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close this bookNew Approaches to New Realities (University of Wisconsin / Universidad de Wisconsin, 1996, 508 p.)
close this folderTheme ONE: Identification and Planning of Emergency Settlement
View the documentTopic 1 - Introduction and Overview: Typology and Causes of Emergency Settlement
View the documentTopic 2 - Planning for Preparedness: Early Warning, Contingencies, and Operations
View the documentTopic 3 - Needs and Resources Assessment
View the documentTopic 4 - Information Management and Communications
View the documentTopic 5 - Interagency Coordination During Emergencies
View the documentTopic 6 - Systemwide Institutional Response to Emergencies

Topic 5 - Interagency Coordination During Emergencies

This paper was prepared by Charles Dufresne and Paul Thompson of InterWorks. In addition to the resources listed in the paper, the following persons provided significant contributions:

Akram A. Eltom - MBBS, MPH, (formerly) Save the Children, USA and Republic of Georgia.

Dr. Sultan Barakat - Director, Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit, Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies, University of York

Rudolph von Bernuth - ICVA, Geneva

Neill Wright - Special Advisor (Military/Logistics), DPOS, UNHCR Geneva

This paper is a synthesis of the efforts of all of those cited above and as such does not express the viewpoint of any single resource, contributor or organization.


Interagency coordination is critical to successful preparation for and response to emergencies affecting people all over the world today. As emergencies become more complex, and as humanitarian agencies become more interdependent, the need for effective interagency coordination increases. Coordination can serve many useful purposes that go beyond basic information sharing. At its best, coordination can eliminate gaps and duplication in services, determine an appropriate division of responsibility and establish a framework for joint planning and strategic decision-making on issues of common concern. This topic explores the various activities in which organizations engage for coordination, as well as the preconditions, facilitation techniques and barriers to successful interagency coordination. By better understanding the determinants, evolving nature and contexts of interagency coordination, practitioners and policy makers will be better prepared to enter and sustain coordination.

Scope and Objectives

This paper provides an introduction to the principles, activities and practices which can guide effective interagency coordination during emergencies. More specifically, the paper aims to identify:

· Basic principles of interagency coordination
· Preconditions for interagency coordination
· Facilitators and barriers of interagency coordination
· Types of coordination activities
· Typologies of interagency coordination during emergencies

The following terms are herein defined as they will be used throughout the paper:

· Coordination is the most harmonious functioning of parts for most effective results. To coordinate means to act together in a smooth concerted way.

· Coordination agency refers to those agencies and their staff which play leadership and facilitation roles aimed at improving, strengthening and/or supporting interagency coordination.

· Coordination body refers to the formal or informal organization of all of the participants in the coordination effort.

· Participants, participating agencies, member agencies refers to those agencies and their staff which participate in specific interagency coordination efforts or coordination bodies.

· Lead agency refers within the UN to a UN humanitarian agency which, in a particular emergency (or area within it), provides the great majority of UN assistance and is therefore delegated the UN humanitarian coordination functions for that emergency or area.


1. The primary objective of interagency coordination is to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of humanitarian response so that the response meets the needs of the affected population to the maximum extent possible.

Ultimately, interagency coordination seeks to facilitate efforts, harmonize actions and optimize the use of resources (time, money and personnel) in order to maximize the positive impact for the affected population. Successful interagency coordination leads to improved and more frequent communication and information exchange among participating agencies. This in turn can lead to increased efficiency and effectiveness by

· identifying gaps and duplication in service and overlapping mandates
· agreeing on comparative advantage and division of labor among agencies
· establishing common and consistent policies, standards and codes of conduct
· developing areas and sectors where agencies work together

2. Participating agencies in general, and coordination agencies in particular, should understand the factors, facilitators, barriers and dynamics which affect interagency coordination.

There are preconditions, practices and contextual factors which affect interagency coordination. For example, interagency coordination requires effective negotiation; consensus-building; orchestration of functional roles and responsibilities; resource allocation; information sharing and strategic planning. Coordination bodies, in particular, need to understand clearly the essential aims, principles, and goals of interagency coordination. They also need to understand and know how to circumvent obstacles to coordination.

3. Coordination mechanisms and roles must remain flexible and responsive to the changing contexts of each emergency.

All emergencies go through stages, from early warning to initial crisis to a stable condition to resolution. Emergencies also vary greatly in size and needs of the affected population. The need for, participation in and type of coordination vary with each stage and type of emergency. Therefore, coordination mechanisms and the roles of those participating in coordination efforts will evolve over time. This requires flexibility on the part of participating agencies to shift their activities and roles in order to implement the principal objectives of coordination.

4. Participation and consensus are the basis of a model for decision making, agenda setting and strategic planning for interagency coordination.

