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WTF? A guide to disaster aid acronyms

Your guide to disaster alphabet soup: Updated October 2018

A group of workers in orange atop rubble.
On 30 September 2018 in Indonesia, Basarnas evacuates earthquake victims at the Balaroa National Park, West Palu, Central Sulawesi, after the earthquake and tsunami that struck Sulawesi on September 28. (Arimacs Wilander/UNICEF)

International disaster responders have a language all of their own. Things like this would make total sense: “UNDAC are on the ground, and linking with the HCT. Needs include CRI, AAP, WASH, and CMCoord, and pledges are updated in FTS. It can’t be long before an IA RTE and some kind of MIRA-style NA is underway, even while SAR should follow INSARAG guidelines – including K9s.”

First published during the response to the 2015 Nepal earthquakes, this article was updated following the earthquake and tsunami affecting Central Sulawesi in Indonesia.

Here’s your (TL;DR) guide to the serious, but clanking machinery of international relief acronymage:

AAP: Accountability to Affected Populations – Accountability has been a buzzword in aid for years now, and gaining in prominence as an issue. The improvement of two-way communication between aid agencies and their clients – or “beneficiaries” – is now often wrapped up in AAP.  Related terms include CwC – Communicating with Communities – and CDAC – Communicating with Disaster-Affected Communities.

AHA: This regional coordination body is providing support to the Indonesian government and its handling of international offers of help. It's an acronym wrapped in another acronym (is there a word for that?):  the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance. Oh, it's also connected to the ASEAN Committee on Disaster Management (ACDM).

BNPB: Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Bencana – the national disaster management authority of Indonesia.

CMCoord: Civil-Military Coordination. Aka CIMIC or CIVMIL. The often strained relationship between aid agencies and militaries has its own specialist roles and policies. (h/t Oliver Lacey-Hall)

CRI: Core Relief Item – this is a new entry – it's a catch-all term for tarpaulins, buckets, cooking pots, and all manner of items distributed after a disaster. The term CRI looks set to take over from the awkward term, NFI (see below).

FTS: The UN’s Financial Tracking Service. Updated in real time, it tracks pledges and actual contributions made towards humanitarian response around the world.

GDACS: Global Disaster Alerting Coordination System – a web-based kitchen sink of semi-automated information tools, maps, and resources used by disaster responders. GDACS hosts the VSOSOCC (see below).

HC: During an emergency or in a country prone to disasters, a Humanitarian Coordinator may be designated to coordinate both UN and non-UN international humanitarian action in liaison with government. In that case, the HC chairs an HCT (Humanitarian Country Team), comprising major international aid agencies as well as local aid groups and, most of the time, the host government. The HC is usually, but not always, the same person as the RC (UN Resident Coordinator). When the two hats are worn by one individual, as is the case now with Anita Nirody in Indonesia, he or she is known by the title RC/HC.


IA RTE: Inter-Agency Real-Time Evaluation. Mandated by the IASC (see below), IA RTEs are commissioned reports in the first few weeks and months of a new emergency to give quick feedback on gaps, access constraints, potential threats, and quality of the humanitarian response.

IASC: Inter-Agency Standing Committee. Grouping UN agencies, NGOs, the Red Cross, and other international organisations, the IASC is a forum for humanitarian responders to develop policies, agree on a clear division of responsibility for the various aspects of humanitarian assistance and identify gaps in response. Weaknesses in the humanitarian system exposed by disasters in Pakistan and Haiti led to a process of IASC reform, called the "Transformative Agenda" – TA. (Those who work on the TA are the STAIT – The Senior Transformative Agenda Implementation Team). Oh, wait, that’s now become the P2P – the Peer to Peer Support Team – thanks @ICVARefugee for that one.


INSARAG: International Search and Rescue Advisory Group. Under a UN umbrella, this network of more than 80 countries and organisations establishes minimum standards for search and rescue and a methodology for international coordination in earthquake response.

K9: Canine. Sniffer dogs used by USARs and ISARs.


L3: Level 3 emergency. This is the IASC classification for the most severe, large-scale humanitarian crises. The classification should activate a faster mobilisation of human and financial resources, and is based on five criteria: scale, complexity, urgency, capacity, and reputational risk.

MIRA: Multi-Cluster Initial Rapid Assessment. Developed by the IASC to identify strategic humanitarian priorities during the first weeks following an emergency, carried out by a team of emergency specialists from various sectors. MIRA is a flavour of NA – Needs Assessment.

NFI: Non-food items. The category is a catch-all for non-medical supplies including mattresses, household items, hygiene kits, tents, buckets, tarpaulins and so on. Term heading out of fashion – see CRI above.

OSOCC:  On-Site Operations Coordination Centre. Developed by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to assist countries in coordinating international search-and-rescue efforts following an earthquake. Its private online workspace is called the Virtual OSOCC (VOSOCC). On the ground it has one or more BOOs - Bases of Operation.

RC/RC: Red Cross/Red Crescent – National societies of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement can choose to use a cross, crescent, or a “crystal” emblem. To acknowledge the multi-faith implications and not mix things up with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC, that’s another story), disaster texts will often use RC/RC to refer to all the national  movements’ members. 

SASOP: Standard Operating Procedure for Regional Standby Arrangements and Coordination of Joint Disaster Relief and Emergency Response Operations – a term coined by ASEAN and a process that is now being used to filter offers of help.


UNDAC: United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination. UNDAC teams are deploying to Indonesia to help the UN and government during the first phase of the response. UNDAC (its new handbook has just been published) also assists in the coordination of incoming international relief.


USAR: Urban Search And Rescue. When search and rescue teams are deployed internationally, they may be called ISARs. They often are combined with FMTs – Foreign Medical Teams or EMTs – Emergency Medical Teams.


WASH: WAter, Sanitation and Hygiene. All of which are often lacking in the aftermath of a disaster and can lead to the spread of disease.



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