Bob McCarthy, Regional Emergency Advisor
Before his departure in early 2013 to take up Chief of Emergencies in Central African Republic, Bob McCarthy was Regional Emergency Advisor for UNICEF Regional Office for Eastern and Southern Africa. Having worked for 20 years in the Horn of Africa, including Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, Bob brings invaluable expertise and experience to the organization in the areas of humanitarian preparedness, response and coordination. In his earlier career, Bob worked for 'Operation Lifeline Sudan', as well as several UNICEF Country Offices. A native of Boston, USA, Bob is a fan of the Boston Red Socks baseball team, and a not bad basketball player.
1. UNICEF has always been involved in emergencies. How effective do you think we are in this area?
UNICEF’s effectiveness in emergency response has been generally good over the years, but there have also been many examples of which we have fallen short. What is our standard for emergency response? To ensure that children and women affected by emergencies are assisted quickly and effectively. Over the years, UNICEF has, like many organizations, adopted a progressive regime of accountability for our ‘humanitarian action’ including in the late 1990s, the adoption of what we call ‘Core Commitments for Children’ in humanitarian action. These were developed to focus our efforts to those areas where children are most vulnerable, such as disease outbreaks and malnutrition, and the psycho-social consequences of displacement, separation from families, and the disruption to learning. These accountability areas are further framed by commitments to ensuring that our systems work in emergencies - that we have the right supplies at the right time, in addition to right staffing. More recently, we have introduced ‘on-line’ systems to better gauge our levels of readiness for new emergencies by focusing more on emergency preparedness. Clearly we have made progress, but the demands are also increasing, so are the complexities and scopes of the emergencies around the world. To that end, continued investments in systems and staff, together with strong partnership with governments, UN agencies and NGOs, offer the best road map to success.
2. And what have been some of the biggest achievements and lessons learned over the years?
Our achievements have been, I would say, framed in what seems to be a genuine, positive feedback I hear from government counterparts, other UN agencies and partners and donors on the work UNICEF is doing in emergency situations in the region. That is not to say that there are no areas for improvement as they are too numerous to describe here. But I see that UNICEF continues to instill strong leadership capacities with the progressive development of better systems to help us become more effective to respond to disasters.
A few specifics might be the work we are doing in advancing better use of the on-line Early Warning/Early Action system, and investing in analysis and sharing of lessons learned to reduce disparities among pastoralist communities in the Horn of Africa. The morale and commitment of UNICEF staff is high and that also makes a huge difference. Lastly, we have rolled out a platform of sorts to make disaster risk reduction more central to our programme approach.
The key lesson learned for me (a natural optimist) is not to assume that the system will work!
3. What’s UNICEF doing in this region to help the communities be better prepared when man-made or natural disasters struck?
Recently, we undertook a review of 12 of the country programmes as to the extent to which they applied the disaster risk reduction (DRR) approach to their programming in areas of high vulnerability (i.e., predictable floods, drought and other natural hazards that are not properly planned for, can become ‘disasters’). The findings were that while much good innovation and examples were evident, there was a lack of a more systematic approach, and we were not mainstreaming this into our overall programme domain. Particularly, we were not sufficiently advocating with government around this issue - DRR for children. [Note: virtually all governments are signatories to the 2005 ‘Hyogo Framework for Action’ that serves as the international work plan for DRR.]
With this foundational analysis, we have undertaken a number of country support missions, after we established dedicated technical capacities to lead this process. We are also coordinating closely with other UN agencies, NGOs and to an increasing extent, inter-governmental bodies, such as the SADC, to advance greater coherence for results. So the answer is that we are approaching the challenge of helping communities to be better prepared for hazards from the country level, and the wider regional context. But it is a long battle to be fought.