and Oxfam, now devote a substantial proportion of their resources to emergency assistance, even though preventive intervention and longer term development assistance are widely believed to be more cost-effective.(5) Similarly, many observers are concerned that UNHCR’s increasing role in humanitarian operations threatens to dilute its primary protection function.

While a host of moral, ethical, and political issues now confront the legions of dedicated women and men who are struggling to stem the extraordinary tide of displacement, deprivation, and death that characterize humanitarian emergencies, the above resource concerns continue to be of critical importance to the success of field operations. In-kind and financial contributions make possible the material and staff capacities that are essential for any humanitarian response. Moreover, resolution of some of these “larger” issues requires the effective and efficient provision and management of resources. Thus by focusing on the resource issues, this project seeks to strengthen the provision of humanitarian aid through improvements in the timing, predictability, and flexibility of financing mechanisms and through cost-savings obtained with effective investment in the humanitarian preparedness system, including on-the-ground material standby and logistical arrangements, rapid deployment capacity, staffing, and coordination.(6)

Mobilizing Resources for a Humanitarian Response

Shortcomings of Current Arrangements

Mobilizing the financial resources needed for an effective humanitarian response has become a costly ordeal for both the IGOs and NGOs delivering the aid and even for the donor governments themselves. The vast array of potential funding channels creates ambiguity and often leads to inefficiencies in planning, coordinating, and implementing humanitarian responses in the field.

Efforts to rationalize the system, through the creation of the United Nations Inter-Agency Humanitarian Assistance Consolidated Appeals Process (the CAP) under DHA auspices in 1992, have only partially succeeded in resolving the complex problems of coordination and competition which accompany the need for multiple and diverse agencies to raise large amounts of money rapidly in response to complex emergencies. Donor governments continue to confront specific funding requests by UN agencies and NGOs and general funding appeals by individual UN agencies and the Red Cross Movement. Additional financing mechanisms include emergency funds and standby arrangements maintained by most UN agencies,(7) the Red Cross Movement, and the larger international NGOs; allocations from the Central Emergency Revolving Fund (CERF) administered by DHA; and public appeals by NGOs, either individually or in consortia.(8)

The percentage of financial resources derived from each of these mechanisms is difficult to determine.(9) Donor governments provide the bulk of financial support, nearly 85% in 1996 (see Figure 1 for funding breakdown). Rough estimates suggest that the CAP accounts for about half of donor government contributions; direct donor responses to general funding appeals or requests from humanitarian agencies comprise slightly less.(10) Financial support from non-government sources (corporations, foundations, and the general public) appears to be less than one-sixth of total global funding.(11)

While funding for humanitarian assistance has increased dramatically since the end of the Cold War, there is considerable evidence to suggest that existing resource levels are insufficient to meet global humanitarian needs. In 1996, only 67.0% of the Consolidated Appeals were met, down from 72.7% in 1995 and 75.8% in 1994 (see Table 1). Although the CAP does not capture all contributions, and there is some question regarding the degree to which the “requirements” stipulated in the appeals accurately reflect actual needs,(12) there is general agreement that its data provide, as one major donor suggested, a “good proxy for the trends in donor response to emergency humanitarian needs.”(13) As such, they suggest that aggregate spending has become increasingly insufficient to meet overall needs.

Funding shortfalls are particularly acute in cases of “forgotten emergencies.” In the case of Somalia, for example, only 20.1% of the Consolidated Appeals were met for 1996. Similarly, the Caucasus, Tajikistan, and Iraq received less than fifty percent of their 1996 appeals (See Table 2). While there may be many explanations for the uneven distribution of humanitarian assistance, patterns of funding tend to represent clear political choices on the part of the donor agencies. Indeed, some observers have noted that the current humanitarian system may involve a form of triage, in which strategically “important” areas (such as North Korea, which received 78.8% of its 1996 appeals) or widely publicized emergencies (such as the Great Lakes Region, which received 86.1% of its 1996 appeals) are well-funded, while other emergencies are largely ignored. The dominance of such political calculi undermines the “humanitarian” character of these efforts and, in too many cases, leaves humanitarian organizations without the resources necessary to carry out their missions.

