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date: 30 September 2023

Multilateral Crisis Responders: United Nations and Its Partners in Humanitarian Crisis Managementfree

Multilateral Crisis Responders: United Nations and Its Partners in Humanitarian Crisis Managementfree

  • Bok Gyo JeongBok Gyo JeongKean University
  •  and Jungwon YeoJungwon YeoUniversity of Central Florida


A humanitarian crisis is the main focus of the United Nations’ (the UN’s) primary organizations and its special agencies since its foundation in 1945. The UN refers to a humanitarian crisis as an event or series of events that represents a critical threat to the health, safety, security, or well-being of a community or other large group of people. The nature of a humanitarian crisis is complex, signifying the importance of the collaboration and coordination among the UN and its multilateral partner agencies in the crisis management process.

The UN takes the approach of “disaster risk management” that aims to enhance (a) resilience, the ability of people, societies, and countries to recover from negative shocks; and (b) prosperity, derived from successfully managing positive shocks that create opportunities for development. The UN’s emergency measures aim to ensure a transition from relief to rehabilitation and development.

The UN suggests a humanitarian coordination model. In particular, the UN established guiding principles for the international community’s response to humanitarian crises that were built based on the General Assembly resolution 46/182. The resolution provides the foundation for the establishment of the Office of the Emergency Relief Coordinator and the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, which facilitates interagency analysis and makes major decisions in humanitarian emergency responses. The resolution also identifies a range of other organizations and entities that could contribute to an international humanitarian crisis management system.

The UN’s multilateral partners in humanitarian crisis response include (a) the UN’s special agencies including the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Food Program (WFP), World Health Organization (WHO), International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA); (b) civil society and government of affected countries; (c) both national and international Red Cross and Red Crescent societies; (d) domestic and international nongovernmental organizations; and (e) international governmental organizations.


  • Policy, Administration, and Bureaucracy
  • Political Institutions
  • World Politics

The United Nations and Humanitarian Crisis Management

Humanitarian crisis is the main focus of the United Nations (the UN) and its affiliated agencies. The mission of the UN had been somewhat preordained to focus on peace and security from when it was initially created in the aftermath of World War II. The official goals of the United Nations are to maintain international peace and security, develop friendly relations among nations, and promote social progress, better living standards, and human rights.1

Humanitarian crisis refers to “an event or series of events that represents a critical threat to the health, safety, security or wellbeing of a community or other large group of people.”2 Humanitarian crises cover a broad range of events. They can be caused by multiple elements including natural disasters (e.g., earthquakes, floods, wildfires, droughts, or hurricanes), human-induced emergencies (e.g., armed conflict, train crashes, or industrial accidents), or a combination of both. The scale of a humanitarian crisis could be local, national, regional, or international. Durations of a humanitarian crisis could range from weeks, to months, to years, and to decades. The damage from these crises may be either short-term or long-term.

The characteristics of humanitarian crises are complex in nature. First, one type of humanitarian crisis may cause another type of crisis. The UN has paid increased attention to diverse vulnerable social conditions—for example, health, energy, security, water security, food security, urbanization, population growth, poverty, inequality, and climate change—and their interactions as emerging drivers of such crises. For example, natural disasters or human-induced crises (e.g., armed conflicts) may lead to a large-scale movement of people, creating a refugee crisis. Second, the crisis management involves multistage tasks, ranging from mitigation, prevention, protection, and response, to recovery. Third, the damage of humanitarian crises goes beyond one national boundary and capacity, rendering multilateral actors’ engagement necessary. As evidenced by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami crisis, 2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, the roles of multilateral agencies, for example, the UN and its partner agencies, become more crucial for large-scale humanitarian crisis management, especially in the case of countries lacking in national capacity and capability.

The significance of the UN and its multilateral partner agencies lies in the complex nature of the humanitarian crisis management process. The response to a particular humanitarian crisis often focuses on the specific event, region, and causes. Yet such a crisis cannot be resolved by just a single agency or country in most cases. Humanitarian crisis management involves actors and agencies of varying scales and levels, and often requires continuous collaboration among them. On a country level, local and central governments play the basic roles of responding to humanitarian crises. However, damages from a humanitarian crisis often go beyond the control of one government. It is even more so when a government system itself is a part of the crisis, as seen in armed conflicts. UN agencies and their partners can play significant roles in the situation when there is no clear national leadership in crisis responses or when the conflicts or splits between local actors cause challenges in humanitarian crisis management.

