Evaluation of the OCHA and UNOCHA response and coordination services during the emergency in Afghanistan

Evaluation and Lessons Learned
Originally published


July 2001 to July 2002

A report commissioned by the Evaluation and Studies Unit of OCHA

Executive Summary


On the eve of 11 September 2001, very few people - if any - could foresee the dramatic changes that terrorist attacks thousands of kilometers away would bring to Afghanistan. After more than twenty-two years of internal conflict, six years of a debilitating regime and a long period of international neglect, the country was suddenly propelled to the forefront of the international agenda.

The humanitarian workers who had been struggling to keep the international community committed to alleviating the fate of millions of displaced and vulnerable Afghans had to adapt to this new phase, continuing to provide relief in the midst of a military operation and contributing to shaping up a new, more integrated form of United Nations (UN) presence. For the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (UNOCHA), the long-established UN coordination service for Afghanistan, and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) as the global UN humanitarian coordination office, this was a period of intense activity and, at times, frustrating confusion.

One year into this new phase of the Afghan crisis, the Evaluation and Studies Unit (ESU) of the OCHA commissioned an external evaluation to look at the response and coordination services provided by both OCHA and UNOCHA in support of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan during the critical phase going from July 2001 to July 2002. The period covers the full span of the transition that the humanitarian structure of the United Nations went through in Afghanistan: from the final weeks of a protracted humanitarian situation up to the phasing out of UNOCHA and the assumption by a new integrated United Mission of the responsibility for the coordination of international assistance.

Overall Assessment

The evaluation team examined the timeliness, appropriateness, effectiveness and impact of OCHA and UNOCHA's contribution to the mobilization, coordination and facilitation of humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan in the period of July 2001 to July 2002. The period was marked by rapid and profound changes for Afghanistan and, as a result, important successive modifications of the operational environment for the humanitarian community. The UN itself went through a major re-definition of its role and of the nature and structure of its presence in the country. In the process, UNOCHA ceased to exist as a UN body and OCHA had to re-define its role in support of a new UN mission, a task still not completed.

In such a changing environment, there cannot be a simple, linear assessment of the performance of OCHA and UNOCHA and the impact of their action. The overall picture that emerges is one of a relatively strong and active humanitarian coordination structure that, on the eve of the tragic events of September 2001, was well equipped to face the emerging challenges. The capacity of both OCHA and UNOCHA to provide effective leadership was gradually eroded, however, during the excessively long transition period leading to the establishment of the new United Nations Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) coordination structure. OCHA still has to define fully its role vis-à-vis the new UN humanitarian coordination structure in Afghanistan. More generally and in the light of its unique mandate related to humanitarian affairs, OCHA needs to assess the consequences of the emerging concept of "integrated" UN missions on the principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality that should guide humanitarian action. OCHA also must take concrete steps to provide more effective support to its field staff if it genuinely wants to become an effective field-oriented humanitarian coordination service.

Conclusions, recommendations and lessons identified

1. UNOCHA prior to 11 September 2001

Despite some shortcomings and the difficulties of working in Afghanistan during the Taliban period, UNOCHA, under the direction of the UN Coordinator for Afghanistan, provided coherent and effective leadership to the humanitarian community. The coordination structure suffered from unresolved tensions between the two distinct structures corresponding to the assistance and political functions deriving from the Strategic Framework for Afghanistan, as well as from tensions between the humanitarian and the development components of the Office of the UN Coordinator for Afghanistan. It remains that, on the eve of 11 September 2001, the United Nations could rely on a competent, efficient and active humanitarian coordination service to meet the challenges of the new crisis.

2. Developing a humanitarian response post-11 September

The strength of the coordination structure that already existed prior to 11 September 2001 greatly helped OCHA and UNOCHA in their task of orchestrating the successful response to the initial phase of the new emergency, particularly during the military campaign by the Coalition. OCHA and UNOCHA , in cooperation with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and a number of agencies also developed contingency plans, programmes and appeals in a timely manner. The quality of that planning, however, suffered from the haste in which projects and programmes had to be put together with the result that less than optimum attention was given to defining strategies.

This initial phase, however, already signaled the erosion of the role and authority of the coordination mechanisms put in place prior to 11 September. In the field, a compact Crisis Management Group helped maintain some coherence within the UN around the Coordinator, but the need for operational agencies to increase their visibility with the media and donors meant increased competition and rivalry. In addition, the role and authority of the existing assistance coordination structures suffered from uncertainties and speculations regarding the future shape of the UN presence in Afghanistan and the future of the humanitarian and human rights functions as part of the new structure.

