08/13/2014 10:25 am ET Updated Oct 13, 2014

Prioritizing Chaos: The Challenges Humanitarians Face When Responding to Crises

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE via Getty Images

When the world's humanitarian leaders gathered at the World Health Organization's headquarters in December 2010 the mood was somber. The previous year had witnessed large-scale natural disasters in Haiti and Pakistan, and the collective response of the major United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations had been chaotic and ineffective. The response to the January 2010 earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince had been especially problematic, and the Haitian people were angry and frustrated by the vast gap between resources committed and actual improvements in their lives.

The obvious conclusion was that business as usual for the loosely organized humanitarian system was not acceptable. Prodded by UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos, the leaders of the operational UN agencies and the NGO consortia -- including InterAction -- resolved to change the way they respond to large-scale crises. Four years later, as we approach World Humanitarian Day, positive effects of this resolve have been felt, especially in the response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, but we are still far from being the unified, effective humanitarian response system that millions of people affected by large-scale emergencies need and deserve.

At the core of the "transformative agenda," as the reform process came to be known, is a commitment in the case of the most severe emergencies to three mutually reinforcing actions: deploying one's best operational leaders within 72 hours of the emergency declaration; sending sufficient numbers of staff to enable joint planning and coordination for collective results; and enhancing accountability to the people affected by the crisis.

The trigger for these actions is the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), the global humanitarian coordination body established by the UN General Assembly, declaring a Level 3 emergency. Level 3 means that the crisis in question is a corporate emergency, mandating an all-hands-on-deck approach from the key UN and NGO operational agencies. The five criteria for declaring a Level 3 include: scale; urgency; complexity; capacity; and reputational risk.

Level 3 crises, and the action steps that they would trigger, were supposed to be rare events -- a sudden onset catastrophe on the order of magnitude of the Haiti earthquake. The protocols of the new approach were designed with this in mind. So when Typhoon Haiyan struck the Visayas region of the central Philippines on November 8, 2013, making landfall with the strongest winds ever recorded from a tropical storm, IASC member agencies were prepared to implement the new approach. With 14 million people affected and thousands of deaths (the agreed figure for deaths from Haiyan is 6,300), declaring the situation a Level 3 emergency was an easy decision, and expectations among the Philippines government and donors for an immediate, effective response were high.

The three-month assessment of the Typhoon Haiyan response was generally positive. The greatest impact of the transformative agenda was seen in the rapid deployment of leaders capable of managing large-scale emergency programs and of staff dedicated to coordinating multi-agency responses in specific areas of work. While not a formal part of the new approach, civil-military coordination was exemplary, with strong short-term emergency logistical support provided by military forces from the United States and the region, coordinated by civilians. International and national UN and NGO staff worked closely with Philippine government counterparts to ensure relatively even distribution of assistance despite the extent of the typhoon-affected areas.

The response in the Philippines faced challenges as well. From the standpoint of the reform process what stands out, ironically, is the over-deployment of coordination staff as opposed to those managing projects. Supplies were slow to reach isolated areas. As often happens in emergencies, funding support was spotty, with the critical shelter sector being among the least funded program areas compared to the massive needs.

If Typhoon Haiyan had been the only large-scale emergency in 2013, the humanitarian system would have been able to congratulate itself on instituting reforms that responded well to the serious deficiencies of the Haiti and Pakistan responses three years earlier. But the past 12 months have been grim ones, with enormous complex crises in Syria, the Central African Republic and South Sudan.

The sheer scale of these emergencies forced the IASC to declare them Level 3 emergencies, but was it truly possible for the humanitarian system to respond to four Level 3s simultaneously in keeping with the intent of short-term, all-in response that deals with large-scale and immediate emergency needs? The answer was clearly no -- it has not been possible to implement the response protocols for three or four Level 3 emergencies at one time. In effect, the agencies have had to triage, which undermines the effectiveness of the intended Level 3 responses.

The past 12 months have seen tremendous human suffering: 9.3 million Syrians need humanitarian assistance; conflict has brought displacement and misery to more than half of the Central African Republic's 4.6 million people; 1.1 million people are displaced from their homes inside South Sudan. These crises are challenging the humanitarian system in new ways. The transformative agenda reform process -- established in the wake of natural disasters in Haiti and Pakistan -- has been serious and significant. Its relevance, however, is most evident in response to large-scale natural disasters, especially in places with benign and capable governments, such as the Philippines. As Syria, the Central African Republic and South Sudan demonstrate, the reforms do not address the core challenges of providing assistance and assuring the protection of vulnerable people in the midst of unrelenting conflict. Over the next week, InterAction members will write about the challenges faced in responding to each of the current Level 3 emergencies: Syria, the Central African Republic and South Sudan.

This post is part of a five-part series produced by The Huffington Post, USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, and the NGO alliance InterAction to commemorate World Humanitarian Day. World Humanitarian Day (August 19) honors aid workers who have lost their lives helping the millions of people affected by disasters around the world. This past year has seen four large-scale "Level 3" humanitarian crises -- Syria, Central African Republic (CAR), South Sudan and the Philippines -- that are stretching the capacity of the humanitarian system. To learn more about these crises, visit here. For more information about USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, visit here; further information on InterAction can be found here. To follow the conversation on Twitter look for #WHD2014.