Donor funding preferences also result in uneven distribution of resources across sectors. In particular, non-food sectors are consistently under-funded, reflecting the perception of many donors that such sectors are of a lesser priority. The World Health Organization, for example, received less than 15% of its CAP requirements for most emergencies in 1996; in several emergencies (Angola, Sierra Leone, Somalia, the Caucasus), WHO received none of its stipulated requirements.(14) This tendency of donors to fund only certain types of activities hinders the humanitarian agencies’ efforts to strengthen the integrated programming approach of the CAP and compromises the effectiveness of the overall multi-sectoral humanitarian program.(15)

Moreover, the crisis-driven nature of donors’ responses results in higher costs over the long run. Donor governments (and private sector contributors) are reluctant to respond with major commitments until compelled to do so by images of millions of lives in immediate danger. In these circumstances, agencies feel forced to defer possible early stage mitigating activities and to react to emergencies at a later stage when the complexities of the disaster have expanded exponentially. Not only are the human costs higher at these later stages, but there is widespread agreement that the impact of each aid dollar is much lower.

The short-term nature of donor commitments carries additional costs. Most of the major donor aid agencies will consider only three- or six-month project proposals.(16) These short-term commitments, together with the limited attention span of donor agencies, the media, and the general public, make it difficult for humanitarian organizations to maintain adequate levels of funding beyond a few months. Humanitarian providers are often forced to advance funds for field operations, anticipating later payments by donors. With small reserves in constant need of replenishment, aid providers often face cash-flow problems and sometimes deficit spending.(17) Financial pressures shorten the providers’ “operational vision,” leading them to plan and budget only for short-term projects and to present the impact of their work in terms of measurable accomplishments such as “lives saved” or “children fed,” which may not reflect their actual impact beyond a very limited time-frame.(18) Crisis-driven funding not only wastes resources; it also inhibits long-range planning and undermines the sustainability and effectiveness of programs. Under these arrangements, donors find it difficult to track the impact of successive appeals or to hold providers accountable.

Short time horizons and financial dependence on donors restrict the capacity of humanitarian agencies to set their own priorities and to implement desired programs. As suggested earlier, donors’ decisions to fund only certain programs can severely limit the range of choice agencies face. In cases where donors designate a lead agency as the primary channel for their funding,(19) NGOs–rhetoric regarding “partnerships” notwithstanding–may find themselves subject to the lead agency’s agenda. Moreover, humanitarian agencies’ ability to set their own priorities may also be diluted in a more indirect manner, as they are pressured to concentrate on only those projects which will yield the kinds of results that will maintain support from donors and the general public.

Another shortcoming of the current system is that neither the CAP nor the designation of lead agencies has fostered effective donor coordination. Lack of consultation in donor funding decisions creates confusion, inefficiency and uneven distribution of resources across regions and across sectors.(20) Uncoordinated needs assessments may exacerbate this problem, as the CAP has been criticized as being little more than the aggregation of multiple “shopping lists” compiled from the various provider agencies.(21) In at least one instance, inadequate or nonexistent donor coordination may have contributed to short-term excess. From July to September 1994, at the height of media coverage and public awareness of the Rwandan emergency, the funding “tap was turned on” so dramatically that many agency personnel recall that it was possible “to do anything.”(22) Better coordination and more systematic and transparent needs assessments could have resulted in a more appropriate and sustainable allocation of resources.

The fact that virtually all humanitarian activities, with the exception of modest core costs of some of the UN specialized agencies, are financed through voluntary contributions creates several additional problems, including the unpredictability of revenues. Voluntary contributions are typically tied to the donors’ annual budgetary processes and are subject to political will. Furthermore, because current financing arrangements are field-driven, many organizations have difficulties covering their non-emergency operational support costs, including those associated with personnel recruitment, training, development, and management; public education or appeals; financial management; and administration. For many organizations, current funding mechanisms–particularly funds channeled through a lead agency–do not adequately support the core functions that are so critical to their effective management. As a result, they are forced to constantly justify fixed headquarters costs and to scramble to manage steady-state or even declining budgets. While greater coordination of efforts, including a clearer division of labor, together with administrative and management reforms, might help to reduce fixed institutional costs, some provision for reasonable overhead charges is necessary if the remarkable strength and resiliency of the humanitarian agencies is to be preserved. (23)

In the current environment, humanitarian agencies find themselves competing with each other for scarce funds in order to finance their operations. Admittedly, as one respondent suggested, competition among agencies for donor support can be healthy, prompting such constructive responses as increased specialization, more efficient and effective delivery systems, and increased emphasis on cost-effectiveness and impact. At the same time, these positive effects are largely overshadowed by the negative consequences of the incessant drive for essential funds. In order to attract donor funding, agencies often vie for visibility through the media, “profiling” themselves in campaigns designed to raise public awareness of an emergency.(24) When successful, this phenomenon can create a perverse feedback loop: as donors respond, the increased funding attracts even more humanitarian organizations to the field. Well-publicized emergencies like the one in Rwanda in 1994 can become over-crowded with relief agencies, creating “the impression of a bazaar” and a “battle of logos and T-shirts.”(25) The constant competition for funding may skew the humanitarian imperative and hinder coordination among humanitarian agencies.
Seeking Solutions