This last point gives rise to a fundamental debate about the desirability of integrating fully the humanitarian and political efforts of the UN. Views diverge on the issue but there is general agreement within the humanitarian community that vigilance is required to ensure that, for the humanitarian community and in the interest of victims, integration does not turn into subordination. OCHA cannot be absent from the debate. OCHA is mandated to preserve the fundamental principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian action and has a duty to ensure this is done in all situations.

The development of "humanitarian" programs and activities by the military have been particularly intensive during the military campaign in Afghanistan. OCHA has successfully managed to build an ad hoc UN consensus on some of the related issues but there is still a need for a comprehensive analysis of this new relationship and for developing common overall guidelines for the humanitarian community.

Finally, the intensity of the Afghan crisis and its highly political context have meant that established internal structures at OCHA headquarters could not function as anticipated. As a result, there was confusion about lines of authority within OCHA and about the division of responsibilities between the New York and Geneva parts of OCHA headquarters. OCHA's own management of the situation was weakened by the failure to recognize this reality and issue new management instructions.

At headquarters as in the field, the intensity of the crisis also required that coordination structures, including new ones suc h as the Integrated Mission Task Force (IMTF), should maintain a balance between the wish to encourage the broadest possible participation and the need to achieve operational and managerial efficiency. Informal but more compact forums often had to be created in the interest of efficiency.


(1) OCHA should take the lead in developing guidelines meant to ensure that basic principles of humanitarian action are upheld systematically, including in UN Missions where humanitarian assistance is clos ely associated with political objectives. Such guidelines should include mechanisms to monitor respect of norms, standards and principles of humanitarian assistance in all operations.

(2) Recent developments regarding the humanitarian dimension of military strategy have long -term implications for the humanitarian community. This emerging military doctrine should be analyzed further through an OCHA-led exercise designed to develop a policy framework and revised operational guidelines for adoption by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC).

(3) For each major operation, a single senior OCHA manager must be given a clear lead role with full authority delegated by the Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC).


  • Existing structures and definitions of responsibility and accountability do not necessarily correspond to the requirements of particular large-scale emergencies. When there is a need to modify a management approach originally designed for "quieter" emergencies, this should be done rapidly and in a fully transparent manner.

  • Coordination mechanisms established under normal operational circumstances tend to favor a broad participation and an information-sharing approach. In times of crisis, coordination mechanisms with a strictly limited participation are more effective as long as pressure for enlargement can be resisted.
3. Operational coordination and services

OCHA and UNOCHA, during the pre-11 September period, had developed an impressive range of services that were considered of value by many in the humanitarian community. In addition to the numerous coordination forums created around the Strategic Framework for Afghanistan and the Principled Common Programming, UNOCHA had developed an extensive set of information documents ranging from detailed Weekly Updates on the humanitarian situation to basic briefing kits for newcomers and visitors as well as thematic papers on various issues of concern to the aid community. UNOCHA also ran the flight operations service that facilitated access to all UN staff as well as personnel of non-UN organizations and donors, and developed its field offices as "service centers" for the humanitarian community.

During the initial phase of the crisis and in the transition period leading to the establishment of the new UN mission, some important positive aspects of the previous UN coordination services were neglected or lost. Such was the case for the concept of allowing UN field offices to operate as "service centers" for the whole humanitarian community. That concept later fell victim to restrictive interpretations of financial rules.

Another lost opportunity occurred as a result of the incapacity of UNOCHA to maintain the same level and intensity of relationships with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) after the 11th of September. At the global level, it does not seem that OCHA is promoting sufficiently its role as a coordinating structure for the whole humanitarian community, particularly NGOs, rather than only for the UN. There is a need for OCHA to undertake a review of its capacity to further develop this essential partnership with NGOs.

The Immediate and Transitional Assistance Programme for Afghanistan (ITAP) had to be prepared in a rush and did not meet the expectation of a comprehensive strategic plan and program. The approach, however, emphasized an increased linkage between relief and development, a notion welcomed by many agencies and donors.

Gender sensitive approaches are needed in all areas but they are particularly important with regard to planning processes. Despite the issue of gender equality being highlighted in several documents, including the report of the Secretary-General that defined the mission of the UN in Afghanistan, the theme does not seem to have permeated the programs presented through ITAP.

The new situation that resulted from the events of 11 September put considerable strain on the UN Coordinator's Public Information Section. OCHA could eventually help identify additional resources to support the function but this was staff with little prior experience of humanitarian issues in Afghanistan. Obviously, if OCHA wants to do public information in the future and play a coordination role among specialized PI staff of agencies, it needs a larger number of professional staff of its own.

