OCHA Mission

It was difficult enough for humanitarian agencies to provide aid to victims of natural disasters. Those difficulties were compounded when the needy lived in conflict zones. Especially problematic were so-called “complex emergencies” that arose in failed states and lawless territories where security was weak and government services unreliable. Humanitarian agencies could operate in areas like these only if the warring parties allowed it. While neutrality, impartiality and independence were core humanitarian principles, the agencies often found themselves embroiled in complex political calculations. Knowing when and how to deal with local political actors, especially armed insurgents, could mean the difference between staying to deliver aid or packing up supplies to go home.

Decades of hostilities and drought has caused great human suffering in Somalia. Forced migrations, malnutrition, famine, disease, and human rights abuses were entrenched humanitarian crises. Conditions were so desperate that the United Nations had been directing “emergency” operations in Somalia for 18 years.

In 2009, the UN team in Somalia comprised representatives from more than 20 aid and development programs, including such well-known players as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Food Program (WFP) and UNDP. These agencies worked in partnership with some 90 humanitarian NGOs, including most of the global ones like Save the Children and CARITAS International, as well as many local NGOs and Somali service providers who actually manned the relief convoys and delivered aid on the ground. The UN alone had targeted more than $850 million to humanitarian operations in Somalia for 2009, directing aid to 3.2 million people.

OCHA coordinates . The organization that coordinated disaster response among UN agencies, governments and NGOs was OCHA.The UN had created the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in 1998 to avoid duplication of aid and maximize resources. [2] OCHA was headed by a UN under-secretary general (who also carried the title of emergency relief coordinator: USG/ERC) responsible for overseeing all emergencies requiring UN assistance. By 2009, OCHA had six regional and 23 country offices worldwide and employed some 1,100 staff.

The ERC could appoint a Humanitarian Coordinator (HC) for any country affected by disaster or conflict. In most instances, the role was filled by the UN Resident Coordinator (who was also the UNDP Resident Representative). Every HC was supported by a local OCHA office. In 2008, USC/ERC John Holmes appointed Mark Bowden as HC for Somalia.

OCHA funding came from three sources: the UN core budget, member states’ voluntary contributions and private donations. Its 2009 budget was $227 million, with 70 percent devoted to salaries. As the UN’s primary humanitarian advocate, OCHA’s work was guided by the four principles of humanitarian engagement: impartiality, humanity, neutrality and independence. Its mandate was to monitor humanitarian crises and to rationalize aid delivery, ensuring that aid went where it was intended, met the humanitarian needs, and was evenly distributed in areas where the need was greatest.

OCHA itself provided no direct services—no food, no medicine, no clean drinking water. Instead, it provided organization, oversight, and direction. It was a kind of managerial “super-agency” with a broad mandate but little direct authority over its partners, depending instead on its unique resources—professional staff, local access, reliable information, and its own good reputation—to coordinate assistance. OCHA staff felt occasional frustration because, as OCHA staff member Bediako Buahene puts it, to be successful “you have to persuade, cajole, beg, plead, hope that [partners] want to coordinate.” [3] But they also relished the difference their work made on the ground.


Bediako Buahene

OCHA-Somalia . In Somalia, OCHA had taken on a variety of responsibilities. It negotiated with local authorities for access to Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps, monitored the condition of the refugees, checked that medical clinics were operational and adequately provisioned, hosted regular meetings of the resident NGOs, looked for gaps in their services, built relationships with local leaders, and ensured that human rights and legal protections were being observed. OCHA also coordinated the annual appeal for humanitarian funding from UN donor countries, raising money for both UN agencies and their partner NGOs. Altogether, OCHA’s 2009 Consolidated Appeal for Somalia totaled more than $918 million. [4]

Because of the ongoing hostilities in-country, OCHA-Somalia as of 2008 had its headquarters in Nairobi, together with other UN agencies serving Somalia. Remote operation of any humanitarian mission was always challenging, and OCHA deployed professional staff from Nairobi to Somalia when it could. [5] In 2008 and 2009, OCHA operated in as many as half a dozen locations in Somalia. OCHA-Somalia employed some 60 staff. Depending on security conditions, about five internationals operated in-country, along with an average of 25 local staff; the balance worked in Nairobi.  The OCHA-Somalia head of office in 2009 was Kiki Ghebo. Among other duties, OCHA staff acted as secretariat to Humanitarian Coordinator Bowden.

In Baidoa, Somalia’s third largest city, OCHA shared premises in the UN Common Compound (UNCC), which housed offices for some 40-50 UN Somali staff as well as accommodations and workspace for as many as eight resident international staff. In addition to OCHA, the compound contained offices for UNDP, UNICEF, WHO, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), and the UN Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS). UNPOS, which had earlier had a national staff officer in the compound, no longer had a presence there. The UN Mine Action Service (a landmine protection agency) had a compound nearby. The Common Compound, while compact, had the potential to house the most international personnel of any in Somalia.

For many years, the international staff at Baidoa lived in converted containers, two staff to each, with showers and other facilities outside the containers. In 2009, individual rooms with showers had just been completed. International staff rotated four weeks in-country, and one week out. That suited the staff, says Buahene: “There’s actually nothing else to do. So, you tend to work all day anyway and you live and sleep 10-15 meters away from your office.” International staff left the premises only in an armed convoy; the UN hired local security guards. The compound, with its high walls and guard towers, could feel like a jail.

Bediako Buahene describes conditions at the compound.


[2] It was preceded by the Department of Humanitarian Affairs, and before that by the Office of the United Nations Disaster Relief Coordinator.

[3] Lundberg interviews with Bediako Buahene, April 13, 2012 by telephone and April 23, 2012 in Nairobi. All further quotations from Buahene, unless otherwise attributed, are from these interviews. Buahene joined the OCHA protection unit—which oversaw the legal rights of aid recipients==in February 2008.

[4] United Nations, OCHA, 2009 Consolidated Appeal, Somalia Case Statement, Table II. OCHA later revised the need downward to $849 million; OCHA, “Mid-Year Review of the Consolidated Appeal for Somalia 2009,” Summer 2009. See: http://www.unocha.org/cap/appeals/mid-year-review-consolidated-appeal-somalia-2009 .

[5] Abby Stoddard, Adele Harmer and Jean S. Renouf, Once Removed: Lessons and Challenges of Remote Management of Humanitarian Operations in Insecure Areas, report issued by Humanitarian Outcomes, February 25, 2010.