Humanitarian Overview: From Principles, to Coordination

The Humanitarian principles are governing rules for humanitarian agencies. They were endorsed by the UN General Assembly as guidelines for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) as well as by hundreds of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

  1. Humanity: “Human suffering must be addressed wherever it is found. The purpose of humanitarian action is to protect life and health and ensure respect for human beings.”
  2. Impartiality: “Humanitarian action must be carried out on the basis of need alone, giving priority to the most urgent cases of distress and making no distinctions on the basis of nationality, race, gender, religious belief, class or political opinions.”
  3. Neutrality: “Humanitarian actors must not take sides in hostilities or engage in controversies of a political, racial, religious or ideological nature.”
  4. Independence: “Humanitarian action must be autonomous from the political, economic, military or other objectives that any actor may hold with regard to areas where humanitarian action is being implemented.” 

DFID health adviser Chris Lewis spoke about this reading pack at the humanitarian health seminar held at DFID 29th July 2016. His presentation is available on this HEART Talks page, Health responses to humanitarian crises

Key Conventions and Codes of Conduct

Geneva Conventions and Associated Protocols (1949)

The Geneva Conventions and Associated Protocols outline the duties held by belligerents to combatants and non-combatants in war. They include the obligation for humanitarian organisations to intervene in a manner that is humanitarian, impartial, and without adverse distinction.

Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief (1994)

In 1994, the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR) defined a set of standards and offered a set of guidelines that need to be by followed all member organisations.

Agreement on Ground Rules (1995)

The Ground Rules describe a principle of respect for the International Humanitarian Law amongst all belligerents.

The Sphere Project Humanitarian Charter (2000)

The Sphere Project was created in 1997 by the SCHR and other humanitarian agencies in order to develop a set of minimum standards and a code of conduct, the Humanitarian Charter for every humanitarian response. The goal of the Sphere Project is to increase the effectiveness of humanitarian assistance, and to make humanitarian agencies more accountable. Since its launch in 1997 it has become an important influence on the practice of emergency relief in a wide variety of disaster settings. Sphere was developed by a group of non-governmental organisations, partly in response to criticism levelled at the humanitarian community in the wake of their response to the crisis that followed the Rwandan genocide of 1994. At the core of the Project is a Handbook, the Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response. The Minimum Standards constitute the bulk of the Handbook. In selected areas of work, it attempts to quantify what it takes to satisfy the legal obligations laid out in the Humanitarian Charter. Standards, and key indicators of fulfilment of those standards, are offered in the technical areas of water supply and sanitation (e.g. average water use for drinking, cooking and personal hygiene in any household is at least 15 litres per person per day), nutrition (e.g. caregivers have access to timely, appropriate, nutritionally adequate and safe complementary foods for children 6 to <24 months), food security (e.g. there is adequate access to iodised salt for the majority (>90 per cent) of households), shelter and site planning (e.g. all affected individuals have an initial minimum covered floor area of 3.5m2 per person), and health (e.g. utilisation rates at health facilities are 2–4 new consultations/person/year among the disaster-affected population and>1 new consultations/person/year among rural and dispersed populations).

Good Humanitarian Donorship (2003)

Donor countries, UN agencies, NGOs and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement agreed on a set of 23 principles and practices to enhance donor accountability.

HAP International Principles of Accountability

The HAP International “Principles of Accountability” sets seven principles that commit agencies to integrate transparency, stakeholder involvement, reporting mechanisms, and other accountability standards into their programming.

The Humanitarian Actors

If a Government requests and/or accepts external assistance, a variety of international humanitarian actors may be asked to support disaster response and disaster response preparedness.

Actors include:

  • UN agencies (OCHA for general coordination, WHO for health, UNICEF for nutrition, water, sanitation and hygiene and protection of children and adolescents, UNHCR for refugee populations)
  • Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for armed conflicts, International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) for natural disasters and national Societies)
  • Regional intergovernmental bodies (e.g. Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN),
  • South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation, Pacific Islands Forum),
  • National and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) (e.g. Medecins Sans Frontieres, International Rescue Committee, Save the Children, Oxfam, Action contre la Faim, International Medical Corps)
  • Assisting Governments
  • The private sector

Humanitarian Coordination Mechanisms

Humanitarian coordination seeks to improve the effectiveness of humanitarian response by ensuring greater predictability, accountability and partnership.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)

OCHA leads the international community’s efforts in crisis situations through needs assessments, definition of common priorities and strategies and monitor humanitarian assistance.

The Health Cluster Approach

This approach was developed after the 2005 Humanitarian Response Review, commissioned by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) and the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC).

