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close this bookHandbook for Emergencies - Second Edition (UNHCR, 1999, 414 p.)
close this folder6. Operations Planning
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentOperations Planning Tasks
View the documentAllocation of Responsibilities
View the documentAnnexes




1. An emergency response requires good planning. An important aspect of planning, particularly in an emergency situation, is the development of an operations plan. The "Operations Plan" is a vital management tool which should be based on a problems, needs and resources assessment. The plan should determine programme priorities, set objectives, and specify actions that need to be taken by the actors responsible for the various sectors of an operation. Specific tasks in an emergency and the parties responsible for the implementation of these tasks need to be clearly identified and a plan formulated in as clear and concrete a way as possible.

At the start of an emergency there is a tendency to postpone planning, both because information is not available and because there are obvious urgent needs which can be met piecemeal, without a plan. This tendency should be resisted.

2. The more critical the situation, the more important it is for the operations manager to find the time to take stock, determine priorities and develop a plan for what needs to be done, when, by whom and how.

3. Ideally, the operations plan should make use of the contingency planning process, partners identified, and resources prepared, as well as the plan itself. As the same principles of planning apply, the structure of the operations plan can be based on the contingency plan (also attached here as Annex 1). There are a range of additional considerations beyond what is included in the Contingency planning format, many of which will be addressed over time. However, the main differences between contingency planning and operations planning and the characteristics of a good plan are discussed in chapter 4 on contingency planning. The tasks and approach will be different primarily because of assessments - in operations planning, the starting point is known and assessments of the situation replace the contingency planning scenarios and many of the assumptions.

4. The views of the refugees should be taken into account in drawing up the operations plan. They are the single most important resource in meeting their own needs, and will have definite ideas on how this may best be done. The plan must strengthen the refugees' own resources and self-reliance and avoid creating dependency. The plan should also reflect the aim of a durable solution.

5. The operations plan must be comprehensive, identifying all problems, needs and resources whether these are met through UNHCR or by other organizations and sources of funds. Drawing up the operations plan should be a team effort. Clear direction must, however, come from the government and/or UNHCR.

The most effective operations plans are those developed by or with the people who will implement them.

6. Although the plan should be comprehensive, this should be balanced by the need to produce the plan quickly, so that in rapidly evolving emergencies the plan will not become outdated before it is finished. In addition, lengthy plans can be difficult to update. Characteristics of a good plan are discussed in paragraphs 23 to 25 of chapter 4 on contingency planning.


It should be stressed that, as with contingency planning, operations planning is a process.

A plan, as a document, is not an end in itself but simply a record of the process. It should be kept updated in light of the evolving situation: implementation of the plan should be monitored and corrective action taken, and the plan should then be adjusted and revised. The operations plan must be made available to all who need it.

8. This chapter focuses on operations plans developed with partners. However, planning within the office should not be neglected -simple plans of action at each administrative or office level within UNHCR should also be drawn up, from site to Headquarters, tying in with the overall operations plan and involving the same principles: clarifying objectives, allocating responsibilities, defining activities to achieve objectives, and defining coordination mechanisms such as staff meetings (discussed in chapter 20 on administration and staffing).

Operations Planning Tasks

9. Operations planning involves the tasks set out below:

i. Review existing plans and information in the contingency plan;

ii. Assess problems, needs and resources: identify critical unmet needs.

The problems, needs and resources assessments determine what must be done, and where the priorities are. Assessment of problems, needs and resources is part of planning: plans must be updated to take account of new assessments and progress in implementation. Identify critical unmet needs using the results of the assessments and comparing these with established standards - the determination of the standards to which assistance should be delivered is of fundamental importance. The resources which are available and those which are required must also be identified. Resources includes human resources and personnel, local and international implementing and operational partner organizations, and material resources.

At the early stages of a major emergency, it is unlikely that resources will be sufficient to meet all needs, thus prioritization will be an important part of operations planning.

iii. Set overall goals

The overall operation and strategic goals must be clarified. All other objectives and activities should be consistent with these overall objectives. In formulating objectives, the single most important question to ask is, "What is the intended result?" Objectives should be specific, measurable, achievable and realistic, and the time frame within which they should be reached should be specified.

iv. Clarify planning assumptions

It will also be necessary to clarify the main constraints, planning assumptions and principles behind the emergency operation. These should be set out explicitly, including an explanation of the role, responsibilities and policies of the government, UNHCR, other UN organizations and operational partners. In addition, standard or established procedures, such as monitoring and coordination mechanisms, MOUs etc. should also be set out. Similarly, standards in various sectors and any specific guidelines necessary should be specified (where the plan includes objectives, outputs and activities on a sector by sector basis). Although these issues should have been in the contingency plan, they will need to be revisited in the light of the problem and needs assessments, and restated as necessary to new partners, so everyone is working with the same assumptions and to the same standards.

v. Determine the courses of action to reach overall objectives (implementing arrangements).