Service providers and other experts agree that urgent efforts are needed to resolve some of the more glaring shortcomings in the current scale and pattern of financing the humanitarian response. While it is clear that cost savings also could be achieved through better management practices in some of the individual agencies and through improved planning and coordination across the system, there are a number of possible avenues for enhancing the humanitarian response through development of more rational financing mechanisms. The following section outlines some preliminary suggestions and their implications. Examination of these suggestions should include consideration of potential trade-offs between efficiency and open participation in decision-making and service delivery.

The core competencies of the humanitarian assistance system must be maintained. While nobody can accurately predict the locations and costs of future emergencies, it should be possible to estimate the rough financial requirements of an effective global humanitarian preparedness system. As with any public service sector, humanitarian assistance involves a set of fixed costs for basic functions which must be met to ensure that the capacity is in place to provide services when circumstances demand. Yet the rapid growth in humanitarian activities in the last several years has been neither preceded nor accompanied by parallel investments in core competencies, even though investment in particular areas would improve international preparedness and response as well as reduce overall costs. How can agencies, particularly NGOs, secure essential support for core costs while maintaining their independence? Can agreement be reached on reasonable overhead charges? Whose responsibility is it to pay for core costs? Can a case be made for “institutional support grants” to ensure long-term stability? Is there a special role here for the private sector?

Up-front funding would enable service providers–both intergovernmental and non-governmental–to plan more strategically (including contingency planning and preparedness measures) and to implement programs without borrowing on already constrained resources. Current arrangements provide reserve funds, through DHA’s Central Emergency Revolving Fund or through individual agency emergency funds–which can be accessed for rapid response to an emergency.(26) However, these funds are relatively small, are targeted for rapid emergency response, and are in constant need of replenishment. Could a fund comprised of advanced contributions, based on a two or three year average of annual expenditures, help to resolve some of the current problems? How would such funds be governed and administered? Would a “superfund” be feasible and appropriate? Could it help make more equitable the distribution of aid across emergencies?

Longer-term donor financial commitments for field operations are essential for effective programming. Humanitarian crises require several years of sustained and focused attention. How can this be reconciled to donors’ desire for more accountability? Could agreement be reached with donors for longer-term proposals with stipulated benchmarks? How could sufficient flexibility be built in to account for changes in an emergency situation over a longer time period?

Greater coordination of donor funding is necessary for more efficient use of available resources. To be effective, such coordination must be transparent and flexible to provide adequate access to service providers and to accommodate shifting priorities. Can the CAP be adjusted to meet these goals? Does the experience of the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO) offer any lessons in this regard?(27) Does the “service package” concept enhance or impede coordination and flexibility?

A systematic and transparent framework for needs assessment must be developed. At present, individual donors and agencies undertake their own needs assessments, the accuracy of which may be compromised by desired outcomes.(28) How can more accurate estimates of need be determined? What would be the appropriate roles of local governing authorities and NGOs in that assessment? How can local and regional resource assessments be included in this process?

Standards and procedures for fundraising campaigns should be evaluated. The media is a powerful tool in mobilizing public support and catalyzing donor action, but its power can be misused. How can service providers work more closely with the media to provide accurate accounts of needs and accomplishments? How can competition for funding among NGOs be channeled into greater efficiency and effectiveness?

Maintaining Preparedness

In addition to financial resource mobilization and management, another critical element of an effective humanitarian response is the mobilization and deployment of human and material resources. These two essential components of preparedness constitute a significant portion of the costs of operations. Moreover, targeted investment in human and material resources would curtail the running costs of missions and increase the effectiveness of the response. The following sections examine current arrangements and suggest possible improvements in material standby capacity and the logistical arrangements for its delivery, and in staff recruitment and training.

