UN emergency fund CERF and NGOs - "Progress made, progress to make"

A man transfers his belongings two days after Cyclone Sidr struck his home. Thousands of people along (Bagerhat district) southern Bangladesh's, November 2007, were killed, with many more injured.
A man transfers his belongings two days after Cyclone Sidr struck his home in Bagerhat district, southern Bangladesh. November 2007 (Tanvir Ahmed/IRIN)

In a January report, Save the Children UK - one of the more vocal non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on humanitarian financing reforms - criticised the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) for being “clumsy and inefficient” in its distribution of funds to NGOs.

However, by September this year their view had shifted. “I’m fairly optimistic that things are moving in the right direction,” said Amelia Bookstein, head of humanitarian policy at Save the Children UK (Save UK). The NGO had criticised the CERF for the “slow, bureaucratic, and wasteful” way money is distributed to NGOs, the major implementing partners of UN humanitarian programmes in the field.

A follow-up report in June by Save UK noted positive developments, mainly in training NGO and UN personnel in how to apply for the CERF funds and setting reporting requirements, but it added that its overall experience remained mixed, with speed and transparency still key problems.

In March, Oxfam issued what was widely considered to be a balanced review of CERF progress to date. The agency was “cautiously optimistic” about the ability of the CERF to improve the international response to crises. However, while there was evidence of some “real successes in speeding up the humanitarian response”, there were also “some very damaging delays”.

“The overarching question remains whether the CERF can become a rapid response mechanism,” Tanja Schuemer-Cross, Oxfam policy adviser and co-author of the March report, told IRIN. “The CERF Secretariat has made a strong effort to address issues we mentioned and to integrate NGOs in the process. This should be positively noted.”

But then she added: “The challenges still remain very much the same as outlined in the [March] paper. Nothing has changed since then except that the dialogue has increased, which is a good thing.”

Direct access call

The CERF was established under General Assembly Resolution 60/124 on 15 December 2005, and is administered by the Emergency Relief Coordinator, supported by a New York-based Secretariat within the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Funding comprises a loan facility of US$50 million and a grant facility, which it is hoped will reach up to $450 million next year.

NGOs have no direct access to the CERF funds, which are passed on to them at the country level by eight UN agencies and the International Organization for Migration. Many now see an improvement in the speed with which the Secretariat approves emergency applications for aid, with the bottleneck occurring with the agencies at the secondary distribution level.

They have called for various mechanisms to address this but direct access is precluded by the General Assembly resolution.

The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), a major CERF donor, is among the most upbeat in its assessment. “The CERF is well on track to achieving its expected results,” it stated in a June report. “Most respondents [to a CIDA survey of participants] were very positive about the concept of the CERF, its infrastructure and the grants to date. Respondents were positive about the extent to which the Fund had been funded, established and disbursed funds in its first year.”

Staffing levels

A frequent criticism was the shortage of staff - with only five people to oversee the disbursement of funds in the first year. However, now seven additional posts have been approved and recruitment is actively under way.

“It actually is an amazing achievement to be able to get to where they are, to have the kind of details on implementation, to be able to meet quite a lot of the original expectations,” said Catherine Bragg, a member of the 12-person CERF Advisory Group and a senior official at CIDA.

“I’ll give you some equivalency. [I am] responsible for roughly the same budget as the CERF, I have a staff of 30; they have been operating with a staff of five. At any given time I have about 100 projects open; they have 400 projects open.”

In fact, since its March 2006 launch, the CERF has committed US$571.2 million to over 709 projects in 53 countries globally. The bulk - some US$373.2 million - has gone to rapid onset crises or sudden deteriorations in crises in 51 countries, while the remainder - US$197.9 million - went to neglected crises in 26 countries.

Gregory Gottlieb, another Advisory Group member and a senior US Agency for International Development (USAID) official, agreed. “Basically I think New York is processing things a lot faster. It’s the next move in the money that may be the tricky part, how it gets moved from the UN agency to who is going to implement, how it gets down to the NGO partner. So that’s what they’ve got to work on. That is the bottleneck.

