Committee: Humanitarian Forum

Issue: How can we improve coordination in order to increase efficiency in humanitarian actions?

President: Loann Régnier


The issue of coordination and efficiency

“Humanitarian coordination involves bringing together humanitarian actors to ensure a coherent and principled response to emergencies. The aim is to assist people when they most need relief and protection. Humanitarian coordination seeks to improve the effectiveness of humanitarian response by ensuring greater predictability, accountability and partnership” (

Key Terms

Humanitarian action is mainly carried out by governments (public safety and security, health sector, military) and humanitarian agencies such as the Red Cross (subsidiary of governments) and other agencies which are primarily non-governmental organizations.

This paper is limited to humanitarian action as responses to natural disasters, and does not discuss the context of conflicts and wars.

Natural disasters:

It refers to abnormal natural phenomena which may cause damage to human life, property, the environment, living conditions and socio-economic activities. Natural disasters include typhoon, tropical low pressure, whirlwind, lightning, heavy rain, flood, flash flood, inundation, landslide and land subsidence due to floods or water currents, water rise, seawater intrusion, extreme hot weather, drought, damaging cold, hail, hoarfrost, earthquake, tsunami as well as  types of natural disaster.

Efficiency: This term designates the extent to which  humanitarian action can be delivered on the ground and reach, as much as possible, all the victims of a disaster. It depends on the capacity of international agencies, national and local authorities and humanitarian organizations (both local and foreign) and their capacities and skills to address different types and scales of disasters (earthquakes, floods, landslides, droughts, tsunamis, cyclones, fires, …). Most disasters affect one country and a specific location, but some disasters can affect several countries, such as floods for example.

Coordination: This term means that humanitarian action involves a high number of different types of institutions to make it possible to deliver rapidly and effectively as much assistance to the victims of a disaster.

First, international and national humanitarian agencies have to coordinate  with national and local governments, public boards (providing water, electricity, etc …), the private sector and local communities to be able to reach the affected populations on the ground.

Second, humanitarian agencies, both international and national ones as well as larger and smaller ones, need to coordinate action  according to the nature and location of the disaster and to the matching of their respective skills with those needed during and after each specific  disaster.

Thirdly, at the global level, OCHA (United Nations, New York) is the central coordinating agency which is supposed to organize the international humanitarian response when a disaster of international magnitude occurs. Such coordination involves, first, coordination with the national government of the affected country concerned and secondly it involves coordination with other United Nations agencies (Unicef, Unhcr, …) , the International Red Cross/Red Crescent Federation and the International Red Cross Committee, and the major international humanitarian organizations (Care, Doctors without Borders, World Vision, Plan, Oxfam, Save the Children, …).

Disaster preparedness and response

To be able to mobilize and deliver coherent and efficient humanitarian assistance, there are 6 distinct steps to consider:

  1. Disaster preparedness and international/national disaster management planning

   2. Disaster alert and emergency management

This involves understanding the disaster, the time available and therefore the help required to tackle it. For example, for an earthquake, you can count on average up to 4-5 days maximum  to find survivors. The national government concerned needs to establish if the country has enough national capacity to address the disaster  or whether it needs to call for international help and contact OCHA in New York. To illustrate this, in 2010, a very powerful earthquake (magnitude of 7.0) hit Haiti, and was about to cause over 300,000 dead victims. The Haitian government, understanding the scale, the minimal amount of intervention they could offer on their own and the little time at their disposal, chose to ask for international assistance. 

A different example happened last May 2016 at Fort Mcmurray (Alberta, Canada): a wildfire happened and was impossible to stop for more than a month. The Canadian government chose to solve this disaster on its own (100 000 inhabitants had to be evacuated as 20% of the city was destroyed).

