Project Management II. Of prolonged emergencies and temporary endavors.

A Complex Emergency is defined as:

a) a humanitarian crisis which occurs in a country, region, or society where there is a total or considerable breakdown of authority resulting from civil conflict and/or foreign aggression;

b) a humanitarian crisis which requires an international response which goes beyond the mandate or capacity of any single agency;

c) a humanitarian crisis where the IASC assesses that it requires intensive and extensive political and management coordination. (Inter-Agency Standing Committee Working Group, Definition of Complex Emergencies, 1994)

Such “complex emergencies” are typically characterized by:

  • extensive violence and loss of life
  • displacements of populations
  • widespread damage to societies and economies
  • the need for large-scale, multi-faceted humanitarian assistance
  • the hindrance or prevention of humanitarian assistance by political and military constraints
  • significant security risks for humanitarian relief workers in some areas.

(from ICRC website)

Complex emergencies are in fact, if not by definition, long and protracted. We are not talking about months, but about years, if not decades. There is a (wrong) figure that circulates widely, according to which the average time a refugee spends in a camp is 17 years: now, this stat is wrong, but yes, people running away from a complex emergency can be displaced for a long, long, long time.

In a situation of emergency, humanitarian agencies support state authorities (or in fact replace them when they are not willing to perform their mandate) in one or more of life-saving functions that state authorities are no longer able (or willing) to perform to a satisfactory level, like provision of shelter, health, food assistance, water and so forth. Such endeavour is framed according to a cycle with two rather different versions for sudden onset and protracted crises. Although there are similarities between the two, the protracted cycle allows for more flexibility and longer-term consultation and planning.


(Digression: as we have seen from the definition, complex emergencies are such when they are beyond the capacity of a single actor. It can hence be helpful to have a quick look on how humanitarian organizations work in multi-agencies responses. If you happen to be already familiar with the cluster approach, you can skip the next parapgraph.)

Since 2005, multi-agencies responses in emergencies (not necessarily complex emergencies) are implemented through the cluster approach. Clusters are groups of humanitarian organizations, both UN and non-UN, in each of the main sectors of humanitarian action, with defined responsibilities for coordination. The clusters are activated when

  1. Response and coordination gaps exist due to a sharp deterioration or significant change in the humanitarian situation
  2. Existing national response or coordination capacity is unable to meet needs in a manner that respects humanitarian principles

(side note: refugee responses are responsibility of UNHCR and follows a rather different mechanism, but the considerations I move later are mostly applicable also in that case – )

There are eleven clusters that can be activated: CCCM (Camp Management and Camp Coordination), Early Recovery, Education, Emergency Telecommunications, Food Security, Health, Logistics, Nutrition, Protection (with two “areas of responsibility: Child Protection and Gender Based Violence), Shelter, WASH (Water, Sanitation, Hygiene).

As I was mentioning in a previous post, the “implementation and delivery” part (the external band on the cycle graph) by emergency relief organizations funded by major donors is framed in form of projects. Organizations receives funds to deliver a set of deliverables in a defined amount of time, following some variations of an industry standard called logical framework approach.

This specific management framework, together with the timespan of the funding, presents some significant challenges in prolongued emergencies.

As an example, does providing health services to a population for a few years sounds like “a temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service or result”? If your answer is “no”, so is mine. You are not providing a deliverable once and for all, rather than a set of deliverables for a potentially undefined amount of time.

Still, humanitarian financing is in fact provided, most of the times, in form of grants to implement projects with a timespan of usually 12 months (and quite often, 6).

I think it is quite clear how the orthogonality between the situation on the ground and the timespan you are forced to plan and work with doesn’t facilitate the work. Let’s mention a few examples.

Start thinking about the logistical challenges: for example, in terms of stock management, having to buy and then consume anything you have bought within a determined timespan, without the opportunity to build up stock, makes for a very inefficient system.

Name the financial challenges. Needless to say, normally donors don’t like overspending, but even less so underspending, since it shows that your organization is not doing a very good job at planning beforehand. Example: you need a tool A, and you have budgeted to buy this tool A from a company B. After a few months a company C launches to the market a tool A with same specifications at a fraction of a cost. You might prefer in any case to buy it from company B, as it might deeply affect your budget (and yes, I had this kind of surreal conversations). In fact budget revisions are possible: but they are a lengthy process, time consuming, that might force you to postpone that same activity that in any case you need to complete within those 12 months. You might always ask for a no-cost extension, but again is a lengthy process, that will probably be seen with contempt, and you know what? at the end of the day let’s buy from company B and cut this short.

In terms of programming, consider that a country entangled in a complex emergency is not, really, a particularly stable place where you can predict what will happen in the following months. If you had a look at how the logframe matrix works, you have seen that there is a last column in the matrix named “assumptions”, namely, conditions outside control that should be in place for the whole enterprise to succeed. It is not uncommon, in a complex emergency, to see an assumption like “the political situation remains stable”, which is, well, let’s say an optimistic one. Volatility is the norm, not the exception, and hence expecting to implement a project without significant disruptions is at best an exercise of wishful thinking.

Sure enough, there are project components in emergency relief work in complex emergencies. Setting up a water network is a project (while running it is not). Shelter upgrade is a project (shelter maintenance is not). A relocation, like those I talked about here and here, are of course projects. Setting up a protection network and train its members is a project (providing support to survivors of GBV on a regular basis is not); in camp management, identifying and creating a network to disseminate and collect information, is a project (running it, is not).

To sum up: humanitarian aid in complex emergencies is delivered in form of projects funded for a timespan of usually 12 months. This, despite being much of such a work operational and routine in nature, rather than a specific set of operations designed to accomplish a singular goal; despite the fact that 12 months is no realistic timeline in a complex emergency, and despite the fact that many factors influencing the outcome of the endeavour are out of the direct control of the parts involved.

Any ideal system should allow for more flexibility, take into account the routine components of the enterprise, and have a more realistic timeframe. All of this, trying to maintain to a minimum wastage of resources.

Will the system get there? The problem is well known, especially in terms of the short-sightedness of funding on a yearly basis, and in the last few years there has been some improvement with regard to multi-year funding (see for example the resources available on the OECD website). At the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, many donors committed to shift from annual to multi-year humanitarian funding. Still, political constraints force the majority of donors to have funding cycles of 12–18 months.

There have been improvements in the past years, although any further development will take a long time, especially for it to be perceived at field level. But the sooner it happens, the better in terms of effectiveness efficiency and quality of the humanitarian work.

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