Material Standby Capacity and Logistical Arrangements

Successful field operations require adequate preparedness and logistical arrangements. The capacity to respond quickly and effectively in an emergency can help to stem the damage and, consequently, contain the longer term costs of field operations. Conversely, accelerated deterioration of the situation on the ground can make start-up more difficult and vastly increase the overall costs. In addition, logistical support is necessary throughout an operation to deliver goods, transport aid workers, and facilitate communication. Effective preparedness requires the stockpiling of food and materials(29) as well as arrangements for the rapid deployment and on-going delivery of materials and personnel.Current material standby arrangements appear to be concentrated in Europe, including DHA’s warehouse in Pisa, UNHCR’s emergency stockpile in Amsterdam, UNICEF’s warehouse in Copenhagen, Concern’s emergency store in Rotterdam, and CARE’s modular units stored in England. Despite strong transport and climate rationales for maintaining supplies in Europe, some evidence suggests that regional and local stockpiles may reduce transport and storage costs and response time. The ICRC experience with storing food and other materials in East Africa, for instance, suggests that the local procurement and management of emergency stocks can be “much more cost effective when carried out in Nairobi rather than in Geneva.”(30)

Other organizations have found that local stockpiles can raise additional problems of security, technological obsolescence, and rapid deterioration of supplies in poor storage conditions. Consequently, some agencies are reducing their local or regional stockpiles to very limited quantities of urgently needed materials.

Like material stockpiles, logistical support is crucial for effective field operations. Without adequate arrangements for road haulage, shipping, storage, and/or airlift, humanitarian assistance would be impossible. Well-functioning logistical arrangements enable the timely delivery of food and supplies, provide transportation for relief workers, and facilitate communication and coordination in the field. In many emergencies, transportation infrastructure is either badly damaged, insufficient, or nonexistent, complicating the delivery of assistance–and making the provision of external logistical arrangements all the more essential.

Extensive external logistics, including airlifts, ships, all-terrain trucks, and storage depots, are expensive. In 1994, for example, UNHCR spent nearly $60 million–almost 40% of its purchasing budget–on chartering of airlift flights, air freight, shipping, land transport, vehicles, spare parts, and fuel.(31)

In recent crises, logistical arrangements have typically been ad hoc, and have varied considerably from case to case. In some cases, logistical support has been provided by donor military contingents; in others, UN agencies and NGOs have relied on commercial contractors. In several instances, both intergovernmental agencies (e.g., WFP) and NGOs (e.g., Save the Children-UK) have found it necessary to maintain their own transport capabilities. In many cases, land, sea, and air transport have all been used–though the choice of one over the other often does not seem to be guided by any explicit determination of relative costs and benefits. What is clear is that the absence of a coherent, systematic approach to the provision of logistical support often creates confusion, limits effectiveness, and increases overall costs.

The particular case of airlift is instructive. When available, air transport is often utilized instead of road or rail transport, despite its much higher costs. Commercial air transport in Rwanda, for example, cost four to five times as much as road transport; military airlift was even more expensive, costing 20 to 40 times as much as road haulage.(32) While urgency or accessibility sometimes makes airlift imperative, donors and agencies must consider the relative costs associated with alternative logistical arrangements.

The absence of a coherent logistical support system has another unfortunate by-product: resource scarcity and differential access engender competition for logistical support, a competition typically won by the “controlling entity.” In the case of Rwanda, for example, NGOs complained that UNHCR’s Air Operations Cell served primarily UNHCR’s needs and was not made available as a common resource to all agencies.(33)

Learning from Experience

The urgency and the considerable cost of adequate logistical support and material standby capacity render these issues critical to any consideration of improvements in the humanitarian system. Several issues warrant further study.

The comparative advantage of centralized versus regional or local stockpiling of emergency supplies needs to be assessed. Does the apparently positive experience of the ICRC’s regional delegation in Nairobi demonstrate the value of pre-positioning of supplies within emergency-prone regions? Are there similar experiences elsewhere? What security concerns need to be considered? What additional work needs to be done on the question of the location of standby materials and associated costs?

The possibility of consolidating current material standby arrangements should be examined for its potential cost savings. Although several UN agencies are developing methods for rapid transfer of equipment amongst themselves to meet emergency needs,(34) the major intergovernmental and non-governmental agencies still maintain separate stockpiles. Are there worthwhile economies of scale to be obtained through consolidation? Would NGOs and intergovernmental agencies both profit from the use and delivery of standby materials? Do smaller NGOs face access issues that need to be taken into account? Are there advantages to having several different stockpiles to respond to an emergency?

The efficiency of current procurement, supply, and stockpiling practices should be assessed. According to UNICEF, for example, “there might be even more cost-effective and efficient alternatives [than its Copenhagen stockpiles] through the development of agreements with manufacturers for rapid stock deployment on demand,” an approach which UNICEF is using as the basis for a revision and rationalization of its own stockpile levels.(35) Can other agencies obtain similar cost savings through such alternative contracting measures?

