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‘Accountability — a fundamental value underpinning the humanitarian aid community’

Interview with Ramesh Rajasingham, UN Acting Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator

Ramesh Rajasingham. Source: UN OCHA

When it comes to humanitarian and disaster aid, many will turn for help to UN organisations to provide the first relief activities that are beyond the relief capacity of national authorities alone. This requires not only appropriate means and funding, but also organisational strength, coordination, diplomacy and commitment to help in what are often very difficult circumstances. A key figure who deals with this challenge on a daily basis at global level is Ramesh Rajasingham, the UN’s Acting Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator in the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) since March 2020. Having worked in the UN on humanitarian affairs for over 25 years, he explains what it takes to provide tailor-made assistance on the ground, with a focus on coordination, deployment capacity, accountability, preparedness, and drivers of need in relation to humanitarian aid.

By Gaston Moonen

Coordination is key

You have been involved in crisis management throughout your career, for example in Syria and as part of global responses to health crises. In your view, what is the core element for ensuring successful crisis management?

Ramesh Rajasingham: It is fundamental to realise that no organisation can provide a comprehensive crisis response alone. A successful humanitarian operation requires many people working together and bringing their various sources of expertise, resources and strengths to the table. Coordination is key to making the collective international effort work, under the leadership of national authorities. OCHA’s coordinating role is mandated through a 1991 UN General Assembly resolution. I often visualise this role as being the conductor of an orchestra: everyone may be playing their instruments perfectly, but, without coordination, the outcome will be less than ideal. Coordination spans the entire response cycle, from joint needs assessments to ground operations, raising financing, evaluating outcomes, as well as sharing information and data, and coordinating advocacy messages aimed at decision-makers and global audiences.

The operation on the ground is where we face the make-or-break test of the response. This life-saving work is at the heart of what we do. It is organised so that each sector — e.g. food assistance, civilian protection, education, nutrition, or health — is led by a designated international agency, but our work would be impossible without national non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Convening everyone around a joint strategy is essential for success.

Maniche, Sud Department, Haiti, 24 August 2021 — Ramesh Rajasingham talks to Marie Rose, mother of four children, who lost her youngest, just two months old, to the earthquake. Source: UN OCHA/Matteo Minasi.

UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) teams can deploy anywhere in the world at short notice (12–48 hours). They are provided free of charge to the disaster-affected country, and deploy at the request of the United Nations Resident or Humanitarian Coordinator and/or the affected government. Could you provide some insight into the structure and set-up of these teams?

Ramesh Rajasingham: Following a government’s request for assistance — or its acceptance of the UN’s offer of support — OCHA alerts a roster of more than 300 UNDAC (United Nation Disaster Assessment and Coordination) members around the world. The members are experienced disaster managers and humanitarian experts working for national organisations, UN organisations, or NGOs. UNDAC members respond to the alert, and OCHA assembles a team based on the initial mission objectives, assessing, for example, areas of support, language capabilities, and country context. The team then deploys immediately to the affected country.

Teams are often led by OCHA staff, but they always include a mix of international UN staff and national UNDAC members. Teams are self-sufficient, and can operate immediately to support the coordination of international assistance. The UNDAC members are provided with all necessary personal and team equipment such as communications equipment, food and accommodation. Teams focus on where to add value to the response in the immediate life-saving phase of the emergency. They can fill capacity gaps, for instance in coordinating internal response teams and incoming relief items, coordinating logistics, and information management.

OCHA has several work streams including coordination, humanitarian financing, policy and advocacy. It is often called to crisis situations to coordinate life-saving aid to affected people. What is the key challenge for humanitarian aid from a global perspective, and to what extent can you and OCHA allocate time and efforts that relate to long-term mitigation instead of short-term firefighting?

Ramesh Rajasingham: OCHA’s mandate is to coordinate immediate, life-saving assistance to people affected by armed conflict, natural disasters and other crises. Today, some 235 million men, women and children around the world require some form of humanitarian assistance to meet their basic needs for food, water, shelter, health care, education and protection. For OCHA and the humanitarian system more broadly, the biggest challenges are protracted armed conflicts and the increased scale and impact of disasters, including climate-related disasters. These crises have driven an enormous increase in humanitarian needs in recent decades.

The humanitarian response has also grown exponentially. OCHA works with governments, UN specialised agencies and NGOs to develop humanitarian response plans that coordinate the efforts and resources of thousands of partners globally. In 2020, our collective efforts delivered humanitarian aid to nearly 100 million people, most of them women and children.

Ramesh Rajasingham visited Burkina Faso on 8–11 February 2021. Source: UNOCHA/Naomi Frerotte.

