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From UNDRO to the Transformative Agenda: 40 years of challenges for the coordination of humanitarian action
François Grünewald

In the beginning there was UNDRO, the United Nations Disaster Relief Organisation. It was the Cold War and the United Nations apparatus was paralysed in conflict contexts. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, or the “bamboo curtain”, only a few NGOs and three United Nations agencies were present: HCR, UNICEF and the WFP. Special Representatives of the United Nations Secretary General were nominated to deal with humanitarian questions, such as Sir Robert Jackson for aid to the Cambodian people, in parallel to other Special Representatives in charge of political questions. Ad-hoc mechanisms were created to coordinate the aid operations of different agencies, such as the United Nations Border Relief Operation (UNBRO) in Cambodian camps at the Khmer-Thai border. For its part, UNDRO was responsible for the response to disasters linked to natural phenomena, again with few operational actors other than the national institutions. The first specific efforts to coordinate relief took place after the major earthquakes in Armenia (1988) and in Turkey. This saw the creation of the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) and the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC), two mechanisms whose role it is to harmonise and coordinate the initial response, notably that of search and rescue teams in urban environments.

The end of the Cold War did not bring the peace that many had hoped for. However, it did liberate the operational capacity of humanitarian action. The money flowed and the number of actors exploded. DG ECHO was created and this led to a generation of European NGOs known as “ECHO babies” who came into existence and grew with funding from this new donor. The majority of United Nations development agencies created their emergency relief branches. At this time, the United Nations Humanitarian Aid Department was created, its first chief making a major impression due to his strength of vision. Thus, a modern UN mechanism for the coordination of humanitarian aid was born. The Humanitarian Aid Department subsequently became OCHA and, with highs and lows along the way, depending on its different chiefs, it gradually contributed to structuring humanitarian aid coordination.

There have been many challenges. The Darfur crisis and then the Tsunami prompted the charismatic Jan Egeland to commission a review of the sector, the Humanitarian Response Review (HRR). The subsequent Humanitarian Reform process, from 2005, focused on sector coordination (clusters), financial issues (the Central Emergency Response Fund) and the importance of trying to have humanitarian coordinators from outside the UN, but did not follow up on many of the HRR results, such as the need for specific contextual approaches to managing population displacement or the challenges of protection.