The comparative cost-effectiveness of military and commercial provision of logistical support needs to be examined.(36) The Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda noted that the military provides “…a stand-by capacity with highly-developed systems and expertise in the field of logistics.” The report concluded, however, that a “humanitarian aid stand-by capacity…developed in the commercial or non-governmental sector…would be considerably cheaper to a central finance ministry than funding the maintenance of such capacity within the military.”(37)

The aid community should examine the possibility of system-wide logistical arrangements. Given the expense and potential inappropriateness of military support, the donor community should examine whether proposals for the system-wide provision of logistical support have merit. Such proposals may seek to build on those organizations (e.g., WFP, ICRC) which under current arrangements have developed the greatest logistical capacity.(38)

The pre-positioning of supplies might presume the pre-positioning of logistical bases as well. What have we learned from ICRC’s experience with its comprehensive regional logistics center in Nairobi? What can WFP now tell us about its Strategic Fleet for Africa that might cast light on the potential for regionally-based transport facilities? Are there other examples?
Staff Recruitment and Training

Human capital is a prerequisite of a successful humanitarian response. The talented and dedicated staffs of intergovernmental and voluntary agencies carry out extremely difficult missions, often at considerable risk to themselves. Nonetheless, several problems exist in the current recruitment and training of qualified aid providers. Given the sheer numbers of people involved, reform will not be easy.(39) In emergency circumstances, recruitment itself is a complex process. Staff are often recruited in a hasty, ad hoc manner for overseas assignments in remote, unfamiliar places to implement programs for which they may lack training.(40) Except when UN personnel are seconded under special “mission replacement” arrangements, recruits are typically Westerners. Obviously, increasing the number of non-Western UN personnel in special field assignments would advance staff development and diversify the profile of humanitarian workers abroad. However, mission replacement often creates serious staffing difficulties at headquarters and does not guarantee that the most qualified people are in the field.

To ensure that well-trained individuals will be available on very short notice, preparedness measures must include a strong personnel component. Many agencies, including UNHCR, WFP, UNICEF, and Médecins Sans Frontières, have developed their own “rapid response teams.” The Department of Humanitarian Affairs operates the U.N. Disaster Assessment and Coordination System (UNDAC) for immediate deployment in emergencies. In some severe emergencies, certain donors have sent out teams of specialists, including military officers. The United States’ Disaster Assistance Response Teams (DARTs), from USAID’s Bureau of Humanitarian Response/Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (BHR/OFDA) have served in the Former Yugoslavia, Northern Iraq, Rwanda, and Eastern Zaire. ECHO sent similar teams to Rwanda, and the Canadian Forces in the summer of 1996 announced the formation of their own DART.

The apparent lack of coordination among these multiple rapid response teams raises questions about the likely overall effectiveness of such preparedness measures. To the extent that such teams are designed to establish or enhance the field presence of a particular agency, separate response teams would seem to make sense. However, greater coordination in the early response stage would encourage collaborative efforts once the agencies arrive in full force.

Furthermore, the composition of current rapid response teams seems overly restrictive. Their small size makes it difficult to include both specialists in diverse emergency sectors (e.g. water and sanitation officers, medical officers, shelter specialists, etc.) and individuals familiar with the political, economic, and cultural circumstances of a given region.

Current personnel preparedness arrangements suffer from an overlap of the several reserve rosters maintained for recruiting purposes. Although many NGOs utilize their own reserve rosters for their staffing needs, several of the intergovernmental organizations rely on standby arrangements with NGOs. Some question the self-selecting nature of these rosters and the adequacy of screening and accrediting practices. Such unstructured arrangements may not facilitate the creation of professional field staff.

Another weakness of current staffing practices is the absence of local professionals in senior operations positions. While many of the major agencies claim to hire over 80% local staff,(41) few of the latter occupy senior policy or management positions. The dominance of Westerners is problematic on a number of frontspolitically and ethically, as well as in terms of efficiency and comparative costs. Local staff bring special skills and strengths to senior positions, including a greater understanding of the particular political and cultural context in which they are operating. Building local capacity in the civil sector also contributes directly to post-emergency reconstruction goals and to long-term sustainability of programs.(42) At the same time, costs for expatriate staff tend to be considerably higher, as a comparison between local and expatriate staff costs suggests that expatriates may cost ten to forty times more than locals.(43) Finally, the relatively rapid turnover of Western recruits, many of whom are available for one to six months, adds to the extremely high costs of field personnel.
Improving Current Practice

Perhaps more than any other single element, the quality of staff recruitment and training is critical to the success of humanitarian operations. Efforts to improve humanitarian response should thus include a serious examination of several relevant staffing issues.(44)

Cooperation and an effective division of labor in deployment of rapid response teams needs to be addressed. How can the role of NGOs–both local and international–be strengthened? What mechanisms now exist and how can they be improved?

