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Commission on Human Rights
Humanitarian Aid

In 1998, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), part of the United Nations Secretariat, replaced the Department of Humanitarian Affairs (established in 1992). The United Nations believed a more specific office was needed to deal with humanitarian emergencies, although the UN itself has been dealing with emergencies since its conception at the end of World War II. “Total economic losses from natural disasters for 1995-1996 are estimated at US$ 240 billion” (OCHA On-line). As if natural disasters are not enough for the United Nations to deal with, the number of man-made disasters are escalating and far outnumbering natural disasters. Millions of people were uprooted from their homes in 2000 alone as a result of civil wars. Man-made disasters are often more complex and require more time to solve. With natural disasters and man-made disasters, the United Nations constantly needs to find quicker and more efficient ways to implement humanitarian relief.

OCHA coordinates the responses of countries, UN organizations, other international organizations, and businesses or private donors during crises and emergencies. OCHA works with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which coordinates natural disaster response and prevention; the World Food Program (WFP); United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which ensures that children are in areas with water, sanitation, medicine, and schools; and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to aid in humanitarian relief.

When an emergency occurs, an appeal is filed within the United Nations, usually filled out by OCHA and the country undergoing the crisis. Twenty-seven appeals are filed each year on average, not including the appeals from the previous years whose aid responses have not been completed. The Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC), also the head of OCHA as well as both the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) and the United Nations Country Team (from the country or countries undergoing the crisis), organizes, debates, analyzes, and carries out the response according to whether or not the crisis is man-made or a natural disaster. This distinction is important because OCHA would approach and apply aid to a country undergoing a civil war (man-made) differently than it would give aid to a country experiencing drought (a natural disaster). Aid can be given through humanitarian assistance or protection, and is furthermore categorized according to whether the aid is long term, emergency, or both. Once the appeal is filed, OCHA (along with the other world organizations) decides on the form of aid – whether it be food, water, medical supplies, armed forces (for protection of peoples), or money – then decides on the most efficient and quickest way for the aid to be carried out. OCHA then supports the relief mission until the aid is completed.

Since WWII, man-made disasters, specifically civil wars, have been the primary cause for aid or assistance given to a country. In the past ten years, the United Nations has dealt with civil wars in Angola, Ethiopia, East Timor, Kosovo, and more. Two thirds tons of the WFP’s food supply went to natural disasters over a decade ago. More money is spent on man-made crises since more consequences arise because of them, such as displaced people, long term effects, and heightened hostility toward relief workers. These problems result in the UN spending more time and more money on man-made disasters. To alleviate monetary pressure and to guarantee a quick, monetary response to crises, the United Nations formed the Central Emergency Revolving Fund (CERF) to provide immediate cash to countries in disaster. The borrowing country has one year to reimburse the United Nations. CERF has been used over fifty times since it has been implemented in 1992.
“Natural disasters…caused economic losses exceeding $90 billion in 1998. The figure for that year alone exceeds the disaster costs for the entire 1980s” (Basic Facts, 1). OCHA has dealt with landslides in Honduras, earthquakes in Afghanistan (giving $12 million in assistance), launched over 167 appeals for aid in only six years (1992-1998), aided 22 million International Displaced Persons (IDPs), and returned 1.7 million refugees to Mozambique. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has provided health care, assistance, and support for 3.7 million registered Palestinian refugees in four countries, and also in the West Bank and Gaza Strip territories.

Today, the World Food Program provides one third of the world’s food to emergencies (80% of that food supply goes to man-made crises), while countries making donations specify how much money they want to go to food and what type of food, whether it be maize, wheat, or seeds. The Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Meteorological Organization work with the United Nations by monitoring food and weather to prepare for natural disasters. The World Health Organization assists in reproductive and mental health, epidemic control and surveillance, nutrition, and immunizations. The UNHCR is assisting 1.2 million people seeking asylum. The UNRWA uses half of its budget to educate Palestinian refugees.

With an increase in man-made crises, OCHA has identified certain challenges and problems with the execution of humanitarian aid. Major concerns include the safety of relief workers; the health, protection, assistance, and safety of IDPs or refugees; the effects and disengagement of landmines and unchecked small arms; the contradictory effects of sanctions and human rights; access to certain countries with intra-national checkpoints; and a strengthening of the link between aid, peace building, and human rights.

Currently, OCHA is working on two solutions to alleviate some of these problems. One is to find effective ways to bring prompt relief to countries and people in need. The other is to prevent man-made crises and to be more prepared for natural disasters. To increase an awareness for natural disasters, the United Nations monitors weather patterns, food supplies, drought information, and water supplies through various UN organizations. To deal with man-made emergencies and crises, the United Nations promotes human rights and humanitarian principles. Country-specific ground rules are being created to guide relief workers and response organizers. The guidelines include interaction with local and national authorities; access to areas specified by relief appeals; security of the country, the people in the country, and the relief workers; and set guidelines on when to suspend aid (if the situation becomes too dangerous for relief workers) and when to withdraw aid from the country completely.

OCHA deals with appeals ranging from floods in Vietnam and Albania, the Cote d’Ivoire crisis, the South Africa humanitarian crisis, and the health of Palestinians living in the occupied Palestinian territory. Each appeal for humanitarian relief that OCHA receives is entered into a Humanitarian Briefing Pack, which includes a country profile, conflict background, maps, contact information, an update, online resources, and more. OCHA hopes country guidelines and Humanitarian Briefing Packs will succeed in tracking disastrous trends in certain countries and the most effective way to prevent those trends.

Urbanization and industrialization have amplified the effects of natural disasters, the amount of aid, and the cost of aid responding to them. Man-made crises have also increased. The United Nations seeks an approach to make humanitarian aid more effective and to promote a more unified world through relief efforts. OCHA and other organizations have already taken many steps towards this process, but many more need to be taken. Through analysis, research, and trial and error, the United Nations strives to meet these goals.

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Basic Facts About the UN: More Information/Humanitarian Affairs. Updated August 7, 2002. Available 9/29/02.

OCHA On-Line. Updated 9/242/02 Available 9/24/02. (that is an underscore: _)

ReliefWeb. Updated daily. Available 9/242/02.

United Nations. Updated 9/242/02. Available 9/25/02.

US Department of State. Updated 8/20/02. Available 9/25/02.


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