With respect to the growing significance of the UN and its multilateral partners in humanitarian crises worldwide, the following sections present the history, system, and function of the UN and its agencies, as representative of multilateral organizations operating in humanitarian crisis management.3 The section “United Nations and Its Partners in Crisis Response Practice” describes the roles of the UN and its affiliated/partner agencies through two cases of multilateral humanitarian crises management. The conclusion section underlines the importance and challenges of collective involvement and coordinated actions of UN agencies and their multilateral partners in preparation for and response to current and future humanitarian crises.

History and System of the United Nations

The United Nations is an international organization made up of its member states and founded in 1945 as a replacement for the League of Nations after World War II. This international organization was built on the commitments made by 51 countries to maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations, and promoting social progress, better living standards, and human rights. By its founding Charter, the UN was authorized to take actions in a global governance system involving 193 members states.4

The UN principal organizations include the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Secretariat, and the International Court of Justice (see Figure 1). The UN has main focus on peacekeeping, peacebuilding, conflict prevention, and humanitarian assistance. The overall UN system broadly comprises of specialized agencies (e.g., Food and Agriculture Organization, International Labour Organization, International Monetary Fund, International Maritime Organization, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, World Health Organization, World Bank Group), funds (e.g., United Nations Population Fund), programs (e.g., United Nations Development Program, United Nations Environment Program, World Food Program), committees (e.g., Counter-Terrorism Committee, Sanctions committees, Committee for Development Policy, Committee of Experts on Public Administration, Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations), commissions (e.g., Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, Population and Development, Social Development, Economic Commission for Africa, Economic Commission for Europe, Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia), and missions (e.g., peacekeeping operations and political missions).

The UN’s work covers a broad range of issues, from sustainable development, environment and refugee protection, disaster relief, counterterrorism, disarmament, and nonproliferation, to promoting democracy, human rights, gender equality and the advancement of women, governance, economic and social development, and international health. Among these focuses, several themes are connected to disaster and crisis management, such as refugee protection (as a part of humanitarian assistance), disaster relief, and international health (as seen in the global pandemic and emergency management).

Figure 1. The United Nations system.

The UN’s Humanitarian Crisis Management System, Approach, and Principles

The UN refers to humanitarian crisis as “an event or series of events that represents a critical threat to the health, safety, security, or well-being of a community or other large group of people usually over a wider area” (UNISDR, 2009).

Guiding principles for the international community’s response to humanitarian disasters were formed by the General Assembly resolution 46/182 (UN, 1991, A/RES/46/182, Section I, Article 1). Humanity, neutrality, and impartiality are the main principles in the UN’s humanitarian assistance. The UN’s humanitarian assistance work is performed on ground of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and national unity of states. The UN shared that the idea that management of natural disasters and emergencies is the affected state’s responsibility. The UN’s humanitarian assistance is only implemented with the consent of and appeal by the affected country. The initiation, organization, coordination, and implementation of humanitarian assistance are deemed as the primary role of affected states (A/RES/46/182, Section I, Article 4). The UN’s emergency measures aim to ensure transition from relief to rehabilitation and development (A/RES/46/182, Section I, Article 9).

The Office of the Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC) and the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) were also established up on this resolution. IASC consists of humanitarian agencies of the UN and outside of the UN. It facilitates interagency analysis and make major decisions in humanitarian emergency responses. IASC utilizes cluster system. The cluster system refers to a group of agencies in the UN system, nongovernmental organizations, and other international organizations responding to humanitarian crises. The 11 clusters include protection, camp coordination and management, water sanitation and hygiene, health, emergency shelter, nutrition, emergency telecommunications, logistics, early recovery, education, and agriculture. These clusters coordinate with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the UN agency in charge of the overall coordination for humanitarian response under ERC. These clusters process analyze data to assist decision making in the humanitarian crisis management.

The UN takes the approach of “disaster risk management,” going further than “disaster management.” The UN’s disaster risk management aims to enhance “a) resilience–the ability of people, societies and countries to recover from negative shocks, and b) prosperity–derived from successfully managing positive shocks that create opportunities for development” (UNISDR, 2009). The UN’s risk management approach is not limited to providing disaster relief services to the victims during post-disaster situations. It combines “assessing the risks of crises, reducing the probability and size of loses, preparing for them coping with their effects” (UNOCHA, 2015). UN agencies’ risk management involves various activities, including developing multihazard contingency plans, creating goods stockpiles and administering vaccinations. The UN adopted the disaster risk management framework, Sendai Framework, and its several global targets. International stakeholders across sectors and jurisdictions have been guided to global disaster risk reductions.

Multilateral Stakeholders in Humanitarian Crisis Response

The United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination system (UNDAC) includes various stakeholders surrounding crisis responses.

