OCHA’s Humanitarian Response in 2020  

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For the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 2020 was a year like no other. January saw it calling for access in Syria. In this country, families in Idleb fled air strikes and shelling, the Under-Secretary-General (USG) for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC), Mark Lowcock, called for access to get help to people caught up in the conflict.

In her final field mission as Assistant Secretary-General (ASG) for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy ERC, Ursula Mueller visited Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory. She called for sustained funding to alleviate the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

OCHA also highlighted the plight of thousands of Chadians living in the Central African Republic who were forced to flee back to Chad in 2013.

February: Sounding Alarm on Burkina Faso and Locusts

Burkina Faso had become one of the world’s fastest-growing displacement crises.

OCHA’s Director of Operations and Advocacy, Reena Ghelani, warned that “The humanitarian response in Burkina Faso is at a crossroads, and humanitarian actors have a short window of opportunity to … scale up the response.”

In the meantime, the worst desert locust outbreak in decades was under way in the Horn of Africa. In a joint op-ed, USG Lowcock and QU Dongyu, the Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, outlined their efforts to fight the outbreak. OCHA released $10 million from its Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) for a huge scale-up in aerial operations to deal with the locusts.

Cash-based programmes and Mine Action were some of the issues discussed at the sixth Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week in Geneva, which we helped to organise. The event involved more than 2,300 participants from 100 Member States and 450 organisations, including UN agencies, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), military and civil protection personnel, academia and the private sector.

Meanwhile, at a moment of transition for Sudan, CERF allocated $100 million to frontload time-critical life-saving humanitarian assistance.

March: Shielding countries from COVID-19

In the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the world was confronting the “biggest international challenge since the Second World War.”

CERF released $15 million to help fund developing countries’ efforts to fight the pandemic.

Within weeks, the virus had killed more than 16,000 people worldwide. The UN launched a $2 billion Global Humanitarian Response Plan to help millions of people in more than 50 vulnerable countries, coordinated by OCHA.

April: Pooled funds strengthen pandemic response

OCHA’s pooled funds – CERF and the Country-based Pooled Funds (CBPFs) – led the way in channelling resources to fight the pandemic. They had provided $164 million across 36 countries by April, helping humanitarians mobilize and reach people most in need.

CERF’s underfunded emergencies window allocated $225 million to support crisis response in 20 countries this year – the highest annual amount in the fund’s history.

OCHA and UN agencies and NGOs that work in the health sector established a multi-stakeholder Global Information Management, Assessment and Analysis Cell. It coordinates, collates, manages and analyses COVID-19-related data and information, and provides technical support and services to prioritised countries.

To help communicate complex information about the virus, OCHA released 29 pandemic-specific humanitarian icons, using visually universal language.

As the world battled the pandemic, we urged everyone to remember the world’s other humanitarian crises.

May: Strengthening vulnerable groups

With our partners, we underlined the critical importance of including and protecting vulnerable older people in the global pandemic response.

We took steps to ensure women’s and girls’ voices were heard and their needs addressed. CERF released $25 million to support women-led organizations that prevent and respond to gender-based violence in humanitarian settings.

Our partners also helped us to raise awareness of the ways to include people with disabilities in the COVID-19 response, and we highlighted innovative ways to address mental health issues.

When category 5 Cyclone Harold struck Vanuatu, the private sector and UN entities worked together to help affected people. The local network of the OCHA/United Nations Development Programme Connecting Business initiative (CBi) and the Vanuatu Business Resilience Council supported the private sector’s emergency efforts.

June: Fundraising for Yemen, Syria; benefits of being proactive

The response in Yemen, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, was crippled by a huge funding shortfall despite a pledging event in June. This led USG Lowcock to warn the Security Council that “The most urgent task in Yemen today is to prevent widespread famine.”

By mid-2020, Yemen was again experiencing alarming levels of food insecurity and acute malnutrition. OCHA highlighted the plight of the country’s displaced people with this interactive map depicting their journey to safety.

The Syria crisis approached 10 years — the length of the First and Second World Wars combined. Syrians inside the country and the region were confronted with new challenges.

The annual pledging event for the crisis facilitated by OCHA, raised $5.5 billion to support humanitarian, resilience and development activities in 2020. Another $2.2 billion for activities in 2021 and beyond was also confirmed.