The complexity of today’s emergencies and the nature of humanitarian agencies require a model of coordination which stresses participatory decision making over autocratic decision making, discipline and responsibility over rules and regulations, shared leadership over central leadership, flat organizational structure over hierarchical structure, and open communication over top-down communication.

Participation in this model increases the chances that agencies will benefit from the arrangement and maintain the standards that have been set. Agencies will not voluntarily enter into interagency coordination if they can not perceive a benefit. If they feel coerced to participate, and are not involved in setting policy or procedures, they may consciously or unconsciously undermine the efforts and plans.

5. When emergency situations require outside agencies to provide critical assistance, the provision of this assistance should always be facilitated through interagency coordination.

As emergencies become more complex, as more and different types of organizations become involved in providing humanitarian assistance, and as these organizations become more interdependent, interagency coordination has become a critical and necessary mechanism to ensure an effective and efficient systemwide response. The international humanitarian system can ill afford not to cooperate and coordinate its multifaceted and interdependent goals and activities. Interagency coordination has the greatest chance of success when the first four principles outlined in this section are followed. When any of the first four principles are violated, or when coordination is used as an opportunity for manipulation by host government or lead agencies, the legitimacy of this principle is weakened.

6. As early as possible, interagency coordination should plan and implement strategies and programs which build on and strengthen existing local institutions, develop local capacity and incorporate phase-out of assistance.

Coordination facilitated by foreign entities is an interim measure until the time when host governments, communities or local NGOs can assume that role. Host governments are the first priority for coordinating international humanitarian relief efforts, unless it is evident that they repress their own people (Iraq), manipulate aid to achieve nefarious political ends (Sudan) or are non-existent (Somalia). The coordination model should be based on the principle of local control or include a mechanism to evolve to local control as soon as feasible.

Best Practices

This section describes the preconditions for achieving successful interagency coordination and the techniques (best practices) of implementing coordination activities. Barriers to coordination are also identified. By linking an understanding of the preconditions and the techniques of coordination, the practitioner should be able to anticipate and overcome those barriers.

Preconditions to coordination

The following is a checklist of general preconditions that, when met, will enhance the chances of achieving effective and successful coordination.

Perceived need and desirability for coordination

Humanitarian organizations will be more pre-disposed to engage in coordination when they perceive that there is a need for it and that this coordination will add “value” to their own activities. Participating agencies must believe that they are interdependent with their fellow organizations and must view coordination as the most efficient and effective means of responding to the emergency situation. Organizations will commit to coordination when the coordination goals, objectives and activities help promote their individual organizational interests and missions.

An organization’s perceptions will also be positively influenced if it has a mandate to support coordination. By incorporating coordination mandates into their organizational mission statements and policies, agencies empower their representatives to seek a coordination role.

Negotiating coordination parameters, leadership and activities

Since players often join a coordinating body with different ideologies, mandates and expectations, inter-organizational coordination depends on all these players negotiating, discussing, clarifying and agreeing on the coordination parameters, activities, and conflict resolution methodologies. All member agencies need to participate in deciding the policies, procedures, strategies and plans which will affect them. In addition, member agencies will be more supportive and responsive to interagency coordination when they have participated in selecting and/or approving the agency which will serve as the lead or main coordination agency.

For coordination to work, attitudes of cooperation, peer support and self-discipline must prevail over attitudes of competition, autonomy and control. Even with these positive attitudes, conflicts over procedures, roles or actions will invariably arise. Coordinators must be skilled in effective negotiation, mediation and/or conflict resolution techniques if they are to turn a conflict into constructive and mutually acceptable action.


All organizations need to understand each others mandate as well as the organizational culture that each brings to an operation. Stereotypes and misconceptions need to be removed before a cooperative spirit can work. Understanding also depends on agencies making a long-term commitment, sharing a vision and possessing similar levels of training, experience and skills.

Staff, resources, and leadership

Each organization participating in the coordination effort must commit staff, time and often money to help manage the process as well as provide their overall services to the other participating organizations. When a coordination agency exists, it must have staff dedicated to coordination, an office, and equipment in order to provide real service to other participating organizations. Agencies should have stand-by arrangements for staffing and equipment to help mobilize coordinating bodies.

Organizational authority in decision making

Organizations must decentralize decision making to the field to the greatest extent feasible. Especially for coordination purposes, organization representatives must have the authority to decide and make commitments on behalf of their respective agencies. Organizations need to participate in coordination activities ready to share information, decide action and commit resources with minimal delays from headquarters.

Trust and credibility

In the end, effective coordination can happen when the participating organizations trust each other and the coordinating agency leadership. Each agency needs to develop its own credibility and engage in coordination activities with a positive attitude and expectations that it can and will work.