OCHA also works with partners to strengthen early warning systems and preparedness. Related to this is anticipatory action, in which we aim to act before a disaster strikes in order to minimise its impact and help people recover more quickly. Much work is done with development actors on longer-term mitigation and resilience, and we advocate for the need to address the underlying drivers of crises such as climate change. This requires a global and coordinated effort by everyone.

The UN and the EU share common values and goals

Disasters in areas where the population is already under pressure, perhaps because of failing government structures (e.g. in Haiti), poverty or substantially changing geographical circumstances (e.g. due to climate change) have an even greater impact than disasters in wealthy nations, such as the recent floods in Western Europe. How does this affect how OCHA provides emergency assistance?

Ramesh Rajasingham: Most of OCHA’s work takes place in complex emergencies with overlapping and compounding factors. These include armed conflicts, recurrent natural disasters, and entrenched poverty. This increases people’s vulnerabilities, and places strain on local systems and capacities. Currently, we work in almost 60 countries and territories to provide protection and assistance to millions of people.

Everywhere we work, we are guided by the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence. With other UN agencies and NGO partners, we have also developed systems, tools and resources that we use around the world. For example, in all large-scale crises, OCHA sets up coordination structures, and leads the publication of a joint Humanitarian Response Plan with information about the situation on the ground and the planned humanitarian operation, including what funding is needed and how it is used. Thankfully, not many countries in Europe need our support today.

In the context of the UN’s emergency preparedness measures, response and relief actions, a comprehensive cooperation partnership exists between the EU and the UN. What is so specific about this cooperation? What are the limitations, and where do you see opportunities for further participation? Also, how substantial is the EU’s aid in helping the UN carry out its humanitarian aid work?

Ramesh Rajasingham: The EU is a long-standing supporter of the UN across the multilateral aid agenda, including humanitarian aid. We share common values such as solidarity with people affected by crises, and respect for universal human rights. We also share a common goal of ensuring that the most affected people receive aid first. This is the foundation for our collaboration.

The UN, including OCHA, enjoys a strong partnership with the EU on advocacy and policy formulation on key humanitarian issues, such as respect for international humanitarian law and the protection of civilians. We also focus on many of the same emergencies, including Syria and the surrounding region, Yemen, and the Sahel. The EU’s support in highlighting crises in Afghanistan, Myanmar and Central America has been invaluable.

Killi camp, Idlib, October 2021. Winter in North West Syria. Source: UNOCHA.

The financial support from the EU is of vital importance. Over the last 10 years, the EU has provided more than US$26 billion to humanitarian organisations. EU institutions are consistently among the top five donors of humanitarian aid. We encourage all countries to provide humanitarian financing and direct it through multilateral channels. This is the most effective and efficient way to avoid duplication, fill gaps, and make the response more cost-efficient.

We would welcome seeing all EU Member States contribute in a way that is commensurate with their wealth. For countries that are less familiar with humanitarian action, a great place to start is the pooled funds that OCHA manages: the global Central Emergency Response Fund and the Country-Based Pooled Funds. These funds inject money into life-saving projects and programmes where they are most needed, and support a principled humanitarian response.

Working towards a ‘gold standard’ on accountability

An important focus point for the ECA is accountability, an issue that is not always a priority in an emergency. Are there specific provisions to ensure that corners are not cut regarding accountability in specific circumstances, an issue which may weaken donors’ trust in the long term?

Ramesh Rajasingham: Accountability is a fundamental value underpinning the humanitarian aid community. We strive never to compromise on this, even in the rush of an emergency. We must be accountable not only to the affected people we serve, but also to our donors and oversight bodies.

Accountability to affected people is the commitment by humanitarians in the UN system, the NGO community and the Red Cross family to deliver aid responsibly: to take account of, give account to and be held to account by the people we assist. Building on a renewed momentum and focus on this issue, several Resident and Humanitarian Coordinators convened this year to identify how to improve our ability to deliver system-wide accountability to people in need, and to agree on the ‘gold standard’ that the system should work towards. Practical steps are being taken to make progress on this.

In terms of accountability to donors and oversight bodies, all UN entities are subject to audits and evaluations by, for example, the UN Board of Auditors, the Office of Internal Oversight Services, or the Joint Inspection Unit. These bodies also provide oversight of the humanitarian pooled funds we have in individual crisis-affected countries. Specific procedures are in place to address fraud and sexual exploitation and abuse, and we continue to strengthen accountability through improved monitoring and joint evaluations.

Where do you see opportunities for public auditors to add value to emergency aid situations and disaster preparedness? How can auditors support your work, and is there a specific topic in your area of responsibility where you would welcome the insights an external audit may bring?

