NGOs want stronger UN humanitarian coordination

A consortium of 31 NGOs working in Afghanistan have expressed their "deep concern" over the ability of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to carry out its mission in the country because of low staffing levels.

"Basic coordination, planning and information-management requirements exceed OCHA's capacity, especially in the regional offices," said a letter from the NGO and Humanitarian Reform Project (NHRP) to John Holmes, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator and head of OCHA, on 24 June.

"As the humanitarian needs in Afghanistan are at a critical stage, we call on you to urgently redouble recruitment efforts and investigate secondment options to strengthen OCHA Afghanistan's effectiveness in facilitating independent and principled humanitarian coordination, outreach and response."

The NHRP was established in September 2008 as a three-year project to increase the effective engagement of international, national and local NGOs in humanitarian reform.

The membership of NHRP includes ActionAid, an anti-poverty agency; CARE International UK; the Catholic Agency For Overseas Development (CAFOD); the International Rescue Committee, a relief agency working in conflict areas; the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), which works with refugees; Oxfam, and Save the Children UK.

The NGOs have urged OCHA to strengthen and protect humanitarian space; ensure that humanitarian coordination is proactive, accountable, inclusive and appropriate to improve effectiveness of the response; and to prioritize strengthening OCHA's information management capacity.

OCHA response

Holmes accepted the criticism "in the spirit in which it is intended" in an interview on 30 June in New York, and recognized that there were staffing problems in Afghanistan, largely because of worsening security in the country and slow bureaucratic procedures.

He said new international recruits were due to arrive in mid-July, and all OCHA's regional offices would be staffed at the right levels in the next two to three weeks.

"We still have some way to go and, frankly, it's not easy for us - as for anyone else - to recruit for Afghanistan, for obvious reasons of security and difficulty of operating."

He added: "If we are going to do a lot more, clearly the donors have got to come forward with the resources."

Holmes did not accept NHRP's criticism that OCHA was too closely identified with the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), and whose political mandate it said was at "odds with principled humanitarian action based on neutrality, impartiality and independence".

Afghanistan was a "frustrating place for the humanitarian community" to work because large parts of the country were inaccessible, and military and civilian roles were "so hopelessly entwined". But, "Clearly, there are some issues if they [NGOs] have written to me in this way," Holmes commented.

"We have to take those concerns seriously, and I will be taking them seriously, and sending a very considered response to them," he said. "But I think they may reflect some of the frustrations about the situation in general more than just about what we are doing."