Techniques which facilitate coordination

Achieving successful coordination requires concerted effort, an attitude which values coordination, and an appreciation of its benefits. There are also general management techniques which facilitate successful coordination, including:

Ö facilitation skills
Ö identifying common needs
Ö creating consensus
Ö using memoranda of understanding
Ö identifying each organization’s comparative strengths in order to establish a division of labor
Ö maintaining the “communications loop”
Ö taking difficult decisions in plenary meetings
Ö knowing who to include in the process
Ö avoiding delays, especially during the emergency phase
Ö follow-up and follow-through on coordination decisions
Ö personnel incentives to coordination
Ö managing the media

Facilitation skills

The essence of coordination is working together. Later in this section we identify barriers to coordination which inhibit individuals and organizations from working together. The leadership of a coordination body as well as all other participants will benefit from the specialized skills of group facilitation, conflict resolution, and meeting management. Many of the following techniques are also a part of this range of skills.

Identifying common needs

Humanitarian organizations will engage in and support coordination mechanisms when they perceive that this mechanism is meeting their needs and providing services which add value to or enhance their own activities. Coordinating agencies should continually monitor the emergency and identify the service needs of member agencies. Periodic member agency needs assessments can help uncover changing needs and new opportunities for coordination activities and services.

Creating consensus

Achieving consensus among organizations on policy, program, and resource issues is a form of coordination. Organizations must meet, discuss and negotiate mutually acceptable agreements on each of the organizations’

1. geographical area of operation
2. individual services or contribution to a consortium of services
3. population or set of clients each will work with
4. standards of assistance and methods of delivery

Part of the process of creating a consensus is participatory decision making. Participating organizations will be most committed to those decisions, plans and programs in which they have had a voice and which meet their own interests.

Creating consensus may be especially difficult, however. When the number of humanitarian actors is great and highly diverse, and the more complex the emergency, consensus is usually reduced to the least controversial and least ambitious issues or objectives. Rather than settle for this “lowest-common-denominator approach,” Minear suggests that

[p]eople in life-threatening situations will be better served by a highest-common-denominator approach: that is, by one that seeks agreement among a narrower range of like-minded agencies (Minear and Weiss, 1993, p. 5).

Thus, a coordinating body should carefully select its members so that meaningful and timely consensus can be reached.

Using memoranda of understanding

The results of the consensus, which include the preparedness plan and plan of operation, must be documented as memoranda of understanding (or letter of agreement) among the organizations. These memoranda can mitigate potential conflict by clarifying interagency objectives, expectations, roles, responsibilities and commitments.

In agreeing to a memoranda of understanding, the process is as important as the product. During the process, organizations develop relationships and become more knowledgeable about each other. When the document is finished and signed, it can serve as a point of reference for solving disputes and orienting participating member staff in case of turnover. Memoranda of understanding may need to be periodically reviewed and/or updated when the players and/or the context has changed.

Prototype memoranda of understanding, which can be adapted to new situations, should be developed to avoid having to identify and negotiate details during an emergency crisis - when organizations’ efforts should be focused on life-saving measures (Minear et al, 1992). Examples of prototype memoranda exist between UNHCR and WFP regarding provision of food aid as a function of the size of the emergency population.

Establishing a division of labor based on each organization’s comparative strength

Coordination is more effective when it establishes a division of labor among organizations based on the comparative strength of each organization in meeting the needs of the emergency. The comparative strength of an organization depends on an organization’s actual expertise, capacities and resources on the ground. (Comparative strength should not be confused with an organization’s mandate, which is their internal policy that identifies their mission and guides their action. Mandates, however, do not govern an organization’s overall capability or adequacy of resources.)

An inter-organizational needs and resources assessment is essential to identify the resources, capacities and comparative strengths of the organizations involved in an emergency. For example, a small NGO may lack staff, funding and status, but may be the only agency with experience in a certain region or with a certain population.

UNHCR has often had the comparative advantage in negotiating with host governments to gain access to refugee populations in need. During emergencies, however, UNHCR may not be able to play this role when host governments and/or warring parties perceive them as politically biased or motivated. This occurred in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s when NGOs had to form their own coordinating body to negotiate access with government Addis Ababa and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (Minear and Weiss, 1993, p. 59).

Maintaining the “communications loop”

All organizations in a coordination body need to take responsibility for staying in touch with the body and for sharing pertinent information in a timely manner. Protocols for communication need to be developed and subscribed to by all in the body.

Taking difficult decisions in plenary meetings

Inevitably, difficult and potentially divisive issues arise in a crisis. When it is obvious that a “floor fight” may occur at a coordination meeting, the parties responsible for the differences of opinion and the coordination leadership need to resolve these differences away from the plenary forum. Otherwise a divisive spirit may fester and lead to a breakdown of the coordination effort.

