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close this bookHandbook for Emergencies - Second Edition (UNHCR, 1999, 414 p.)
close this folder4. Contingency Planning
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentPlanning as a Process
View the documentContingency Planning Tasks
View the documentCharacteristics of a Good Plan
View the documentKey References
View the documentAnnexes




1. Contingency planning can be defined as:

A forward planning process, in a state of uncertainty, in which scenarios and objectives are agreed, managerial and technical actions defined, and potential response systems put in place in order to prevent, or better respond to, an emergency.


It is important to consider contingency planning as a planning process from which a: contingency plan is drawn.

The planning process involves a group of people or organizations working together on an ongoing basis to identify shared objectives and define respective responsibilities and actions.

3. Contingency planning is a pre-requisite for rapid and effective emergency response. Without prior contingency planning much time will be lost in the first days of an emergency. Contingency planning builds organizational capacity and should become a foundation for operations planning and emergency response.

When to Plan

4. In most cases field workers will know simply from experience and good knowledge of the current situation when it is prudent to plan.

5. There is no rule as to when to start contingency planning - except that, when in doubt, develop a contingency plan.

It is better to plan when it is not needed than not to have planned when; it was necessary.

Early Warning

6. Early warning signs of a potential critical event should trigger a contingency planning process. Early warning is the collection, analysis and use of information in order to better understand the current situation as well as likely future events. The particular focus is on events which might lead to population displacement. Early warning can come from a wide range of sources: governments, local population, political leaders, media, academia, refugees, international and national organizations.

7. The collection and analysis of early warning information should be integrated into the routine work of UNHCR offices. Regular monitoring and reporting, in a consistent format, is an important means to ensure that trends and patterns are recorded and that any changes indicating population displacements are spotted.


Where early warning information indicates the threat of a refugee emergency, contingency planning should be started automatically.

9. The most common emergency threat for UNHCR is a new influx or sudden increase in a refugee population. However, contingency planning should also take place in the midst of an existing operation. For example, contingency plans may be needed for a possible renewed influx, a natural disaster affecting a camp, an epidemic, an attack on a camp, violence in a camp, sudden spontaneous repatriation, or a security threat to staff or premises. In these situations the realities of the ongoing operation are well known, but contingency plans must be made for future developments for which one needs to be prepared.

Planning as a Process

10. Planning is an ongoing activity; the planner needs to constantly assess the situation and adjust objectives and courses of action to take account of developments.

11. A static contingency plan is soon out of date and breeds a false sense of security. By reviewing and updating planning measures regularly, the preparedness measures in place can be kept appropriate and adequate.

12. One of the most important contributions of the contingency plan to emergency response often comes from the process itself: identifying working partners, their capabilities and resources, developing a working relationship with them and coming to a common understanding of the issues, priorities and responsibilities.

The capacity of the actors to respond in an emergency will be enhanced by their previous involvement in the contingency planning process.

13. Both contingency planning and operations planning set strategic and sectoral objectives and develop an action plan to achieve these objectives. The major difference between the two is that contingency planning involves making assumptions and developing the scenarios upon which planning is based, while in operations planning, the starting point is known, and the planning will build on needs and resources assessments.

Figure 1 - Differences between Contingency Planning and Emergency Operations Planning


Contingency plan

Operations Plan

Relation to emergency event



Scope of plan

Global or scenario based

Both strategic and specific

Partners involved

All likely partners

Operational and implementing partners only


Developing agreed scenarios

Effective and rapid response




Planning Style


Directive and consultative




Time frame

Floating, uncertain

Fixed, immediate


14. Many pitfalls in contingency planning can be avoided by planning collectively, marshalling the widest range of local skills, and complementing these by external inputs.

Contingency planning is best achieved through a cooperative and coordinated effort wherein all concerned work together with shared objectives over a period of time.

A single meeting that produces a plan is usually insufficient and the product often inadequate. The contingency planning process therefore revolves around regular meetings and follow up.