The Afghan Information Management Service (AIMS) provided useful services, particularly with regard to map-based products. In fact, these generic, map-based products were so highly sought after that they overtaxed the capacity of the service. As a result, criticisms of AIMS often took the form of a perceived inability to meet more specialized demands. In general, information management activities would benefit from additional efforts to develop standard terms of reference (the Humanitarian Information Centers) or standard formats (the Situation Reports [SITREPs]).


(4) OCHA should review its current policies and structures with a view to strengthening partnership with NGOs and ensuring that they can participate effectively in the response to humanitarian crises. This should be done in cooperation with NGOs and Governments and be based upon an analysis of appropriate practices.

(5) OCHA should clearly define the role of future Humanitarian Information Centers and maintain their dominant focus on production of quality outputs which directly support key humanitarian tasks. It should develop standard terms of reference and disseminate them widely so as to defuse unrealistic expectations. Appropriate linkages with other information sharing mechanisms should be encouraged to improve the quality of information services.

(6) OCHA should develop a standard SITREP format based on a survey of users' needs and expectations both inside and outside the institution itself. This should be accompanied by guidelines for compilation and distribution. The format should recognize the need for a two-way information flow between field offices and headquarters.

(7) OCHA should ensure that Public Information Officers with relevant experience in humanitarian emergencies systematically form part of emergency standby teams for deployment under the "surge capacity."


  • UN field offices adopting the concept of "humanitarian service centers" provide more effective coordination and leadership to the entire humanitarian community. Costs related to allowing the use of UN equipment by other members of the humanitarian community should continue to be considered as legitimate charges to the coordination budget.

  • Technical resources for gender equality have to be built into planning processes and strategy deve lopment from the beginning, including through timely deployment from headquarters. With adequate technical and financial support and proper institutional commitment to gender equality, appeals can better reflect actual needs and avoid marginalization of women.
4. Managing the transition

The failure to make timely decisions regarding the appointment of a new Deputy-SRSG and his confirmation as Humanitarian Coordinator as well as the slow and often unadapted administrative support during the transition period have resulted in inordinate delays that, in turn, have contributed to a gradual erosion of the old coordination structures without a workable alternative being in place for several months. This has weakened the concept of humanitarian coordination within the UN and requires action on the part of OCHA in preparation for future missions. It has been noted, in addition, that OCHA has not yet defined formally its role and responsibility as the UN central humanitarian coordination service vis-à-vis the new humanitarian coordination structure of UNAMA.

The winding down of UNOCHA, particularly in terms of staff and financial matters showed weaknesses that may result partly from the absence or lack of sufficient dedicated human resources and administrative capacity within OCHA itself. Pakistan-based national staff of UNOCHA, in particular, would have benefited from greater clarity regarding the planning for phasing out UNOCHA.


(8) OCHA should develop a "fast track" mechanism for the appointment of Humanitarian Coordinators that either restricts severe delays that can be caused by the IASC procedure or gives the ERC executive authority to appoint a Humanitarian Coordinator in specific circumstances.

(9) OCHA should commission a final financial audit of UNOCHA and ensure that outstanding equipment and assets are transferred or sold in accordance with financial rules.


  • Timely exit strategies, including phasing out plans should be established well in advance of existing coordination structures being abolished or merged into new structures. Plans should address the needs of existing staff with maximum flexibility with regards to rules and contractual status. They should also foresee the transfer of equipment and assets as well as a thorough audit of the winding down service.
5. Promoting gender equality

The absence of a very explicit and visible commitment to gender mainstreaming by OCHA at all levels limits the capacity of the UN to foster an adequate integration of gender considerations in humanitarian strategies and plans. There is a clear gap in terms of policies and implementation, and a role for stronger coordinated action for gender equality in humanitarian assistance operations as well as a role to monitor and track financial commitments and activities. OCHA is well positioned to fill this gap, and to bring the humanitarian assistance community forward on these issues; to ensure that gender equality is placed and maintained on the agenda and integrated into all advocacy initiatives. For this to occur, however, OCHA will require additional resources (both human and financial) and will need to invest in professional development of staff within this sector. OCHA's efforts to secure the necessary additional resources from donors would benefit from the elaboration of a clear and comprehensive strategy and plan on gender issues.


(10) OCHA should develop a comprehensive gender equality strategy and action plan that should include:

i) a review of all core functions of OCHA with a view to adopting specific objectives and concrete plans in each sector of activity;

ii) a review of human resources policies and practices, including the training of staff at headquarters and in the field;

iii) the creation of fully dedicated senior posts of gender advisors;

iv) the establishment of an appropriate field structure to support the objective in larger operations.

(11) OCHA should take the lead in promoting the development of country specific gender strategies in countries with important humanitarian activities. The development of such strategies should be undertaken with full participation of the broader humanitarian community, including NGOs and women's groups.