Knowing who to include in the process

Appropriate membership in the coordination body is vital to its success. Small organizations with little resources to offer an emergency, or organizations whose mandate and values are at odds with the coordination body’s objectives, will impede successful coordination.

Avoiding delays, especially during the emergency phase

Coordination should not be the cause or the excuse for delays in responding to an emergency. To avoid delays, participating organizations need to agree on arrangements established before the emergency. Their preparedness planning needs to include stocks, staff, and other resources that are ready-to-go in order to plug into an operation as it begins.

Follow-up and follow-through on coordination decisions

The coordination agency needs to have adequate staff and commitment to follow-up and follow-through on decisions taken by the body. Coordination will flounder and dissipate without determined follow-up, weakening the response. A secretariat is essential and one with standing assignments to document decisions, communicate them and monitor their implementation.

Personnel incentives to coordination

As noted above, organizations need to value coordination as a prerequisite to participating in a coordination effort. This value must also permeate the organizations’ personnel policies as well. Successful participation in coordination by staff must result in rewards in the personnel system, not penalties.

Managing the media

The issue of media management in the context of coordination for an emergency is that of “who speaks for the operation?” Organizations may tend to compete for media coverage. However, the media need to get access to a coherent message. Therefore, when the media is looking for information about an emergency, the coordination body should have an agreement on who will be the official spokesperson. There also needs to be an understanding on the ground rules for each organization’s engagement with the media. Coordination will obviously be enhanced when there is a spirit of collaboration, instead of competition, that gets communicated by the media. Achieving that will require agreements among all agencies on how to portray themselves and the overall operation.

Barriers to inter-organizational coordination

Recognizing and identifying barriers to inter-organizational coordination is the first step to overcoming them. By employing many of the facilitators of coordination already discussed, the barriers can be addressed.

In the table below, several barriers to coordination are identified and examples are given of how each of these barriers may be manifested, (adapted from a similar list developed by Hamilton, 1995)

Barriers to Coordination




Threat to autonomy (real or perceived)

Members of organizations fear that coordination will reduce freedom to make decisions and run their programmes.


Professional staff fears

Professionals fear loss of freedom, that is, the coordination agreements may require ways of working that are different from the staff preferences.


Disagreement among resource providers

Persons or groups providing resources disagree about needs to be met, services to be provided, and programming approaches.


Multiple local government, private sector and non-governmental organizations

Coordination is complicated by the presence of too many actors, slowing the process and losing focus.


Absence of consensus among participants

Disagreements among organizations regarding:
1. the right of one or more organizations to be involved
2. which organization should function in which geographic area
3. which organization should provide which services
4. which affected populations are to be served by each organization


Different expectations of different levels of the government hierarchy

Different expectations about which population should be provided with which services and this complicated by differing and/or changing political interests.


Coordination viewed as low priority

Members of some organizations think that coordination is not really necessary and do not follow through with commitments.


Costs and benefits are viewed as unsatisfactory

Staff of organizations think the costs of coordination or the programme costs will be higher than the benefits.


Resources not available

Some organizations which may want to participate in a coordinated effort have inadequate resources to contribute to the effort.


Diffusion of “credit”

In a coordinated effort, “credit” for or acknowledgment of the individual contributions of member organizations may get lost or diffused. Sometimes recognition is the only form of personal reward members of organizations receive and, in a coordinated effort, this form of reward may be lost.


Lack of trust

Participating agencies may have a history of poor relations with each other leading them to see each other as threats, competitors and/or untrustworthy.



The diversity of mandates, policies and procedures as well as ideologies, values and vested interests among all of the international organizations leads to a fragmentation within the “humanitarian response system”


Highly centralized bureaucratic organizations

Coordination will be hindered by agencies which must generally seek approval from their headquarters prior to approving inter-organizational goals or making commitments of time and resources.


Lack of coordination skills, knowledge and experience

Organizations which do not understand the preconditions and dynamic nature of coordination, or which field representatives without the proper training or skills will frustrate and be frustrated by coordination efforts.


Staff turnover

Frequent staff turnover threatens policy continuity, coordination agreements and institutional memory. Trust often depends on increasing levels of familiarity and contact among parties, which is lost with high turnover rates.


Unilateral donor actions

When donors act unilaterally, politicize aid, or earmark funds for specific populations, they may undermine the efforts of established international coordinating mechanisms.


Ineffectual or inappropriate coordination leadership

Participation in coordination may break down if the leadership is autocratic, imposing their decisions and agenda on the body. Lack of leadership skills or resources will diminish the value and quality of the coordination effort.

