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Evaluation database

Evaluation report

2001 Global: Desk Review on UNICEF Humanitarian Response Capacity

Author: Freedman, J.

Executive summary


This has been the decade of complex emergencies, and a crucial one for UNICEF. The number and complexity of emergencies have increased, as have their risk to personnel and their demand on programme resources. The decade has witnessed a fundamental shift in UNICEF's mission to integrate human rights advocacy into all programmes, emergency and regular. This is a desk review of how UNICEF has responded to this decade of trials with policy guidance and procedural changes.

Purpose / Objective

The objectives of this desk review have been, firstly, to review the evaluative conclusions and lessons on programmatic and operational strengths and weaknesses in UNICEF's capacity to respond to humanitarian crisis throughout the previous decade. Secondly, the review has sought to summarise the evolution of policy and procedural changes undertaken by the organisation to improve its humanitarian response. Thirdly, through a comparison between the first and second exercises, the desk review was to call attention to how fully UNICEF has drawn on a decade of evaluative conclusions in making changes to policy, programming and operations. The comparison between what formal and informal evaluations have said about UNICEF's performance in humanitarian crises, and how UNICEF has responded with programming and procedural changes, was expected to suggest what broad conclusions and lessons can then be drawn on programmatic and operational improvements, strengths and remaining gaps in UNICEF humanitarian response.


This desk review has reviewed two types of documents. One has included a corpus of 30 evaluations carried out between 1989 and the present. The lessons learned and conclusions from these evaluations provide a chronicle of UNICEF's experience in responding to complex emergencies. Another set of documents includes manuals and official correspondence that lay out policy and programming objectives. These recent statements document how UNICEF has reacted to the lessons and conclusions throughout a decade of evaluations. A comparison between what formal and informal evaluations have said about UNICEF's performance in humanitarian crisis, and how UNICEF has responded, leads to the principal objective of this desk review, i.e. to call attention to present strengths, recent improvements and remaining gaps in UNICEF's humanitarian response.

Key Findings and Conclusions

A singular theme has emerged from the lessons that this exercise has assembled about improvements, strengths and remaining gaps in UNICEF's humanitarian response. It is that UNICEF's decision to "mainstream programming in unstable situations within the overall context of the Country Programme" has had far-reaching implications; and that the organisation has not yet had the time, nor, until recently, the resources or organisational focus, to fully address some of the implications of its expanded resolve to respond in a more principled and coherent fashion to complex emergencies.

In responding to the mandate to "mainstream", UNICEF staff are expected to anticipate the possibility of instability and fully incorporate it into their country programming strategy. They are expected to be ready to address the immediate needs of the population in crisis as well as to contribute to the long-term development of a society's capacity to realise human rights. Yet, "mainstreaming" emergency response poses a challenge that is perhaps more complex than envisioned originally. This is, in part, because promoting long-term human welfare has typically involved rather different strategies from those that address the immediate needs of a population without clean water, basic health services and sufficient nutrients. Inputs, strategies and objectives in the two cases can differ strikingly.

Yet, for UNICEF, the commitment to the protection of children's rights and to a human rights-based approach to programming has provided a common language, lending coherence to the principles of programming in both stable and unstable or crisis contexts. This language of human rights has helped bridge the gap, in principle, between the old "regular" and "complex emergency" programming, between long-term development for building social capital and infrastructure and targeting immediate support to life-saving services for vulnerable populations in a crisis.

While this coherence between the old "regular" and "emergency" programming is thus achieved conceptually, in terms of over-arching goals and principles, questions remain as to how a human rights-based approach to programming and humanitarian principles coalesce in practical operational guidance. The challenge to do so, raised frequently in meetings and forums, is a complex one, not only because the functions that human rights-based programming and humanitarian principles require staff to perform are unfamiliar, but because they would be difficult even if they were familiar. Human rights-based programming and the application of humanitarian principles in complex emergencies require a different set of skills and different types of leadership. There are implications for how UNICEF interacts with other agencies, for the kind of information country offices require when designing their programmes, and for the level and kinds of expertise required to perform these different activities. And, since many of the sites of intervention involve urgent response to survival and protection issues, there is the further issue of juggling long- and short-term response quickly and efficiently. UNICEF has advanced policy statements defining what a human rights-based approach to programming is and the implications it has for programme process. Recent training materials on humanitarian principles have translated the relevance of the commitment to protect child rights, the human rights-based approach to programming and humanitarian principles for programming in unstable contexts.

This review's observations about UNICEF's strengths or about those areas where improvement may be needed derive from this central issue: the translation of the principles of human rights-based programming and humanitarian principles into concrete operational guidance within the context of a recent and ambitious policy mandate to integrate regular programmes and complex emergency responses.

