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Guest editorial

We succeed as a team –
or not at all

Twenty years ago, the United Nations created a new humanitarian system — where governments and aid agencies worldwide agreed to work together to deal with the rising number of crises.

Two decades on, that system has saved millions of lives and is more important than ever. But it is simply not working well enough — and in some cases is falling far short of what is needed. The humanitarian system has to evolve and it has to do so now.

Conflict, rising populations, rapid urbanization, environmental degradation, water shortages, increasing food prices and climate change are leading to larger, more severe and more complex emergencies than ever before.

Already this year, we face crises in the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, South Sudan, Sudan and Yemen — to mention just some. We will almost certainly face new emergencies from unexpected conflicts and natural disasters in the course of the year.

At the same time, humanitarian work is becoming more complex. Many more organizations, from more countries and more diverse backgrounds, are getting involved. And in an age of instant global communications, the quality of our response is under growing scrutiny, from both donors and the people we are there to help.

After the 2010 emergencies in Haiti and Pakistan, we were accused of failing as a system. While many people were helped, we fell short collectively. Many of us agreed with this assessment and decided we needed to fix it.

That is why in December 2011, members of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IAS C) — a group comprising the leaders of the major humanitarian agencies — agreed to a significant shift in the way we do our work. To make it better led, better coordinated and more accountable.

Our first decision was that at the onset of a major crisis, members of the IAS C will come together within 48 hours and decide on the best way to manage the crisis. The focus will be on supporting the leadership in-country. The team, headed by a humanitarian coordinator, will have the power to take decisions, which the rest of the system will abide by.

We agreed to improve the training available to our senior leaders and to do much more at headquarters to support their work. More resources, better equipped staff.

We agreed to bolster our strategic planning — focusing on collective results, with clear, streamlined roles in different sectors (clusters) and organizations responding to the crisis. And we agreed that under this system, the leadership team would be held accountable not just for their own agency’s performance, but for the entire system’s response.

These are significant changes. No longer will strong individual results be good enough. We succeed as a team, or not at all.

Putting this into practice will not be easy. It requires a change in mindset at all levels— and will lead to sensitivities and friction as we make this new system work. In a community as diverse as ours, we need to capitalize on our individual strengths and be clear about areas for improvement.

To make this work, the role of the ICRC and IFRC members will be crucial — and their opinions will profoundly influence the way we progress. The Red Cross and Red Crescent networks boast some of the most experienced and talented disaster responders in the world. I hope you will share your expertise and play an integral part in the new response mechanism.

No one expects this to be easy. It will involve some difficult decisions and, on occasion, making compromises. As a community, compromise does not come easily to us. The core principles, which underpin our work, will guide and shape what we do and how we do it.

In an increasingly complex world, we have to work together.

By Valerie Amos
Valerie Amos is under-secretary-general and emergency relief coordinator for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and is responsible for the oversight of all emergencies requiring UN humanitarian assistance. She also leads the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, a forum for coordination, policy and decisionmaking for UN and non-UN humanitarian partners.













In an age of instant global communications, the quality of our response is under growing scrutiny, from both donors
and the people we are there
to help.














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