   3. Disaster emergency response on the ground (during the peak of a disaster)

International and national actors, including foreign and local humanitarian agencies, have to coordinate themselves and divide labour and on the ground action to reach as much as

possible a majority of if not all local victims (dead, injured, traumas, displaced populations) and organize emergency services which are : emergency medicine, access to drinkable water and basic food, shelter and hygiene.

Personnel from India's National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and Nepalese army soldiers carry a body after it was recovered from a collapsed house (Nepal between April and May 2015)

4. Post-disaster assistance

All international and national actors have to coordinate to provide basic infrastructure and crucial services to local affected populations in the weeks and months following the impact of a disaster.

5. Reconstruction and livelihood

Depending on the type and magnitude of the disaster, reconstruction is needed to get the area affected back on its feet. Examples: schools, hospitals, homes.

Much infrastructure needs to be repaired or reconstructed so that basic services, mobility and transportation and thelocal economy can start gradually to function again.

6. Disaster preparedness and local resilience

National actors, together with international agencies whenever needed, have to coordinate with all local and national actors to anticipate the next disaster, especially in areas and countries regularly affected by them.

Local populations and communities learn both independently and with external support how to become more resilient before, during and after disasters in terms of protecting themselves physically (both themselves and their assets), and their modes of production and services in order to guarantee their livelihoods as much as possible.

We are in a world of constant changes. We cannot hide behind the facts that natural disasters are part of our world. Sadly, it impacts mainly the most vulnerable communities and countries that do not have the resources and knowledge capacities to counter these dramatic disasters.

The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR)  issued  a new report in November 2015  “The Human Cost of Weather Related Disasters”, taking into account the disasters of the last twenty years. 90% of major disasters have been caused by 6,457 recorded floods, storms, heat waves, droughts and other weather-related events.  The five countries most impacted by the number of weather disasters are : the United States (472), China (441), India (288), Philippines (274), and Indonesia, (163).  Since the first Climate Change Conference, COP1, in 1995, with the help of the  Belgian-based Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), the UNISDR has demonstrated that  606,000 lives have been lost and 4.1 billion people have been affected, left homeless or in need of emergency assistance as a result of weather-related disasters.  In total, an average of 335 weather-related disasters were recorded per year between 2005 and 2014, an increase of 14% from 1995-2004, and almost twice the level recorded during 1985-1995.

The extent of the toll taken by disasters on society is revealed by other statistics from CRED’s Emergency Events Data Base, or EM-DAT: 87 million homes were damaged or destroyed over the period of the survey.

Floods accounted for 47% of all weather-related disasters from 1995-2015, affecting 2.3 billion people and killing 157,000. Storms were the deadliest type of weather-related disaster, accounting for 242,000 deaths or 40% of the global weather-related deaths, with 89% of these deaths occurring in lower-income countries.

Overall, heat waves accounted for 148,000 of the 164,000 lives lost due to extreme temperatures. 92% of heatwave deaths occurred in high-income countries, with Europe accounting for 90%.

Drought affects Africa more than any other continent, with EM-DAT recording 136 events there between 1995 and 2015, including 77 droughts in East Africa alone. The report recommends that there needs to be improved data collection on indirect deaths from drought.

According to some scientists, and due to climate and environmental change the next few years are going to be far worse in terms of the frequency and increasing intensity of disasters. In conclusion , humanitarian actions are and will be always needed.  

Key international humanitarian actors

Principles referring to the necessity for and importance of coordination

Equality, a results driven approach, transparency, responsibility and complementarity. Many humanitarian organisations have committed to follow these principles.

It highlights the need that the “humanitarian response is planned and implemented with the relevant authorities, humanitarian agencies and civil society organisation engaged in impartial humanitarian action, working  together for maximum efficiency, coverage and effectiveness”.  