Coordination activities

The preceding part of this paper is essentially the background, theory and rationale of promoting coordination among organizations in emergencies. This part of the paper will identify and describe a range of specific tasks and activities of organizations engaged in coordination.

The vast majority of coordination activities are synonymous with general management practices applicable to any individual organization. The difference is that the principles of management are applied to several organizations working in tandem in an ambiguous and shifting environment. Therefore, this section will identify those activities and only highlight the aspects that are affected by the unique condition of coordination of several organizations.

It is not desirable or possible to coordinate all aspects of all program components, but rather focus on those areas for which there are overlaps and competing interests. Similarly, different components may be coordinated at different management levels. For example, joint decisions about resource sharing, particularly financial resources, may be made by high level personnel, while decisions about coordination of programme activities may be most effectively achieved at the field level (Hamilton, 1995).

Although achieving each coordination activity is useful, a humanitarian assistance community that values coordination and believes in its goals will aspire to the highest manifestation of coordination; that is, agencies working together so that each one is more effective at serving humanitarian objectives. The following spectrum illustrates the categories of coordination activities ranging from those which are elementary, relatively easy and common, to ones that are increasingly sophisticated, demanding and much less common.

Spectrum of Coordination Activities

Information Sharing ® Collaboration ® Joint Strategic Planning and Programming

Least Difficult

Most Difficult

The following discussion of the specific activities within each of these three categories (information sharing, collaboration and joint strategic planning and programming) is arranged loosely in ascending level of sophistication. Achieving each activity contributes to laying the foundation for the successive ones. But the sequential aspect should not be taken too literally, many activities are done simultaneously and sometimes less difficult activities are bypassed in favor of higher priority ones.

Information Sharing

a) Share, manage, and communicate information

The most central and basic activity of coordination is information sharing. Shared information includes the general roles and responsibilities of each organization and the specific resources they bring to the current emergency, the size and capabilities of their staff, type and quantity of assistance, geographical areas of operation, equipment and facilities available, description of the organizations’ projects, and any other information that defines the parameters of the contributions of each organization.

The management of coordination information is critical to its usefulness and may require staff and equipment dedicated to that task. The techniques of information management and communication are beyond the scope of this module, but the basics include:

1. Using various communication avenues and methods (telephone, meetings, Email, situation reports).

2. Establishing points of contact between officials with complementary roles so that these officials can share information and learn from each other’s experience. For example, when the military is involved in humanitarian operations the military public information officer should be paired with the humanitarian coordinator’s public information officer.

3. Using and sharing compatible communications equipment with shared frequencies is critical to coordination in the field, especially during the early stages of an operation. A single contact point should be responsible for the allocation of frequencies.

4. Communicating and cooperating during the pre-emergency and preparedness phases will greatly decrease misunderstandings, miscommunication and delays during actual emergencies.

5. During emergencies, the establishment of civil-military operations centers within military headquarters can facilitate civilian agencies’ request for military assistance. Also, the geographic proximity of organizations can increase the likelihood of interaction, communication and coordination (Wright and Wolfson, 1994).

More important than the “hardware” and protocols of communication is the content of the communication. Organizations must share their objectives, mutual interests, strengths and limitations, constraints, perceived opportunities, concerns and their overall vision as a prerequisite to good communications.

Resources: 1. The Annenberg Washington Program, Communication When it’s Needed Most: How new technology could help in sudden disasters. 1989. 2. Jane Schuler-Repp. 1992 Discussion: Information Systems in Disaster Management. Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, Bangkok, Thailand.

b) Identify gaps and overlaps in humanitarian assistance

A sub-activity of developing a strategic plan, but one worth highlighting separately, is the identification of gaps and overlaps in humanitarian assistance. It is inevitable that in a large emergency gaps in assistance provision will occur. This is especially problematic when some of the distribution systems are inaccessible to the affected population, where the population is out of favor with the authorities, or where the population is difficult to locate as in families and individuals dispersed throughout an urban environment.

The “Gap Identification Checklist” is an example of a tool that can be created for each emergency, describing the required actions on one coordinate of a matrix and identifying which organization is responsible for that action on the other coordinate. Of course, this simple tool does not guarantee the capability of the organizations who have claimed responsibility over certain activities. That must be verified through an assessment of organizational capability.

The identification of duplication or overlaps of assistance will also result from this exercise. Not only is duplication an obvious waste of resources, but there is a lost potential of utilizing the resources for alternative priorities.

Resources: Gap identification worksheet

c) Set up and maintain early warning systems

Integral to, but distinct from, preparedness and contingency planning are early warning systems. Over a decade of organizational efforts to establish and maintain early warning systems have lead to many lessons learned and a mature perspective on what is achievable. One such lesson is that individual organizations are generally unable to sustain large and complex early warning systems because the resource requirements are too great and the activity is not central enough to daily operations. However, if the activity is assigned instead to the consortium of organizations coordinating their resources, then it becomes significantly more achievable.