Eleven clusters were defined and are coordinated both by UN agencies and NGOs. These eleven clusters are:

  • Logistics (WFP)
  • Emergency telecommunications (OCHA-Process owner, UNICEF Common Data Services, WFP – Common Security Telecommunications Services)
  • Camp coordination and management (UNHCR for conflict-generated IDPs and IOM for natural disaster-generated IDPs)
  • Emergency shelter (IFRC)
  • Health (WHO)
  • Nutrition (UNICEF)
  • Water, sanitation, and hygiene (UNICEF)
  • Early recovery (UNDP)
  • Protection (UNHCR for conflict-generated IDPs, UNHCR, UNICEF, and OHCHR for natural disaster-generated IDPs)
  • Education (UNEF)
  • Agriculture (FAO)

The mission of the Global Health Cluster (GHC), led by WHO, is to build consensus on humanitarian health priorities and related best practices, and strengthen system-wide capacities to ensure an effective and predictable response. It is mandated to build global capacity in humanitarian response in three ways: (1) providing guidance and tools, and standards and policies, (2) establishing systems and procedures for rapid deployment of the experts and supplies, and (3) building global partnerships to implement and promote this work. The cluster should provide a framework for effective partnerships among international and national humanitarian health actors, civil society and other stakeholders, and ensure that international health responses are appropriately aligned with national structures. At country level, during major crises, the humanitarian coordinator designates the Cluster Lead Agency for all key humanitarian response sectors. The WHO is the lead agency for the health cluster. They provide leadership and works on behalf of the cluster as a whole, facilitating all cluster activities and developing and maintaining a strategic vision and operational response plan. The WHO need to ensure coordination with other clusters in relation to inter-cluster activities and cross-cutting issues (e.g. protection or gender issues). The WHO should also support national responsibilities and leadership in the health sector and ensure that all partner organisations have coherent strategies.

Humanitarian Programme Cycle

The humanitarian programme cycle (HPC) is a coordinated series of actions undertaken to help prepare for, manage and deliver humanitarian response. It consists of five elements coordinated in a seamless manner, with one step logically building on the previous and leading to the next. Successful implementation of the humanitarian programme cycle is dependent on effective emergency preparedness, effective coordination with national/local authorities and humanitarian actors, and information management. This approach, agreed by IASC Principals as part of the Transformative Agenda, is based on innovations that have become good practice in the field and aims to achieve the following results:

  • stronger emphasis on the needs of affected people;
  • improved targeting of the most vulnerable;
  • increased funding for humanitarian priorities; and
  • greater accountability of humanitarian actors and donors for collective results

Based on the Humanitarian Needs Overview (HNO), the country team formulates a response analysis with targets and boundaries, sets strategic objectives and develops cluster plans aimed at meeting those objectives. These strategic country objectives and cluster plans form the humanitarian response plan (HRP), which is the primary planning tool for the humanitarian coordinator and the humanitarian country team. The HRP serves a secondary purpose as fundraising tool, as it can be shared with donors and partners to communicate the strategic priorities of the response. CERF and CBPF funding is recorded against these response plans. All funding information is recorded in the Financial Tracking Service (FTS) database, which is managed by OCHA.

Pooled Humanitarian Financing

Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF)

Established in 2006 by the UN General Assembly, the CERF provides seed funding provided by governments, the private sector, foundations and individuals in order to start an action before any international funding mechanism be in place. The Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) was launched in 2006 and represents an important international multilateral funding instrument for UN agencies. It provides rapid initial funding for life-saving assistance at the onset of humanitarian crises, and critical support for poorly funded, essential humanitarian response operations. Each year, CERF allocates approximately US$400 million.

Country-Based Pooled Funds

CBPFs operate in 17 countries and are managed since 1995 by OCHA. The Humanitarian Coordinator can allocate funds directly to UN agencies and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), national and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and Red Cross/Red Crescent organisations. CBPFs allocate funding based on identified humanitarian needs and priorities at the country level in line with the Humanitarian Programme Cycle (HPC). Around $500 million were allocated for the year 2015.

Key Readings

Reading 1: GSDRC. 2013. International legal frameworks for humanitarian action

Reading 2: Mackintosh, K. 2000. The principles of humanitarian action in international humanitarian law. London: Overseas Development Institute.

Reading 3: Sphere project, 2011, The Sphere Handbook: Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response

Reading 4: WHO. 2009. Health Cluster Guide – A practical guide for country-level implementation of the Health Cluster, Geneva

Reading 5: IASC. 2012. Multi-Cluster/Sector Initial Rapid Assessment (MIRA)

Reading 6: OCHA, 2015, Operational Handbook for Country-based Pooled Funds, New York

Questions to guide reading

  • How can humanitarian principles be applied in various conflict settings and situations?
  • How to assess the key health needs of populations to trigger a rapid humanitarian response?
  • How to have a coordinated and comprehensive strategy that involves professionals from various disciplines and actors and authorities from diverse organisational cultures?
  • How does the Cluster Approach enhance coordination between the various humanitarian agencies and actors?
  • How to standardise health needs assessment tools to promote coordination and sharing of knowledge in the sector?

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