The limits of UN's humanitarian response capacity have been tested in 2005

8 August 2005

Helping some 26 million people worldwide pull through crises ranging from large-scale conflict and its aftermath, to catastrophic earthquakes and devastating locust invasions, the United Nations said in 2005 proved its capability and efficiency in post-conflict and peacekeeping operations, as well as in humanitarian responses.

With complex emergencies on the increase worldwide, the UN's humanitarian response capacity has lately been tested to its limits, says the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in a review of responses to the Consolidated Humanitarian Appeal so far this year.

It highlighted conflicts in places such as Sudan's western Darfur region, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Iraq, as well as natural disasters such as the Indian Ocean tsunami and locust plagues in Africa's Sahelian region.

With an estimated 26 million persons in 20 crises worldwide needing humanitarian assistance worth $4.5 billion in 2005, the disasters showed that the humanitarian community was capable of launching a massive response when called upon. Meanwhile, the global number of refugees is the lowest since 1980, and there is a better prospect for peace in a number of countries, especially in Africa.

The UN could not stop catastrophes, but could effectively mitigate their impact. UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland has said that December's devastating Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed nearly a quarter of a million people and displaced millions more, was nature at its worst, but humanity at its best.

Because of the outpouring of support and because of the cooperation shown, "there was no outbreak of disease, no mass starvation; schools were quickly reopened and health facilities are probably better now than they were before in the affected regions," he said.

At the same time, OCHA stressed that such a response could not always be guaranteed, and there were many cases when response capacities could have been strengthened, and when the humanitarian aid system was slow or unsuccessful. Deployment of humanitarian staff was delayed in Darfur, for example, it said.

The tsunami response also highlighted several sectoral weaknesses, such as the lack of capacity in the areas of water and sanitation, shelter and camp management and protection. Coordination among non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and between NGOs and the UN, particularly in the health sector, was poor, the UN said.

According to Mr. Egeland, emergency situations needing a global response have grown in complexity. Funding has to be made more predictable and timely. Measures to provide immediate access to start-up funds could be established, or funds could be set up to cover unforeseen developments.

Another key to the transition from relief to development was national ownership of people-centred activities, the challenge being to balance short- and long-term efforts, the UN said.

Better coordination has to be built up, especially by national authorities, adequate funding has to be given as early as possible and better preparedness and a higher risk reduction level must be reached. Only then can the international community better respond to these transition situations, which are vital in achieving further global stability, it said.


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