Reserve rosters need to be consolidated, and local talent included in them. To what degree are they now computerized and accessible? What information should be included in rosters, including measures of performance, with due respect to privacy concerns? The Norwegians seem to have the most developed system, including training and accreditation. Is this a useful model? What has been the experience of the Register of Engineers in Disaster Relief?

Regional training programs for local cadres of civil servants and other professionals could create trained and specialized local standby capacity. Might the various Norwegian experiments be a useful point of departure? Is peace-keeping training and deployment a useful model? Could the new UN Staff College provide effective standardized training and accreditation? Might post-graduate programs, for example those available in several European universities, have something to contribute to these efforts?


This paper has focused on specific resource issues surrounding emergency response, leaving open a set of questions regarding preventive measures and development cooperation. Because political, economic, security, and human rights concerns are embedded in complex emergencies, the quality of the emergency response has serious implications for the longer-term. Thus humanitarian assistance, even when focused on relief, should be part of a coherent strategy which includes appropriate attention to conflict prevention and mitigation, human rights monitoring, post-conflict reconstruction, and longer-term development strategies.

*See footnote 11 in text

Table 1: Percent of Consolidated Appeals Covered,

Affected Country or Region Percent of Requirements Covered for Appeals Launched in 1994 Percent of Requirements Covered for Appeals Launched in 1995 Percent of Requirements Covered for Appeals Launched in 1996
Afghanistan 59.8% 52.6%
Angola 83.2% 45.9% 56.6%
Burundi 62.2%
Eastern Zaire 69.8%
Great Lakes Region 91.7% 86.1%
Kenya 57.1%
Liberia 74.4%
Mozambique 62.2%
Rwanda/ Sub-region 95.5%
Sierra Leone 52.7% 65.6%
Somalia 30.3% 20.1%
Sudan 81.3% 50.1% 51.4%
Caucasus 62.5% 60.3% 46.1%
Chechnya 90.0% 90.5%
Tajikistan 63.3% 77.2% 48.2%
Iraq 32.1% 50.8% 45.8%
Lebanon 100.0%
Republic of Yemen 15.7%
D.P.R. Korea 78.8%
Haiti 55.5%
Former Yugoslavia 92.5% 89.5% 68.7%
TOTALS 75.8% 72.7% 67.0%

Data from DHA’s Financial Tracking Database, available on the internet at

Table 2: Requirements, Funding, and Shortfalls for Humanitarian Emergencies, 1996

Affected Country or Region Implement-ation Period UN Consolidated Inter-Agency Appeals Requirements (US dollars) Funding
(US dollars)
Carryover Funds
(US dollars)
Total Funds Available (Contributions & Carryover Funds, in US dollars) Shortfall*
(in US dollars)
Percent of 1996 Requirements Covered
Angola 1/96-12/96






Eastern Zaire 11/96-1/97






Great Lakes Region 1/96-12/96






Sierra Leone 3/96-2/97






Somalia 10/96-12/97






Sudan 1/96-12/96






Caucasus 1/96-5/97






Chechnya 1/96-12/96






Tajikistan 12/96-5/97






Iraq 4/96-3/97






Lebanon 4/96-7/96






D.P.R. Korea 7/96-3/97






Former Yugoslavia 1/96-12/96













Data from the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs’ Financial Tracking Database, available on the internet at <<>>.

*A surplus in one commodity or for a particular agency does not offset a shortfall in another; DHA has adjusted shortfall estimates to reflect actual remaining needs.


1. While most donor agencies and humanitarian organizations do not distinguish between man-made and natural disasters in their accounting, this paper focuses primarily on complex humanitarian emergencies, generated by conflict, civil strife, or natural disasters that can be anticipated. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata has defined complex humanitarian emergencies as follows: “An emergency is complex when its causes are mixed and when its very magnitude makes it difficult for any single agency to handle the emergency on its own.” See Statement by Mrs. Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to the Economic and Social Council on Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance: Emergency Relief and the Continuum to Rehabilitation and Development. Geneva, 1 July 1993. (visited on 8/21/97) <>.

2. According to Under-Secretary-General Yasushi Akashi, head of the Department of Humanitarian Affairs and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, about 42 million people worldwide were dependent on humanitarian assistance in 1995. See “Security Council Debate on Humanitarian Crises, Assembly Work on Improved UN Capability, Mark New Peacekeeping Era,” International Documents Review. 26 May 1997, 1. See also Global Humanitarian Emergencies, 1996 (New York: United States Mission to the United Nations, 1996) and World Refugee Survey 1996 (U.S. Committee for Refugees, 1996).