“The two-year study [on the CERF’s impact, due in 2008] will really have to get at that because that’s really where the rubber hits the road.”

Schuemer-Cross said accelerating the humanitarian response in rapid onset disasters “hasn’t often been the case, just because there are now so many hurdles to jump through before the money actually hits the ground. It’s not a statement regarding every single case; there have been cases when it was very, very quick.”

But, she added, “The second onward disbursement is the big problem; [it] is completely muddled, there’s no transparency in it.”

Advisory Group alternate member Ronald Waldman, a team leader at the Global Health Fellows Program, which advises USAID, also sees problems at UN agency level.

“I think that the potential to speed up funding from the CERF to the UN agencies can be relatively simple,” he told IRIN. “I think that working with those agencies to speed up their disbursement is perhaps going to be more problematic, dependent to a certain extent on the quality of agency representation in the individual countries.

“I can see that as a potential problem over which neither of these two actors, the CERF Secretariat and the NGOs, has tremendous leverage because it’s located in the offices of the individual agencies and the individual countries in which the disbursements are being made. So that’s where the most work needs to be done.”

Speeding up disbursement

One of the measures that is speeding up disbursement on the first track from the Secretariat to the agencies involves a Letter of Understanding that can be tweaked each time a new application is made by the UN country humanitarian coordinator, instead of repeating the time-consuming administrative process each time.

Other delays caused by badly formulated applications necessitating a time-consuming back and forth between the Secretariat and the field are being eliminated through training and practice, noted Rudolph Muller, head of the CERF Secretariat.

Besides, he stressed, once approval has been given, agencies such as the WFP or the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) do not need to have the money on hand immediately to begin relief operations. “They use their own emergency funds, they advance them, then it’s paid back, or they divert existing projects,” he said. “When I order a generator, I don’t have to pay up-front… I have to have the assurance that I get the money, but it’s not the question that I have to have the money in my account.”

Such steps are more problematic, however, when it comes to second-track disbursement to implementing partners. Larger NGOs such as Oxfam and Save the Children might have discretionary funds to offset delays, but smaller NGOs may not have that luxury.

Various mechanisms have been proposed to speed up this second track, such as pre-agreements with established NGOs that have a proven record in a region.

“If there was an agreement ahead of time that the UNDP [UN Development Programme] could transfer very quickly money to Save the Children in Indonesia in the case of floods or earthquakes; if that were in print ahead of time in all the details, the entity would just be pressing a button,” Bookstein said.

The way forward

Others see the cluster approach, which mobilises humanitarian agencies such as the UN, Red Cross-Red Crescent and NGOs to respond together in specific sectors or activities, as a means of accelerating the process.

“Everyone agrees that the NGOs should play a more active role in all respective programming and strategising the humanitarian response, and I think the cluster approach… is a typical case of engaging NGOs more actively,” said Park Soo Gil, a member of the Advisory Group and president of the UN Association of the Republic of Korea.

What is clear is that the Secretariat and the Advisory Group are well aware of the problems and complaints. The issue was again raised in the Advisory Board meeting in Geneva in October.

“The UN and the CERF Secretariat, donors and NGOs have made many attempts to address this issue. This work is ongoing and no ideal mechanism or solution has yet been found,” said Schuemer-Cross.

The Interim Independent Review of the CERF, released in September, noted the different perceptions that exist on the CERF. While UN agency representatives interviewed at the global level were satisfied with the CERF as a reliable and effective mechanism, NGO counterparts were “more guarded”, citing concerns over direct access and the lack of information on disbursements of CERF funds to NGOs.

Advisory Group Chair Marika Fahlen told a UN Economic and Social Council meeting in Geneva in July: “In recognition of the fact that the NGOs often account for the bulk of the humanitarian work on the ground, we believe that more should be done to explore alternative ways for NGOs and other non-UN partners to access CERF effectively.”

Asked to sum up, alternate Advisory Group member Tom Arnold, chief executive of Concern Worldwide, Ireland, said “Progress made, progress to make.”

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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