Ramesh Rajasingham: OCHA is already supported by oversight structures mandated by the UN Secretary-General, the General Assembly and UN Member States, including EU Member States. The UN works under the Single Audit Principle. This means that only entities mandated by the General Assembly have the authority to audit its activities.

The UN Board of Auditors is an independent body that audits the UN and its funds and programmes. Its membership rotates, and often includes the national audit institution from an EU Member State. For example, Mr Kay Scheller, President of the German Federal Audit Office, is a current member.

The Internal Audit Division of the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) is responsible for independent internal audits designed to add value and improve OCHA’s operations. The Inspection and Evaluation Division of OIOS conducts programme evaluations, reviews every three years, as well as inspections of specific issues of high risk to OCHA. For specific response operations, we have Inter-Agency Humanitarian Evaluations, which are independent assessments of the collective results that have been achieved. In any given year, two to three evaluations are conducted. OCHA is also subject to external, donor-led evaluations, such as the Multilateral Organisation Performance Assessment Network, ECHO verifications and the Central Assurance Assessment. Reports from all audits, evaluations and assessments are publicly available.

We welcome all initiatives that strengthen and harmonise audits. This ensures public confidence in the proper use of taxpayers’ money, and helps avoid duplication and inefficiencies in administrative and management costs.

Undertaking specific disaster response preparedness missions

UNDAC also undertakes disaster response preparedness missions. Such missions evaluate national disaster preparedness and response capacity and plans upon specific requests from governments. To date, UNDAC has carried out 35 of these missions worldwide. What are the main issues during such missions, and is a specific methodology used?

Ramesh Rajasingham: These preparedness missions carry out an integrated assessment of the requesting country’s state of preparedness to respond to emergencies. The UNDAC team identifies strengths, weaknesses and gaps, and looks at the legal framework, structure and functioning of all levels of the national disaster response system. This provides the foundation for the development and implementation of plans to strengthen the response preparedness of governments and their partners.

The missions have helped to foster an enabling environment in most of the countries where they have been deployed. Their broad approach has helped create necessary space for the national disaster management authority, which did not previously exist. The missions have also helped to strengthen national capacity at the organisational level, and energised and brought new momentum to capacity development.

Do you see substantial differences in emergency preparedness measures, response and relief actions and policies between major countries and regions, such as the US, the EU, China, or India? Are there any best practice examples for providing humanitarian aid, and are there any recipient regions where you see a good learning curve in dealing with humanitarian assistance?

Ramesh Rajasingham: Almost all regions and countries have gone through difficult periods and experienced crises at some stage in their history. The key is to learn from such events, and put in place structures and systems that reduce the likelihood of crises, mitigate their impact, and ensure timely and effective responses if needed.

OCHA constantly tries to capture lessons learned and good practices that help us to provide faster, more efficient and adequate aid. We work with many institutions and governments, including the US, China, and the EU and its Member States, to tap into and make good use of their incredible experience, expertise and capacity. Our UNDAC teams are examples of this collaboration.

We also work with governments to set minimum international standards in disaster response, for example through the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group, which has over 90 countries and UN agencies as members. Right now, much focus is on the crucial area of enhancing the role of local responders in aid operations and strengthening the voices of people affected by crises.

Climate change as a main driver for humanitarian needs

How important is climate change in your work? And where do you see that significant progress can be made?

Ramesh Rajasingham: The frequency and intensity of climate- and weather-related events are rising at an alarming pace, and are already the main drivers of humanitarian need and vulnerability. Future climate hotspots will create humanitarian needs in new places. Our work will have to reflect that.

To combat the climate crisis, humanitarian action must more decidedly contribute to global adaptation efforts, contribute more to community resilience, and adjust its own focus and ways of working. But humanitarians cannot do this alone. The UN Secretary-General has called on developed countries to fulfil their commitment to mobilise US$100 billion for climate action in developing countries, and for donors to allocate 50 % of their funding in support of adaptation and resilience. We echo that call.

On a more practical level, OCHA operates a Joint Environment Unit together with the UN Environment Programme. This unit looks at the environmental impact of crises or specific environmental emergencies. It is one of the rapid response tools that OCHA can deploy in the immediate response phase. In its 27-year history, the unit has responded to over 220 requests for assistance.

The unit also manages the Environment and Humanitarian Action Network to minimise the environmental impact of humanitarian action and promote environmentally responsible humanitarian programming. The network has more than 240 members across the globe, and progress is being made to invest in greener options for humanitarian action.

This article was first published on the 3/2021 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.

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The ECA Journal features articles on a variety of current audit topics, the ECA’s role and work. It is available in electronic form below, and paper copies can be ordered online at the EU Bookshop.

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