Consider various options to reach objectives, their advantages and disadvantages; which are flexible, which are the most efficient and effective? Choosing an option for implementing arrangements which retains flexibility is important in a rapidly changing situation. Chapter 8 on implementing arrangements discusses this in more detail.

vi. Determine objectives and courses of action to reach objectives at sector level.

Decide on the objectives, activities and outputs for each sector. As with contingency planning, this is the most detailed part of the plan. The organization with operational responsibility for a particular sector or site should draw up the plan of action for that sector or site.

vii. Allocate responsibilities

Responsibilities (both within UNHCR and between different actors in the operation), need to be clearly stated.

viii. Determine coordination mechanisms

Coordination mechanisms should be established between the different actors in the operation. Coordination at different geographical levels (e.g. at the site and in the capital or regional city) needs also to be assured. In a large operation, it may be necessary to have separate coordination mechanisms for sectors.

ix. Determine monitoring mechanisms

From the start, the management of a refugee emergency must include continuous monitoring (by measuring the indicators of performance), reporting and evaluation in order to ensure that the objectives remain appropriate as circumstances change, and the activities to fulfill the objectives are being carried out effectively.

x. Record and disseminate the plan, monitor progress, take corrective action, and adjust and revise the plan.

Effective Planning Guidelines for UNHCR Teams (updated in January 1999) provide more details on managing the planning process at all levels of an operation in the most effective and efficient way possible. The assumption underlying this emphasis on the planning process is that better planning processes lead to better quality results delivered on time in a cost effective manner.

Figure 1 - an example of a Gap Identification Chart




Overall site management

Agency M

Agency M

Agency R





Food distribution

Agency B

Agency K


Agency B

Agency Y


Agency W

Agency W


Agency H

Agency H


Allocation of Responsibilities

Gap Identification Chart

10. A gap identification chart is a simple but very important and useful tool to allocate responsibilities effectively and identify the critical unmet needs of the refugees site by site and sector by sector. It illustrates who is responsible for what in an operation (by site and sector) and points out gaps where a sector or site needs attention. An example is shown below - the blanks indicate "gaps" i.e. sites or sectors for which nobody has responsibility. These would need to be given priority attention. Annex 2 shows a blank chart Figure 1 shows an example that has been filled in.

Roles and Tasks

11. The roles and tasks of all involved must be clearly stated. Delay in defining responsibility usually leads to each party defining goals independently and setting their own limits of responsibility. This in turn can lead quickly to confusion, gaps and duplication. Responsibilities should be defined for each administrative level, and for both organizations and individuals. How responsibilities are allocated to individuals is discussed in chapter 20 on administration and staffing.

12. Responsibilities are allocated to different organizations in a refugee emergency primarily through organizations' mandates, international instruments and pre-existing MOUs between organizations.

13. The responsibilities and roles are defined in more detail in response to the specific needs of the refugee situation and capacities of the different parties on the ground. These are set out in implementing agreements with implementing partners, MOUs and exchange of letters with other UN agencies, and agreements with the government. If formal agreements have not yet been drawn up and the basis of cooperation remains a Letter of Intent, the definition of responsibilities contained in the operations plan is more essential than ever (see Annex 1 of the chapter 8 implementing arrangements for a format of a Letter of Intent).

14. The responsibilities of organizations delivering assistance but which are not implementing partners of UNHCR must also be defined. This may create problems, particularly where individual NGOs wish to have responsibility for a specific sector. Final authority rests with the government, and the Representative or the operations manager should consult closely with the authorities. To the extent possible, however, any conflict of interest should be resolved within the framework of a coordinating mechanism.


Annex 1 - A Model Structure for an Operations Plan

Based on the problem, needs and resources assessments

The following is a proposed structure for an operations plan. It is based on a refugee influx. Adaptation will naturally be required for different situations.

Chapter 1: General Situation


Background and country information;


Entry points;


Agreed planning figures;


Arrival rate;


Reception and in-country movement;


Settlement arrangements;


Demographic profile of the refugees;

Chapter 2: Policies and Overall Operation Objectives


Overall policy (strategic) objectives of the programme;


Comments on policy stance of various partners;

Chapter 3: Objectives and Activities by Sector


Management and overall coordination; allocation of responsibilities;


Protection, reception, registration, security;




Logistics and transport;


Infrastructure and site planning;




Domestic needs and household support;




Environmental sanitation;


Health and nutrition;


Community services;




Economic activities;


Support to the operation, administration, communications, staff support and safety;

Each section should include overall sector objectives, and site by site objectives and outputs, problems, needs, resources, financial requirements, activities, implementation responsibilities and timing.

Chapter 4: Procedures for updating the operations plan

Describe how the Plan will be updated, who will be responsible for ensuring this and how the information will be disseminated.

Possible Annexes




Registration forms


List of organizations or individuals participating in the operation


Agency Profiles (details of staff and resources involved in the operation)


Gap identification charts


Commodity specifications



Annex 2 - Gap Identification Chart (blank)

Site 1

Site 2

Site 3

Overall site management