15. The participants in the contingency planning process should include those who might be involved in the emergency response, including the government, agencies, representatives of donor governments and local organizations and expertise. Contingency planning meetings are sometimes called "roundtable" meetings to stress the importance of participation by all involved. The views of one agency may differ from others, but this will often be to the advantage of the planning process since it provides a useful forum for all assumptions to be questioned and refined. The end product is thus more realistic. While UNHCR may facilitate the roundtable, the role and importance of each participant must be respected.

16. A contingency planning meeting should produce a draft contingency plan containing the following:

i. Scenario identification;

ii. Strategic objectives;

iii. Sector objectives and activities.

Subsequent meetings should review early warning indicators, report on actions taken since the previous meeting, and update the existing plan.

17. Inputs into these meetings include specialist expertise and advice, results from field visits, and statements of agency policy. Outputs include the contingency plan, draft budgets and standby arrangements such as stockpiles.

Contingency Planning Tasks

Scenario Identification

18. Based on early warning indicators and their own experience, the participants in the planning process should develop likely scenarios. This activity is the most intuitive, yet one of the most important, since it lays the basis for all further planning. In establishing scenarios assumptions must be made. While these will be based on best available knowledge, nothing can remove the element of unpredictability.

19. The scenario is a kind of benchmark: if the influx is smaller than envisaged, the safety margin will be welcome, if it is larger, the importance of taking urgent corrective action is highlighted.

20. For scenario development:

i. Consider all possibilities (be imaginative);

ii. Settle for a limited number of options only (1 or 2 options are the norm); otherwise the planning process will be too complicated;

iii. Use the concept of either worst case scenario or most likely scenario.

Policy and Strategic Objectives

21. Planners need to have some vision of the direction of the overall operation. To the extent possible this should be a shared vision. It is not unusual for the various partners to hold different policy approaches to a particular problem. If these cannot be reconciled, at least the differences should be known and understood by all parties. However, an effort should be made to agree on some overall principles, through establishing overall objectives for the emergency response. All activities undertaken in the plan will need to be consistent with these overall objectives.

Sector Objectives and Activities

22. This is the most detailed part of the planning process. For each sector planners should agree, in as much detail as time will permit, on:

i. Sector objectives, including standards;

ii. The main tasks;

iii. Who is responsible for implementing which task;

iv. Time frame for implementation.

Characteristics of a Good Plan

23. A good plan (whether operations or contingency) should be comprehensive yet not too detailed; it should find the right balance between covering all the important issues yet not flooding the plan with detail.

24. It should be well structured, easy to read and, importantly, easy to update. Much of the plan will be action oriented, so it should have a layout that clearly shows what needs to be done, by whom and by when.

25. It should be a living document and be constantly updated, amended and improved. It is not a document which is comprehensively revised on a schedule, but is one that is constantly in a state of change.

A short document with a clear structure will facilitate updating.

26. A contingency plan should also achieve a balance between flexibility (so it can apply to a variety of scenarios) and specificity (for key practical inputs - e.g. well positioned stockpiles). The plan must not be too directive, and yet must provide adequate guidance. It should not be expected to act as a blueprint.

27. See Annex 1 for the structure of a typical contingency plan.

Key References

Contingency Planning - A Practical Guide for Field Staff, UNHCR, Geneva, 1996.


Annex 1 - A Model Structure for a Contingency Plan

The following is a proposed structure for a Contingency Plan. It is based on a refugee influx. Adaptation will be required for different scenarios.

Chapter 1: General Situation and Scenarios


Background and country information
Entry points
Total planning figure
Arrival rate
Reception and anticipated in-country movement
Settlement arrangements
Expected refugee demographic profile
Emergency response trigger

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
Community services
Logistics and transport
Infrastructure and site planning
Domestic needs and household support
Environmental sanitation
Health and nutrition
Economic activities
Support to the operation, administration, communications, staff support and safety

Each section should include a consideration of sector objectives and outputs, needs, resources, activities, and financial requirements, existing and proposed preparedness measures, implementation responsibilities and timing.

Chapter 4: Procedures for feedback, updating and future action

Describe how the Plan will be updated and revised, 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 planning process
Agency Profiles (details of staff, resources, future intentions)
Gap identification charts (see chapter 6 on operations planning)
Commodity specifications
Draft budgets.