Resources: 1. Reed Brody. 1993. “Early warning, early action” Refugees. April. 2. UNHCR. 1994. “Early Warning”, Training module of the Emergency Management Training Programme.


a) Identify the affected population and jointly assess their local capacity and needs

Needs and resource assessments is one of the activities that stands to benefit the most from coordination. The first value is coming to an agreed identification of the affected population. By conducting joint assessments, organizations can execute the assessment process only once (during each phase of the emergency), instead of each organization individually replicating a similar exercise. The affected population becomes justifiably annoyed when repeatedly subjected to questionnaires (often with the same questions) and quickly suffer from “assessment fatigue.” A consolidated effort should be able to execute assessments with far fewer people and be able to develop a more complete picture of the emergency. This holistic picture will then fit more tightly with the holistic strategic plan for the assistance operations. Indeed, generic assessment forms and methodologies need to be developed in the preparedness phase and follow the same organizational structure as the strategic plan.

Potential problems of joint assessments are that the process of agreeing on the assessment objectives and implementation of it may take longer than they would if implemented by any single organization. Some organizations would also fear that a general assessment will not develop the level of detail that a specialized agency may require to design their response project. More attention during the preparedness phase will need to be devoted to address these concerns.

Resources: 1. Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance. 1994 Field Operations Guide. 2. UNHCR. “Assessment Form”

b) Agree on standards of assistance and services

A universal agreement on standards of assistance and services among all humanitarian organizations would be very helpful to avoid the pitfalls of inconsistent, or the absence, of standards. However, in all likelihood, each emergency will bring together a unique set of organizations, each with its own set of standards. Similarly, each situation bears reexamining existing standards to verify their continuing appropriateness. The coordination forum, therefore, must be utilized for harmonizing organization’s standards for each emergency.

Resources: Disaster Management Center. 1996. Principles and Best Practices of Emergency Settlement, this document includes a catalogue of many generally accepted standards applicable to emergencies.

c) Collaborate with the Consolidated Appeal Process or other joint resource mobilization

Resource mobilization is central to any humanitarian assistance operation. Donors are demanding rational and harmonized appeals for their limited resources. A coordinated appeal is often a requirement of the donor before consideration of funding the operation.

A related activity to fund raising is grant management. Activities funded through grants, their related records and funding allocations can be supervised and maintained by staff in one location for all participating organizations.

Resources: Consolidated Appeal Process Guidelines (As endorsed by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee on 13 April 1994).

d) Negotiate access to emergency areas

Often in complex emergencies, the affected population is in an area inaccessible to outside assistance providers. Gaining access to those emergency areas becomes part of the political strategy for all parties. Organizations operating alone trying to negotiate access to these areas are subject to political abuse and may become part of the conflict’s actors. In order to ensure that access is gained with a minimum of political advantage given to one side of a conflict requires that all organizations negotiate with a concerted voice.

Resources: ??

e) Build capacity for local institutions/organizations

During emergencies, local institutions, organizations and leadership, which also respond to emergencies, may be severely overburdened and under-resourced. Furthermore, and especially in complex emergencies, they may also be among the casualties of the conflict. The task of supporting and rebuilding these institutions is often among the highest priorities, but often falls outside of the mandate of assistance agencies. The coordinating body may also pool their resources to focus on the capacity building of these institutions as a prerequisite to the full recovery of the community.

Resources: ??

f) Joint training

The implementation of emergency response operations requires a diverse set of skills and expertise that are often in short supply when they are needed most. Very few people have formal training in the subjects of emergency management and previous field experience is often unstructured and a repetition of past mistakes. Before, during and after emergency operations are good times to structure the management experience and expand the knowledge and skill base of the field practitioners. Joint training, organized and managed jointly by the coordination body could go a long way to capacitate the participating organizations in the skills required to implement all of the above mentioned activities.

Resources: The UN Disaster Management Training Programme, UNHCR’s and UNICEF’s Emergency Management Training Programme, WFP’s Emergency Operations Training Programme, IOM’s training programme.

Joint strategic planning and programming

a) Develop joint preparedness and contingency plans

One of the tenets of emergency management for humanitarian assistance is that each organization should engage in preparedness and contingency planning. The group process of harmonizing these plans within the coordination forum will increase the total usefulness of these exercises. This process would, therefore, benefit from an agreement on emergency scenarios for which contingency responses would be prepared.

