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close this bookHandbook for Emergencies - Second Edition (UNHCR, 1999, 414 p.)
close this folder7. Coordination and Site Level Organization
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentCoordination
View the documentOrganization at the Site Level
View the documentKey References
View the documentAnnexes



1. Coordination can be defined as the harmonious and effective working together of people and organizations towards a common goal.

2. Good coordination should result in:

i. Maximum impact for a given level of resources;

ii. Elimination of gaps and overlaps in services;

iii. Appropriate division of responsibilities;

iv. Uniform treatment and standards of protection and services for all the beneficiaries.

3. For effective coordination appropriate approaches and structures will need to be put in place at the various levels. Coordination requires good management and clearly defined objectives, responsibilities and authority.

Coordination is not free: it has costs in terms of time and other resources needed to make it work.

Coordination of the UN Response to Refugee Emergencies

4. Within the UN system the responsibility for refugees lies with UNHCR. Therefore, when there is a refugee emergency, UNHCR is the UN organization responsible for coordinating the response of the UN system to the emergency.

Mechanisms for Coordination in Refugee Emergencies

5. Effective coordination is the result of sound management. Coordination mechanisms set up without the establishment of clear objectives and assignment of responsibility and authority will be ineffective. Coordination must be based on good information exchange, particularly with the site level, otherwise it may even be counterproductive.

6. Mechanisms for coordination include:

i. International and Regional instruments and agreements which define responsibilities and roles at the global (and sometimes regional or country) level;

ii. Memoranda of Understanding and exchange of letters with other agencies, and agreements with implementing partners and host governments, defining responsibilities and roles at the situational level;

iii. A coordinating body;

iv. Sectoral committees as necessary;

v. Regular meetings;

vi. Reporting and information sharing;

vii. Joint services and facilities, for example, vehicle repair services, communications, and a joint staff security group;

viii. Codes of conduct for organizations working in humanitarian emergencies.

7. In refugee emergencies UNHCR should take the lead to ensure effective coordination if this is not already ensured, including establishing the coordinating body.


Whatever the implementing arrangements, a single coordinating body should be established for the operation - for example, a task force, commission, or operations centre.

The coordinating body will provide a framework within which the implementation of the programme can be coordinated and management decisions taken. The coordinating body should have clearly defined and well promulgated responsibility and authority.

9. The elements of a coordinating body, including membership and functions are described in Annex 1. Tips for running meetings, including coordinating meetings are given in Annex 2.

10. Where a coordinating structure does not already exist, UNHCR should, in cooperation with the government, take the lead in setting up the coordinating body and mechanism. This is a crucial component of UNHCR's leadership role. The coordinating body may be set up and chaired by the government with strong support from UNHCR, or be co-chaired by the government and UNHCR, or be chaired by UNHCR alone.

11. The membership of the coordinating body should include government ministries and departments, as well as other UN agencies, NGOs and other concerned organizations. It is important to coordinate the activity of all NGOs - whether they have entered into an implementing agreement with UNHCR or not. In a large scale emergency with a number of actors, the coordinating body could become unwieldy. However, it should still be possible to ensure some degree of representation or participation on the coordinating body by all actors either directly, or on sectoral committees, or through close working partners who are represented on the coordinating body.

12. The coordinating body should hold regular, formal meetings during which overall progress is reviewed and plans adjusted. These meetings should be complemented by informal contacts with members of the coordinating body.

13. When required, the coordinating body should create sectoral committees, for example for health and nutrition. Such committees will be responsible for coordinating implementation in that sector and reporting back to the coordinating body. They could also play an important part in the development of specific standards for the delivery of assistance. When the operation is sufficiently large, a sectoral committee could be coordinated by a UNHCR sector coordinator.

14. A coordinating body can also be of considerable value when new agencies arrive, both in integrating their assistance in the overall programme and with practical administrative arrangements and briefing.

15. Coordination must be based on good information exchange, particularly with the site level. The framework for the organization and coordinating mechanisms at the site level is likely to broadly reflect that established centrally. To get information passed vertically between central level and site level can be as hard as getting information passed between organizations. Each organization should be responsible for ensuring that there is good communication between its staff at site level and centrally, and that important information is then passed on to the coordination body.

Coordination of the UN Response to Complex Emergencies

16. A complex emergency can be defined as:

a humanitarian crisis in a country, region or society where there is a total or considerable breakdown of authority resulting from internal or external conflict, and which requires an international response that goes beyond the mandate or capacity of any single agency and/or the ongoing UN country programme.

17. Likely characteristics of complex emergencies include:

i. A large number of civilian victims, populations who are besieged or displaced, human suffering on a major scale;

ii. Substantial international assistance is needed and the response goes beyond the mandate or capacity of any one agency;

iii. Delivery of humanitarian assistance is impeded or prevented by parties to the conflict;

iv. High security risks for relief workers providing humanitarian assistance;

v. Relief workers targeted by parties to the conflict.

18. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), is the UN body charged with strengthening the coordination of humanitarian assistance of the UN to complex emergencies. OCHA has three main functions in this field: coordination of humanitarian response, policy development and advocacy on humanitarian issues.

19. OCHA discharges its coordination function primarily throughout the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) which is chaired by the Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC), with the participation of humanitarian partners1. The IASC ensures interagency decision-making in response to complex emergencies, including needs assessments, consolidated appeals, field coordination arrangements and the development of humanitarian policies.

20. Where there is a complex emergency an individual or agency is appointed to be responsible for the coordination of the UN system response at field level - this individual or agency is designated the "Humanitarian Coordinator".

21. The decision on who to appoint as Humanitarian Coordinator is made by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC).

22. The agency appointed as Humanitarian Coordinator will depend on the nature of the emergency, and comparative existing agency capacity in the region.

23. There are four possible options which are normally used for the coordination of UN assistance in a complex emergency. These are:

i. Resident Coordinator

The Resident Coordinator is the leader of the United Nations country team and is normally the head of UNDP in a particular country. In a complex emergency, the Resident Coordinator may also be designated as the Humanitarian Coordinator.

ii. Lead Agency

One of the UN agencies may be selected to coordinate and this is often the agency which provides the majority of the assistance;

iii. Humanitarian Coordinator

If the emergency is of considerable size a Humanitarian Coordinator may be appointed distinct from the office of the Resident Coordinator and lead agency. The Humanitarian Coordinator normally phases out once the emergency reaches recovery phase and any residual tasks are returned to the Resident Coordinator;

iv. Regional Humanitarian Coordinator

If the emergency affects more than one country a Humanitarian Coordinator having regional responsibilities may be appointed.

1 The full members of the IASC are OCHA (convenor), FAO, IOM, UNDP, UNHCR, WFP, UNICEF, WHO, and there are a number of standing invitees, including the Red Cross movement and NGOs. i. Resident Coordinator

Role of UNHCR and Other UN Agencies in a Complex Emergency

24. In complex emergencies involving refugees, UNHCR will be responsible for protection and assistance activities on behalf of the refugees. UNHCR may also be appointed lead agency, and therefore be responsible for the coordination of the UN response.

25. Whether or not UNHCR is lead agency, the UNHCR Representative remains directly responsible to the High Commissioner on all issues related to the UNHCR country programme as well as policy matters and issues related to UNHCR's mandate.

The protection of refugees must remain the sole prerogative of the High Commissioner.