3. According to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, OECD countries provide about five-sixths of global humanitarian aid. See Global Humanitarian Emergencies, 1996 (New York: United States Mission to the United Nations, 1996) 23.

4. Aggregate figures suggest that in 1996, for example, less than $100 was spent per person in need (less than $4 billion for 40 million in need).

5. Most agencies interviewed expressed the view that development cooperation and preventive measures are more cost-effective forms of response than emergency aid, but there is still a lack of empirical evidence in support of this belief.

6. Security arrangements have become increasingly necessary in launching and conducting effective field operations. Important as they are, these security questions are much debated elsewhere and, hence, have not been included in this inquiry.

7. For example WFP’s International Emergency Food Reserve, UNHCR’s Emergency Response Fund, and UNICEF’s Emergency Programme Fund.

8. In addition, donors occasionally respond directly, providing resources through donor organization emergency teams, civil defense teams, or military contingents in a humanitarian delivery or support role. See the Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda, The International Response to Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda Experience. Study 3: Humanitarian Aid and Effects. (Odense: Steering Committee of the Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda, 1996) 111.

9. According to the Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda, the difficulty in determining a percentage breakdown from each mechanism is compounded by several practices: funds allocated for one activity are often used for another activity; funds allocated ahead of an appeal are sometimes subsequently counted against the appeal; and agencies sometimes make arrangements for borrowings and reimbursements at a local level.

10. In 1996, donor governments provided $1.35 billion, or about 49% of total donor funding, through the CAP. Donors reported approximately $1.21 billion, or 44% of total donor funding, contributed to NGOs and intergovernmental organizations outside the CAP. The remaining 6-7% was delivered by donor governments themselves and through bilateral channels.

11. This estimate is based on data obtained from many of the major humanitarian agencies regarding the percentage of their resources derived from non-government sources. Variation in methodologies and definitions render this figure only a very rough approximation. These private donations are critical since they represent contributions to core costs of organizations or permit flexible responses in particular emergency situations.

12. The urgency and the rapidly changing dynamics of a complex emergency necessarily complicate needs assessments, and the desire for rapid donor response may encourage assessment teams to overstate requirements. It should be noted, however, that the Consolidated Appeals are based on a synthesis of information from DHA and humanitarian agencies, in consultation with donor representatives at the country level. Moreover, these appeals are updated frequently–and scaled down as necessary–to reflect changing needs and/or more accurate assessments as they become available.

13. Global Humanitarian Emergencies, 1996 (New York: United States Mission to the United Nations, 1996) 22.

14. Conversely, WFP usually receives well over 70% (and often close to 100%) of its stipulated requirements. See The Financial Tracking Database For Complex Emergencies (visited 8/20/97) at < fts/index.html>.

15. According to the draft report of the Secretary-General on the Review of the Capacity of the United Nations System for Humanitarian Assistance, “…when resources are inadequate for certain sectors or types of activities, the effectiveness of the overall humanitarian programme is compromised. Failure to provide assistance for rehabilitation activities, such as agricultural recovery, risks the creation of relief dependency syndrome among persons affected by crisis and may result in increased assistance requirements at a later date.”

16. The added burden of continually turning out new proposals for projects not only requires staff time and resources that might be better utilized elsewhere, but also heightens competitiveness among agencies.

17. Even the ICRC, one of the most financially stable of humanitarian organizations, has experienced cash flow problems in recent years. Other organizations which have had annual expenditures exceeding annual income in recent years include UNHCR, Oxfam, Save the Children, the International Organization for Migration, and Concern.

18. Indeed, poor programming of aid may have a negative impact on recipients in the longer-term, for example through the creation of aid dependency.

19. In Rwanda, for example, the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO) channeled all of its refugee funding through UNHCR.

20. In Rwanda, for example, UNHCR asked donor governments to provide “service packages” in an effort to ensure that all sectors were sufficiently covered. Because these efforts were not adequately coordinated among donors, however, certain vital sectors–such as sanitation provision–received little donor support, while higher profile activities, such as the establishment of cholera treatment centers and centers for unaccompanied children, received disproportionately more funding. See The International Response to Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda Experience. Study 3: Humanitarian Aid and Effects, 72.

21. It should be noted that the intergovernmental agencies have established methodologies for the assessment of needs and would argue that the requirements incorporated in the appeals reflect the reality on the ground. Moreover, there are normally consultations in-country with donor representatives before the appeal is finalized, and there are even cases of donor participation in assessment missions.