By including preparedness and contingency planning in the coordination forum:

1. the efficiency of harmonized use of resources is applied to an entire operation

2. all organizations can benefit from the planning skills and experience of the most talented members of the team, a resource base significantly larger than afforded by individual organizations

3. the team work enhanced by working through preparedness plans strengthens the ability to work with one another in the emergency situations.

Resources: UNHCR. Emergency Management Training Programme

b) Co-funding of projects

Organization administrators could agree to jointly fund a project, to combine budgets or to purchase services or material from a common source.

c) Share personnel

For some organizations, responding to emergencies may require additional personnel and the expertise of technical specialists. If it is necessary to bring in expatriate staff or experts, the cost can be a major component of the assistance budget. This cost can be defrayed if organizations agree to share the services of these individuals.

Expertise often needed in emergencies include: medical professionals, public health workers, nutritionists, physical planners, logisticians. Much of their contribution to an operation transcends individual organizational objectives and can, typically, be utilized by many organizations.

Resources: ??

d) Share operations support resources

The high cost of running organizations causes many to recognize that it may be in their benefit to pool resources in order to stretch their assistance budget further. Many resources for operations support are, in effect, inter-changeable with other organizations, and can be used by most or all other organizations.

An example of the potential for sharing operations support resources was among the organizations located in Bosaso, Somalia, in 1995. UNDP, UNICEF, WFP and WHO each maintained large compounds, costing a total of $10,000/month in rent alone. Each agency had their own fleet of vehicles, crew of security guards, guest houses, offices, communication equipment and administrative support staff. A consolidation of these facilities into one large common compound with shared usage of each of the support resources would have amounted to a significant savings.

The following is a checklist of potential resources that could be shared by two or more organizations:

Ö security system including guards
Ö common facilities: offices, guest house
Ö communications facilities and equipment
Ö logistics: vehicles/transport, warehouse
Ö air service
Ö reference library of technical materials
Ö administrative unit, accounting, record keeping
Ö office services: typing or computer services, printing
Ö office equipment/computers

Resources: ??

e) Develop joint strategic plans

The most important result of assessments, information sharing and management is the conversion of this information into a plan of action, utilizing a strategic planning approach. Through this plan will most of the objectives of coordination be realized. The difference between a strategic plan developed for an individual organization and one developed for several organizations is one of focus. The plan for strategic coordination will identify, from a broader perspective, which organization will be performing which task and in which geographic location. The strategic plan would identify a plan of action that maximizes cost-effectiveness and speed of response. It would also include the mechanisms for sharing operations support resources among the organizations.

Elements of a strategic plan for coordination

Ö The emergency’s needs and resources assessment

Ö The goals and objectives of the operation

Ö Identification of organizational roles and resources

Ö Identification of organizations’ comparative advantages

Ö Identification of potential gaps in provision of assistance and a plan on how to fill the gaps

Ö Implementation schedule

Ö Identification of monitory and non-monitory resources necessary for plan implementation

Ö Identification of actions to be taken, by whom, ensuring no unnecessary duplication of services

Ö Identify operational support coordination activities, e.g., shared facilities and other resources

Ö Plan for monitoring and evaluation of the coordinated operations

Resources: 1. Disaster Management Training Programme materials, 2. UNHCR Emergency Management Training Programme materials

f) Joint programming and implementation of rapid response (operations) plan

Coordination of operations implementation is the true test of a coordination mechanism. There are several models of a mechanism to coordinate implementation. On one end of the coordination spectrum, operations are planned and implemented through a hierarchical, military coordination model which depends on central command and control and discipline within the ranks. This would ensure the greatest likelihood of organizations working in concert to maximize cost-efficiency, speed of delivery, etc. However, few organizations outside of the military will submit to this model of coordination.

At the other end of the spectrum, operations implementation happens through a “looser and flatter” coordination model that depends on shared leadership, consensus-based decision making, decentralized authority and open communication and shared information. By knowing what all other organizations are doing, each organization decides on their own how to proceed but they are informed about where their resources are best utilized and what other organizations are doing.

The closer the coordination is to the military model, the more benefits of cost-effectiveness and efficiency are likely to be derived, but at the expense of organizational autonomy and a greater reluctance by organizations to participate.

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Coordination Typologies

The preceding parts of this paper have described what can be done in coordination and suggestions on how to do it. This section discusses where coordination happens, the various typologies. This relates to who the coordination agency is, who comprise the coordination body, and what the focus or objectives are of the coordination body.

Government-led coordination

In most emergency operations, the main counterpart in-country for international organizations is the government, with the exception being countries where a national government does not exist, such as Somalia or Afghanistan. In most countries, the government will establish a special ministry or other entity charged with overall coordination of government humanitarian assistance, and with interacting with international assistance entities. When such a governmental coordination structure exists, it will be an important counterpart for international humanitarian coordination staff. Governments with a lot of experience in humanitarian emergencies may insist on coordinating all international assistance, other governments delegate this task to the international community.

