The UN’s 2005 reform of humanitarian coordination

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In 2005, Kofi Annan, then Secretary General of the United Nations, undertook an administrative reform of humanitarian coordination that was both part of the wider ongoing reform of the United Nations and a response to the handling of emergency situations in Darfur and following the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. The reform strengthened the role of humanitarian coordinators, centralized funding with the creation of the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) and set up a system of clusters, i.e. groups for coordination and information-sharing, bringing actors working in the field together around specific sectors (food security, camp management, education, shelter, emergency telecommunications, health, logistics, nutrition, protection, and water, sanitation and hygiene). The process consolidated the role of pre-existing UN institutions (Emergency Relief Coordinator [ERC], Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs [ OCHA ], Inter-Agency Standing Committee [ IASC ]) while the UN’s own key role was underpinned through various mechanisms (such as the appointment of at least one UN lead manager for each cluster). The reform reinforced the role of the UN family in humanitarian action, combining technology advances in coordination practices with a more political understanding of relief activities. According to Philippe Ryfman, it reflected “an ambition to organize global humanitarian governance, with the United Nations as its linchpin.”

While UN steering continues, with marginal adjustments (Global Humanitarian Platform, emphasis on local actors, Transformative Agenda, Grand Bargain, etc.), the reform has drawn criticism beyond the usual complaints around inefficiency, non-observance of humanitarian principles, and the slow pace of bureaucratic reform. First of all, several players have highlighted adverse effects of hierarchization and reclassification it has induced (exclusion of actors distant from the capitals where most coordination efforts happen, and of those unfamiliar with the working language or the jargon of international organizations). Secondly, other significant humanitarian actors (such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Islamic NGOs, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation [OCI]) are implementing their own humanitarian policies largely beyond the scope of UN governance.

Humanitarian funding, 1999-2017

Source: United Nations, Financial Tracking Service - OCHA,

Comment: Since 2005, a reform of humanitarian coordination has organized global governance of humanitarian issues under the aegis of the United Nations (strengthening the role of coordinators, centralizing finances, and organizing clusters to integrate actors on the ground). The diagrams show the diversity of the funds committed, the increase in these (multiplied by three for UN agencies and by two for NGOs and the Red Cross), and the relative importance of actors (the UN represents triple the total of NGOs) as well as the inequalities between UN agencies (the World Food Program, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and UNICEF benefit from a large share of the funds).

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" The UN’s 2005 reform of humanitarian coordination " World Atlas of Global Issues, 2019, [online], accessed on Mar 15 2021, URL:

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