USG Lowcock announced CERF would allocate up to $140 million to support anticipatory-action interventions over the next 18 months, starting with $15 million in Somalia.

In this article, he explained that it costs perhaps 50 times more to save a child who is already suffering from malnutrition as it does to intervene earlier.

July: Appealing for more to fund pandemic response, boosting local response

USG Lowcock released an update to the Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19, with an increased ask of $10.3 billion to fight the impact of the virus in low-income and fragile countries. He called on G20 nations to act now or face human tragedies more destructive than COVID-19’s direct health impacts.

To kick-start life-saving activities in response to the pandemic, CERF and the CBPFs allocated $162.7 million to international and national NGOs and Red Cross/Red Crescent national societies.

As the pandemic advanced in developing countries and among indigenous communities in Latin America, OCHA mobilized support to respond to needs in countries such as Colombia.

CBi brought together the private sector, UN entities, NGOs and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to strengthen Mexico’s response to COVID-19.

In an innovative approach to deal with severe flooding in Bangladesh, CERF released $5.2 million to help communities urgently prepare and protect themselves ahead of possible disaster.

August: Campaigning for real-life heroes

Many people grew up with stories of fictional heroes, from folktales to fantasy epics. For this year’s World Humanitarian Day, we brought the heroic stories of mostly local unsung humanitarian workers to life – with the very first responders often coming from the very communities they serve.

Earlier in August, OCHA disaster teams deployed to Beirut, Lebanon, after explosions ripped through its port. The teams worked with the OCHA Country Office day and night to support the Government in coordination and search-and-rescue operations. We also helped to address needs and prepare a funding appeal.

In response to an oil spill in Mauritius, OCHA worked with the International Maritime Organization to support the Government.

September: Highlighting impact of climate, conflict and COVID-19 on food security

The pandemic, conflict-induced food insecurity and climate change pushed countries including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, north-east Nigeria and the Sahel closer to famine.

USG Lowcock warned the Security Council about this risk. He called for scaled-up support for humanitarian operations and more steps to assist countries facing large-scale hunger.

As rainwater submerged a dozen countries from east Africa to the Sahel, we highlighted the deadly results of the intersection of climate change, chronic vulnerabilities, conflict and COVID-19.

October: Fundraising for Central Sahel

At a virtual conference on the Central Sahel, 24 donors pledged more than $1.7 billion to scale up life-saving humanitarian aid to millions of people in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

The high-level ministerial conference was co-hosted by Denmark, Germany, the European Union and the UN.

November: Supporting survivors of cyclones, hurricanes

We anticipated a rough hurricane-and-cyclone season, but it became a record-breaking hurricane season in Central America. OCHA organised rescue and assessment teams to reach people in remote areas, and facilitated a fundraising appeal for response efforts in Honduras.

We also organised an appeal in the Philippines to help vulnerable people affected by Super Typhoon Goni (local name Rolly).

As successive tropical cyclones hit Viet Nam, the country recorded 10 months’ worth of rain in less than a week. CERF allocated $3 million to help affected people.

As tensions escalated into conflict in northern Ethiopia, advocacy efforts were made at all levels for unimpeded access, protection of civilians, adherence to international humanitarian law and the safety of humanitarian staff.

OCHA’s annual Partner Survey seeks the views of our partners in the field. It showed that Information Management remains our most highly rated function, with an 80 per cent satisfaction rate. Overall, 75 per cent of respondents were satisfied with our work.

Due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, USG Lowcock conducted virtual missions to discuss needs with affected communities and local NGOs in Burkina Faso and South Sudan.

December: Appealing for vulnerable people in 2021

OCHA released the Global Humanitarian Overview for 2021, which aims to help 160 million of the most vulnerable people who face hunger, conflict, displacement, and the impacts of climate change and the pandemic. The response costs an estimated $35 billion.

Donors gave a record $17 billion in 2020 for collective humanitarian response. Data show that 70 per cent of people targeted for aid were reached, which is an increase compared to 2019.

At the annual CERF high-level pledging event, more than 50 donors made pledges totalling more than $370 million for 2021.

On International Volunteer Day, we highlighted the role of volunteers in the COVID-19 humanitarian response in Ukraine.

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