United Nations-led coordination

The coordination mechanisms of UN agencies in-country depends largely on the variable conditions of the emergency. There are several components and options to the structures.

The United Nations General Assembly has mandated that a standing UN Disaster Management Team (UN DMT) be formed in each disaster-prone country, convened and chaired by the UN Resident Coordinator. The composition of the UN DMT is determined by taking into account the types of disaster to which the country is prone and the organizations present, but should normally include a core group consisting of the country-level representatives of FAO, UNDP, UNICEF, WFP, WHO and, where present, UNHCR. The primary purpose of the UN DMT is to ensure a prompt, effective and concerted response by the UN system at country level in the event of a disaster or emergency.

In large scale complex emergencies a Humanitarian Coordinator is likely to be named by the Head of the Department of Humanitarian Assistance who will be responsible for chairing the body of UN agencies and managing the coordination activities within its domain. A Field Coordination Unit is likely to be established under the Humanitarian Coordinator that provides the logistical support and services to the coordination body.

In many natural disasters, and some complex emergencies, DHA will field the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination team (UNDAC). The role of UNDAC is to assist the government of the affected country and the UNDP/DHA Resident/Humanitarian Coordinator in identifying the needs for international disaster relief assistance and to facilitate the timely and appropriate response of the international community.

If the emergency is sector specific, such as a mass refugee influx or a health epidemic, then the UN agency whose mandate covers that sector will become the lead agency in coordinating other UN (and often NGO) participation.

NGO-led coordination

NGOs have often organized themselves through NGO coordination bodies to increase their effectiveness in emergencies. These bodies have taken the form of umbrella organizations, consortia, councils, federations, unions and networks. Their activities range from informal information exchange, to coordinating operational activities in the field. NGO coordinating bodies give the NGO community a higher political profile than they can achieve individually and often serve as focal points for communication and negotiations with host governments and the UN.

Coordination of the military

The coordination of the military aspects of peacekeeping operations within an emergency is beyond the scope of this paper. However, given the differing cultures of the humanitarian agencies and military forces, and the inherent tensions resulting from their often different objectives, responsibilities, and operating styles, an important coordination role is to build bridges and resolve misunderstandings between those two groups. This is often accomplished through the creation of a Civil-Military Operations Center (CMOC). The CMOC is staffed with military and civilian personnel, and works in support of the UN Resident/Humanitarian Coordinator.

Sectoral working groups

Some of the most effective coordination in emergency operations is organized around sectors. Ad hoc coordinating bodies composed of government, UN agencies and NGOs that are engaged in programming in the same sector will meet to share information and coordinate their projects in other ways. Leadership varies considerably and usually emerges as a function of historical leadership, degree of organizational strength, or force of personality of a highly motivated individual.

Donor coordinating bodies

In some emergencies donors have formed coordination bodies for their mutual benefit. These bodies are more likely to be created in the height of an emergency when there is the greatest need for quick access to information and when individual donors do not have the resources to get it on their own. In one case, the Somalia Aid Coordination Body, was created during the crisis in 1994 but it continued to operate well past the emergency because its members were committed to its continuation and it had the benefit of a secretariat housed within UNDP.

Integrated operations center

The final mechanism for coordination is one that is intended to “bring it all together.” Where government, international organizations and NGOs share a common view of the value of coordination, there exists the possibility to establish an Integrated Operations Center (IOC). The IOC model is the meeting ground of the heads of coordination bodies that would include the government lead agency, UN DMT or Coordinating Unit, NGO consortia, the donor’s body and, where present, the military force.


Developing and agreeing on standards is easier for objective aspects of emergency management such as water, sanitation and nutrition. Standards are more amorphous, and perhaps more controversial, for subjective activities such as coordination. For the sake of exploring their validity regarding coordination, this paper will propose draft standards for discussion.

1. When more than three organizations respond to an emergency, a coordination body should be formed and a chair agreed.

2. The chair should use a guideline, such as the “Terms of Reference for the UN DHA Humanitarian Coordinator” as a basis to determine the scope of the coordination body’s agenda and activities.

3. For large scale operations, the chair of the coordination body must be competent at facilitation, consensus building, conflict resolution, and problem identification.

4. Agencies which participate in a coordinating body should draft, approve and agree to abide by a Memorandum of Understanding. This Memorandum will need to be periodically reviewed and updated.

5. Each member agency should provide resources to the coordinating body. This may be in the form of paying a sliding scale membership fee, seconding staff to work for the coordinating body, and/or providing the office, meeting space and supplies required by the coordinating body.


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