“This Code of Conduct seeks to guard our standards of behaviour. It is not about operational details, such as how one should calculate food rations or set up a refugee camp. Rather, it seeks to maintain the high standards of independence, effectiveness and impact to which disaster response NGOs and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement aspires. It is a voluntary code, enforced by the will of the organisation accepting it to maintain the standards laid down in the Code. In the event of armed conflict, the present Code of Conduct will be interpreted and applied in conformity with international humanitarian law. The Code of Conduct is presented first. Attached to it are three annexes, describing the working environment that we would like to see created by Host Governments, Donor Governments and InterGovernmental Organisations in order to facilitate the effective delivery of humanitarian assistance.”

Who has the responsibility to coordinate humanitarian action ?


Normally, the primary responsibility is given to the national government in which the humanitarian crisis is taking place.

However, there are complications if the impacted country is :

Sometimes, governments also seek international support to complement limited national capacities. Furthermore, there is a requirement that international humanitarian actors will coordinate with the national  government and with key national/local humanitarian actors.

The NGOs are obliged tofollow, in principle, the  standards contained in the documents below :

The principal actor linked to coordination of humanitarian actions is the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).  OCHA is responsible for bringing together humanitarian actors, to ensure a coherent response to emergencies. Furthermore, it ensures that there is a framework within which each actor can contribute to the overall response effort.

Issues of coordination and efficiency: various perspectives

A recent debate

As the number, frequency and intensity of disasters are on a sharp increase, this issue has gained more international visibility in recent years. Some exceptionally massive disasters such as the Southeast Asian tsunami or the Haitian earthquake since the turn of the century have been much covered by national and international media, and have revealed some gaps and holes in the humanitarian assistance delivery system worldwide and at various national levels, especially when developing countries are affected.

On the one hand, the influence of private sector management has gained ground in development aid and humanitarian assistance, and their modes of delivery have become more efficient or “ productive “ in terms of being able to measure local impacts.

On the other hand, major humanitarian aid donor countries (North America, Europe, Japan), taxpayers (individuals and private sector companies), and social media have increased their scrutiny to evaluate whether humanitarian funding is used in the most efficient manner.

The issue of efficiency

Efficiency of international and national humanitarian action is a difficult concept to measure on the ground, both in quantitative and qualitative terms.

In most disasters, and especially in developing countries where infrastructure and services are scarce, even during normal times, only a small or limited part of the affected population can be reached, especially if the area of the disaster covers a lot of land.

Efficiency also needs to be viewed from very different perspectives, whether from the local affected populations and victims themselves, or by their local and national authorities, or by the humanitarian agencies supplying assistance. It is also not only a question of supply and demand of humanitarian aid, as it is rather often difficult to assess all the needs during and after a disaster, which depend on its nature, scale and location.

The issue of coordination 

International and national coordination are of course needed, and the more international and national disaster management plans are well prepared in advance, the more they will address new disasters with increased efficiency.
However,  coordination does not only need procedures, communication, bureaucracy, and skilled staff, but it also needs  emergency dialogue and teamwork between various types of international and national institutions, which are not used to cooperating with each other.

Furthermore, some institutions have highly trained  professionals (army, health staff, etc…), but some others work as volunteers or semi-volunteers for international and national NGOs which are not entirely trained nor prepared to face disasters in particular. Many of them are primarily involved in international development aid, but not in crisis management.

Finally, the impact of some disasters needs coordination with few agencies being able to provide heavy equipment, large scale cargo transportation, or even telecom services. Some other agencies are exclusively skilled in specialized niches of humanitarian action such as hygiene, water management, maternal health and so on. Therefore coordination is much needed at many levels and involves many and varied specialised actors.  


Japan is probably the best example of a country well prepared to address and manage national disasters, and therefore its international disaster relief teams sent overseas are also amongst the most efficient. Even if Japan is one of the richest countries worldwide, and has therefore the means to address most disasters, it can inspire the international community. Yet, when a very unusual disaster happens such as Fukujima combining a tsunami together with a nuclear plant accident, Japan has shown that no disaster management plan can work efficiently to face the “unexpected” !

Possible solutions