Acting fast saves lives

Article, 21.12.2015

Source: AGEFI, 18.12.2015

When natural disasters occur and conflicts break out, funds are needed – and fast. There is no time for long decision-making processes and consultations with donor countries. The Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) provides the United Nations with a successful and innovative tool to provide immediate assistance and alleviate the impact.

You have to react fast to save lives following a disaster. Swiss Humanitarian Aid knows this. It is often a matter of just a few hours before it sends a rapid response team to countries hit by natural disasters. The Swiss response team was on its way to Nepal within 24 hours of the devastating magnitude of 7.8 earthquake that hit the country on 25 April 2015, which killed over 8,800 and injured more than 22,400 people. By 6 June 2015, a total of 70 experts from the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit (SHA) had put in more than 992 days of relief work there, providing expertise in coordination, construction, logistics and medicine.

Earthquake in Nepal – millions of dollars that saved lives

Three days after the initial quake, then UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos pledged USD 15 million to Nepal in life-saving aid. Just a few days later these emergency relief funds were paid out to various UN agencies operating in the crisis region. In this initial phase, priority was given to the protection of women and children, water, food and medical supplies and shelter for those affected, and airlifts to inaccessible areas. The rapid response measures taken in this situation relate to crisis management processes and so form part of integrated risk management.

Where did this multi-million-dollar funding injection for life-saving aid come from so quickly? How were such short decision-making processes possible in an organisation with an administrative apparatus on the scale of the United Nations? The entity that made it possible was the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), an international emergency relief fund that was established in 1991 by the UN General Assembly and then expanded in 2005 to an annual target value of USD 450 million. On 17 December 2015, the reformed CERF put in place in 2005 celebrates its 10th anniversary. UN member states providing a major share of CERF's capital include the United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands. These contributions to the fund are made on a voluntary basis. Further donations come from charities, foundations, companies and individuals. Swiss Humanitarian Aid also makes an annual contribution to the fund. This mechanism works because CERF is specifically designed to release financial resources quickly and efficiently in case of sudden natural disasters (earthquakes, flooding, landslides, tsunamis, etc.) and neglected humanitarian crises. It is a model for how international solidarity can work in practice. The focus is on the immediate requirements of the victims and it removes the need for countries in the media spotlight to get bogged down trying to answer questions regarding who gets what, for what reasons and how fast. The head of the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, has the final say on the use of these resources. The fund is administered by newly appointed UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O'Brien and a secretariat, which supports him in these duties. And finally there is the independent, 18-strong Advisory Group, which meets twice a year and issues advice to the CERF management. I have had the privilege of being a member of this body since August 2014 and of leading it since October 2015.

CERF has very much proven its worth in recent years, and if it did not exist, it would have to be invented as a matter of urgency. In the broadest sense it can even be compared with the European Stability Mechanism. While bilateral loans are used to shore up the euro, whereas in the case of CERF the money comes from a support fund with no requirement to repay it, both funds aim to be able to respond quickly and efficiently when needed. They could both be seen as coping mechanisms until other aid measures take effect or until those affected regain the ability to stand on their own feet. Indeed, given the scale of the current humanitarian crises, it would be irresponsible for the international community to try to cope without a safety net like CERF to support those in need.

Risk management

However, simply viewing CERF as an insurance mechanism would be wrong: first, because it is difficult to understand, assess and plan for any individual exposure to risk caused by conflict, disasters, poverty or climate change; second, because the international community as a whole is spending insufficient financial resources on humanitarian crises despite its obligation to relieve human suffering. The funding just about covers half of the existing humanitarian needs, which have a global value of USD 19.5 billion.

Before individual exposure to risk can be covered by a collective body, it needs to be recognised, evaluated and analysed. Swiss Humanitarian Aid and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) to which it belongs are responsible for finding and adjusting the appropriate instruments and methods to manage risks. This way of working is in line with the international standard covering the integrated risk management process with its sub-steps for evaluating the context, namely risk identification, risk analysis, risk assessment and risk management. With the new Dispatch on Switzerland's International Cooperation in 2017–2020, we will take a key step towards the management of these risks.

If the worst comes to the worst and the risk planning, reduction and management measures fail, then CERF is there with its safety net as an additional international risk management tool. It is used specifically in cases where nobody was expecting a disaster or humanitarian crises have simply been neglected and so are massively underfunded. How, though, do we monitor how these funds are used and prevent abuses and corruption? The answer is that in the humanitarian sector, like in business, there are compliance management systems to ensure that laws and guidelines are abided by and as far as possible stop anybody breaking the rules.

One-off donation by Switzerland to CERF@10

CERF is one of the United Nations' flagship mechanisms. The fund's 10-year existence is proof of its success, as is its expansion to an annual target of USD 450 million in 2005, and the current demand of various exponents of the fund to double its size. The idea behind the establishment of CERF – to put humanitarian solidarity into practice in an international network – is probably also a reason for its success.

CERF observes the principles of solidarity, humanity and impartiality. It operates quickly, efficiently and discreetly and responds to the needs of people who are suffering. When time is of the essence to save lives and relieve suffering and the United Nations and its partners are ready at the scene to provide immediate assistance, it's no wonder people are reluctant to get bogged down in laborious procedures and lengthy processes. Human suffering has become too great to justify anything short of a worldwide support fund whose collective benefit is to provide quick, life-saving humanitarian aid.

Against this backdrop, the Swiss authorities participate in the CERF@10 tenth-anniversary event in New York on 17 December 2015, donating an additional CHF 3 million to the cause on this occasion. But what will CERF's position be like in 2025? Let us do our best to ensure that by its 20th anniversary, CERF's resources will not have needed to be doubled but will have been halved, as that would mean that certain risks arising from conflict, disasters, poverty and climate change have been reduced and the world is a better place than it is today.

Manuel Bessler

Delegate of the Federal Council for Humanitarian Aid and Head of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit (SHA)

CERF in a nutshell

1991: Establishment of the Central Emergency Revolving Fund (CERF) by the UN General Assembly (A/RES/46/182)

15 December 2005: Change of name to the Central Emergency Response Fund (and expansion of the annual target for the fund's capital to USD 450 million) adopted by the UN General Assembly (A/RES/60/124)

17 December 2015: CERF@10 tenth-anniversary event in New York (Switzerland among the participants)

Founding principle: quick, life-saving aid in the event of sudden disasters and neglected humanitarian crises

Capital (annual target): USD 450 million

Beneficiaries: people in need of humanitarian assistance, with a particular focus over the past 10 years on Sudan, DR Congo, Somalia, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Kenya, Chad, South Sudan, Yemen and Nigeria

Supervision: Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General

Administration of the fund: Stephen O’Brien, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator and Head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)

Head of the Secretariat: Lisa Doughten

Advisory Group: consists of 18 independent members from 18 countries (including Switzerland), appointed by the UN Secretary-General and led since October 2015 by Manuel Bessler, Delegate for Humanitarian Aid and Head of Swiss Humanitarian Aid (SHA)

Operating principles: needs-oriented, quick, efficient and discreet

Voluntary contributors: 123 UN member states and the Holy See and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, regional governments (e.g. Belgium's Flemish Region, Hyogo Prefecture in Japan, State of South Australia), the private sector, civil society and individuals

The 10 leading CERF contributors from 2006 to 2015 (representing 87% of the fund's capital): United Kingdom, Sweden, Norway, Netherlands, Canada, Spain, Germany, Republic of Ireland, Denmark, Australia

Swiss contribution in 2015: CHF 10 million (the regular annual contribution of CHF 7 million + a one-off anniversary donation of CHF 3 million)

Donations (including from individuals) can be made at