6. Management: serving field operations

The crisis that hit Afghanistan starting on 11 September 2001 was the first major humanitarian situation in which the management principles and precepts deriving from OCHA's Change Management Process were actually tested. It is clear in retrospect that OCHA and UNOCHA staff would have benefited from a more conscious and transparent effort to develop better communication between management and staff and to document events and major decisions more thoroughly. The institutional objectives of OCHA were not clearly defined and disseminated, for example through a "mission statement," and there was confusion with regard to internal responsibility and accountability for the operation.

Coordination techniques such as the New York Afghanistan Task Force and the intensive use of teleconferencing proved useful for internal information sharing and coherence. The evaluation team noted, however, a generalized absence of readily accessible internal information and documentation even on major events and decisions affecting humanitarian action during the very intense period under review. There is a need for measures to ensure that institutional memory is better preserved for the benefit of future operations or of research.

OCHA generally provided support to the field operation through the deployment of its own staff in an emergency mode (the "surge capacity") in an efficient and timely manner. External recruitment, however, suffered delays that indicate a fundamental weakness of the institution in managing human resources.

National staff performed well in Afghanistan during the more than two months of evacuation of their international colleagues. They played an essential role in ensuring that the UN could continue to provide assistance , even during the bombing campaign. But a number of measures could have been taken to prepare national staff better for such situations and provide them - and their international colleagues - with support in dealing with possib le trauma resulting from highly stressful situations. Additional clarity is also required regarding the conditions under which international staff is evacuated or allowed to return.

The most striking management weakness, however, remains OCHA's incapacity to provide its staff with conditions of service and a working and living environment that would compare to those available to most other humanitarian workers. OCHA's capacity to provide leadership and coordination would be greatly improved if it was capable of always attracting staff of the highest caliber and, most importantly, retaining them. The human resources and the administrative and financial systems under which OCHA operates are woefully incompatible with the ambition of becoming a field -oriented humanitarian coordination service.

There is ample evidence that the senior management of OCHA has tried over the years to address this issue from within the UN Secretariat system. It has not been successful. Perhaps other methods are now required. A number of Governments are strongly committed to supporting the concept and practice of effective humanitarian coordination in the UN. Their voice in appropriate legislative bodies of the United Nations could certainly strengthen the case of a more efficient and field-oriented coordination service.


(12) OCHA should make available stress counseling adapted to both national and international staff whenever justified by the nature of the operation. Related costs should be considered as a legitimate budget item for the coordination function.

(13) OCHA should issue precise instructions related to planning for safety (including possible relocation), roles, and responsibilities of national staff as well as the overall organization of the UN humanitarian presence during periods of evacuation of international personnel. That requirement should be considered as standard for all contingency and security plans. National staff should be associated more closely to management processes, including contingency and securi ty planning. OCHA must ensure that all staff receive appropriate security training.

(14) OCHA should develop situation-specific mission statements when engaging in new emergencies or in totally new phases of ongoing operations. Mission statements and other important policy documents should be shared with staff at all levels and revised as required.

(15) OCHA should systematically assign a staff member to perform the function of "historian" in large -scale emergencies and crises. The function should service the entire humanitarian community.

(16) OCHA should develop a standard briefing/induction kit systematically provided to staff assigned to emergency situations and containing general information on coordination functions and humanitarian work, including codes of conduct. Situation specific information should be prepared for all new emergencies. It should be mandatory for all new recruits to undergo an orientation/briefing session, which should incorporate a section on issues related to cultural awareness and gender equality.

(17) OCHA, in close coordination with Governments supporting humanitarian coordination and determined to act in the appropriate fora, should:

(1) support its emergency deployment of staff with appropriate and timely administrative backup pe rsonnel, including personnel dedicated solely to assisting operational staff in establishing adequate working and living conditions;

(2) review emergency/disaster-specific procedures and administrative frameworks with the aim of implementing changes, which maximize speed and flexibility in relief delivery, including increased delegation of authority to appropriate field personnel;

(3) develop staff as well as financial and administrative rules and procedures that would enable it to become a field-oriented UN department providing its staff with conditions of work and service at par with major operational agencies of the system.


  • Decisions on evacuation and return of international UN staff should be area-specific rather than country-wide. The UN should recognize the usefulness of a more systematic sharing of information with NGOs on security issues.

  • Recognizing that staff responsible for coordination at field level must display aptitudes of leadership, knowledge of humanitarian action and of the UN system as well solid experience of field operations, cultural sensitivity and language ability, OCHA's recruitment procedure should aim at ensuring the highest quality of staff upon recruitment or secondment. The capacity of OCHA to attract and retain highly competent staff should also rest on a culture of effective support for the creation of appropriate working and living conditions.
UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
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