This desk review is organised into seven sections - Humanitarian Principles and Human Rights; Inter-agency Coordination; Information Management for Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation; Funding; Management of Inputs; Human Resources; Allocation of Roles and Responsibilities - each treating a key ingredient in responding to complex emergencies, reviewing the evaluative lessons over a decade, and describing what UNICEF has done and still needs to do to respond to these lessons. Following are some of the key conclusions:

One of the most pressing dilemmas UNICEF faces is to arrive at a clear, shared understanding about what exactly are the practices that will link programming strategies and policy norms, i.e. what activities country offices should support in order to most effectively put the principle of promoting the rights of children and women into concrete practice. UNICEF headquarters is at the point of issuing a series of Technical Notes intended to provide more concrete guidance on sector- and issue-specific programme strategies. The challenge will be to ensure that this guidance integrates the human rights-based approach to programming and humanitarian principles, as well as illustrates how programmes can accommodate the variable stability in programme contexts and interventions with longer-term vision designed to contribute to an environment conducive to the respect of human rights.

A further area requiring greater clarity on "best practices" is the very complex issue of setting conditions for the delivery of humanitarian assistance. It is widely agreed that UNICEF should negotiate the conditions of its intervention with local authorities or, as the case may be, with non-state entities. These conditions should include guarantees about non-discriminatory implementation of programmes, staff security and some monitoring of compliance. Now is the time for UNICEF to replace the present case-by-case approach to setting and enforcing these conditions with well-informed guidelines for negotiating conditions and for responding to non-compliance.

The stakes for promoting inter-agency coordination have risen, following the UN reforms begun in 1997 and pressure from donors. UNICEF has played a major role in promoting greater coordination by assuming leadership roles in inter-agency bodies. These efforts have been undertaken in order to establish the organisation's own niche within the inter-agency context, pushing the cause of child rights further and ensuring effective humanitarian response. UNICEF's contribution, however, remains at the personal level. It may now be time to constitute a formal body within UNICEF with institutional standing, to identify and take steps toward promoting greater inter-agency coordination. This will require a clear analysis of the perceived benefits of supporting inter-agency coordination and how the organisation should best balance the various underlying objectives.

With regard to information management for planning, monitoring and evaluation, the review noted a consistency in recommendations throughout the past decade: the availability of information to guide programmes has consistently been problematic. Further analysis suggests two issues: first, the very analytical framework at the basis of assessment, monitoring and evaluation. A reliable framework for analysing the potential for political unrest is essential if country programmes are to confidently conceive of their complex emergency response in the context of a regular programme. The development of a framework for analysing vulnerability is occurring throughout headquarters. The work is urgent, and it would be expedited by bringing together the different strands of effort from different divisions. The second area for further examination is the connection between the programming process and M&E systems, which exists in policy and guidance but remains weak in practice.

In the area of funding, UNICEF has taken sensible measures for making funds available on short notice at the outbreak of complex emergencies. Larger amounts can now be made available and the procedures are less cumbersome. Attention should now be turned to maintaining funding in what have become known as "forgotten" emergencies, humanitarian crises where the original outbreak of the crisis has faded from public memory and where the process of rehabilitation has begun.

Responding effectively to complex emergencies relies on having essential supplies available. UNICEF has improved the mechanisms for making these supplies available through stockpiling in Copenhagen and, as needed temporarily, in regional or sub-regional locations. It is imperative that UNICEF secures a complete supply chain in each situation, and that Supply Division and supply operations at field level are involved in any emergency from the first day and continue to be fully engaged to ensure the rapid availability of appropriate essential supplies. While covering only that part of the supply chain controlled by Supply Division, the planned review of this division's operation does appear important and urgent.

UNICEF is keenly aware of the need to make competent professionals rapidly available in crisis situations. Rosters have been developed, training programmes designed and implemented, and NGOs have been identified whose staff can be seconded to UNICEF. Nothing can substitute, however, for the creation of in-house expertise. Borrowing from NGOs does not accomplish this purpose. Training can supplement and sometimes stand in for experience, but it cannot replace it. The rosters have not worked very well. It is important that these strategies be weighed realistically in terms of how much each can be expected to contribute to resolving human resource gaps. Engaging more staff members who are willing and committed to making a career of missions in conflict situations may be the only assured tactic for solving UNICEF's staffing issue in the long run.

Reference has been made by evaluators, by representatives in the course of their debriefings, and in the context of the few interviews conducted by this desk review, to the lack of clarity on how roles and responsibilities are allocated among divisions at headquarters. Some remedial action would appear necessary. Thorough structural reform is probably not the answer. Instead, UNICEF might consider investing the existing Inter-Divisional Crisis Preparedness Working Group, or a similar body, with the institutional standing to oversee, refine and shape the synergy among headquarters divisions.


The report summarises key areas where need for further effort or follow-up by the organisation have been identified. Recommendations are not presented, just a succinct list of observations in the form of suggestions and, in some cases, questions. Such points are integrated into the above conclusions in this executive summary.

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