22. The International Response to Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda Experience. Study 3: Humanitarian Aid and Effects, 117.

23. USAID, for example, negotiates a percentage for overhead charges with NGOs which regularly receive contracts and grants from USAID; this percentage is then added automatically to all contracts and grants with that NGO.

24. The Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda demonstrates the close correlation between media coverage of an emergency and the level of resources provided. The International Response to Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda Experience. Study 3: Humanitarian Aid and Effects, 114-117.

25. Richard Dowden, The Independent on Sunday, September 4, 1994, quoted in The International Response to Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda Experience. Study 3: Humanitarian Aid and Effects, 48.

26. The CERF is accessible to members of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, and must be repaid by agency borrowers; individual agency emergency funds include those of UNHCR, UNICEF, and CARE.

27. ECHO, established by the European Commission in 1992 and currently the second largest donor agency, has a mandate not only to ensure the cohesive administration of the Community’s humanitarian aid, but also to create closer cooperation between the bilateral efforts of member states and ensure better coordination with the emergency aid programs of NGOs, UN and other international organizations. See Danida, the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Strategies for Individual Organizations: Annex to the Plan of Action for Active Multilateralism,” 81.

28. For example, agencies may inflate needs assessments in order to elicit a rapid and generous donor response; similarly, donors may be inclined to dampen estimates in an effort to defend inaction.

29. In addition to medical supplies and other provisions, necessary materials include passenger vehicles, computers, telecommunications equipment, and “offices-in-a-box.”

30. The International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC: Annual Report 1995 (Geneva: ICRC Publications Division, 1996) 93.

31. Francis Kpatindé, “Real Purchasing Power,” Refugees: The High Cost of Caring. (Geneva: The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 1996) 16-18.

32. Note, however, that determination of costs of military logistical support is complicated by several factors, including the fact that “military capacity used in support of humanitarian operations would either have remained idle or been engaged in training exercises and also by the way in which governments attribute costs.” The International Response to Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda Experience. Study 3: Humanitarian Aid and Effects, 61, 103.

33. See The International Response to Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda Experience. Study 3: Humanitarian Aid and Effects, 100-101. It should be noted that UNHCR’s determination of priorities was guided by its role as a coordinating agency in Rwanda.

34. “Transport and Logistics–Logistics Preparedness,” World Food Programme Website << Op_Logistics_Prep.html>>.

35. “Children and Women in Emergencies: Strategic Priorities and Operational Concerns for UNICEF,” United Nations Children’s Fund Executive Board First Regular Session 1997, 20-24 January 1997, Item 5 of the provisional agenda. E/ICEF/1997/7, 11 November 1996, 12.

36. The Refugee Policy Group has undertaken such a study, under the auspices of OECD. The conclusions are rather general, and suggest that civilian assets are generally more cost-effective than military means, but that there are certain unique contributions that the military can make (e.g. security, specialized airlift capacities, maritime resources, reconnaissance and intelligence capabilities, the rapid arrangement of effective communications networks). Further study should include consideration of the variations in costing military assets utilized by different governments.

37. The International Response to Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda Experience. Study 3: Humanitarian Aid and Effects, 61.

38. WFP, for example, is examining arrangements for Logistics Service Packages with donors, in such areas as port operations, rail operations, road and airstrip repair, airhead operations, logistics base establishment, field communications, long-haul trucking, and logistics advisory services. See “Transport and Logistics–Logistics Preparedness,” (visited 7/15/97) <>. In March 1997, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee “supported and endorsed the proposed role for WFP as an agency which offers significant comparative advantages within a system-wide response in providing logistics and transport services for material resources…”

39. The ICRC has increased staff from approximately six thousand in 1990 to over 8,500 in 1995; UNHCR has doubled its staff since 1990, to over five thousand worldwide.

40.In this regard, ICRC, for example, has developed an intensive, interactive training program specially for the benefit of new staff recruited in the face of an international crisis.

41. For example, CARE, Concern, the ICRC, and Médecins Sans Frontières report staffing figures which are 80-95% local.

42. See Alex de Waal, “Dangerous Precedents: Famine Relief in Somalia 1991-1993,” War and Hunger: Rethinking International Response to Complex Emergencies. (New Jersey: Zed Books, 1994) 151.

43. This estimate is based on costs reported by one organization, without indication as to the type of work performed by expatriate and local staff (e.g. management versus support services).

44. Some work is being done in this area, including the People in Aid project, which has been active in defining and promoting a good practice code for the management and support of personnel working in relief, rehabilitation, and development.

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