Civil society and government are one of the most significant stakeholders. First responders in crisis situations are from the community of the affected population and its governments. Before national or international level crisis responses are coordinated, people from the affected regions respond to the crisis as volunteers or other kinds of service providers. Those services and actions include search, rescue, shelter provision, food distribution, water supply, and so forth. Oftentimes, various types of community organizations or nonprofits such as faith-based organizations, unions, and local business associations become part of this community-level response.

UN agencies assume significant roles in humanitarian crisis response. Major agencies include the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Food Program (WFP), World Health Organization (WHO), International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). Detailed overview of UN agencies will be provided in the next sections.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, the world’s largest humanitarian network, is another significant stakeholder. The movement consists of near 100 million members, volunteers, and supporters. Institutionally, the three included are (a) 190 national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, (b) International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies (IFRC), and (c) International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) work in relief assistance to a great extent. International NGOs and domestic NGOs play their part in crisis management. NGOs are autonomous, relatively independent of governments, and financed by multiple sources (private individuals, groups, or governments). NGOs often partner with UN agencies in crisis responses. Roles of local and national NGOs are significant because they know the area, the culture and population. In many cases, these local NGOs work together with international NGOs and international organizations.

International governmental organizations (IGOs), created by sovereign states, are an important part of crisis management. Examples of IGOs include the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the European Union (EU), and Southern African Development Community (SADC). IGOs’ responses to emergencies vary. The EU and ASEAN deploy specialized teams to the emergency affected areas. On the other hand, the International Monetary Fund assist member countries with urgent balance of payments out of financing needs in the incidence of natural disasters or armed conflicts.

Humanitarian Coordination Model of the UN and Partnering Agencies

In the UN humanitarian coordination model, a range of organizations and entities collaborate, founded upon the international humanitarian system provided by the UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182. The Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC) coordinates and facilitates humanitarian assistance at the Under-Secretary-General (USG) level. The ERC is in charge of the oversight of humanitarian assistance by the United Nations. The ERC is the focal point for governmental, intergovernmental, and nongovernmental relief activities.

The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) serves as the core mechanism to coordinate the assistance of UN and non-UN humanitarian partners. The IASC, under the leadership of the ERC, formulates humanitarian policies, establishes a division of responsibility for the various aspects of humanitarian assistance, identifies gaps in response, and applies humanitarian principles in an effective manner. The IASC is the interagency forum that aims to coordinate and develop policies, and make decisions on humanitarian assistance in collaboration with the United Nations and Non-United Nations actors (UN, 1991, A/RES/46/182, Section VI, Article 33). The IASC is under the leadership of the Emergency Relief Coordinator. Primary objectives include (a) developing system-wide humanitarian policies; (b) allocating responsibilities among agencies in humanitarian programs; (c) developing a common ethical framework for all humanitarian activities; and (d) advocating common humanitarian principles to parties outside the IASC.

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), formerly Department of Humanitarian Affairs (DHA), provides institutional support to ERC. The OCHA is the main office for humanitarian relief and emergency responses in the UN Secretariat. OCHA’s main responsibility is to make humanitarian efforts by various actors coordinated in a unified platform. The main missions of OCHA are (a) coordinating humanitarian actions in response to disasters and emergencies in collaboration with multi-level actors, including national and international ones, (b) advocating the rights of needy people, (c) preparing for emergency situations, and (d) developing and implementing sustainable solutions.

Figure 2 shows the generic humanitarian coordination model. The main roles of the ERC to maintain an overview of all emergencies requiring humanitarian assistance and coordinate the humanitarian assistance of the UN system. The ERC, supported by OCHA, also serves as the focal point for governmental, intergovernmental, and nongovernmental relief activities. The main roles of OCHA is to ensure a coherent response to emergencies by bringing humanitarian actors together. OCHA has resources and tools to coordinate humanitarian actions on the global level. The United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) team is also considered OCHA’s resource pool. UNDAC teams deployed in sudden-onset disasters work toward shared mission and objectives as OCHA. The UNDAC also assists with the coordination of international relief at national level at the site of the emergency. The UNDAC is composed of national experts in emergencies, as well as OCHA personnel and regional and international organizations.

Figure 2. Generic humanitarian coordination model.

A UN Resident Coordinator (RC) is in charge of overall coordination of UN activities in majority of countries where the UN system is present. RC is in consultation with relevant UN agencies. The RC serves as the designated representative of the UN Secretary-General in respective countries. The RC leads the UN Country Team (UNCT), the interagency coordination and decision-making entity on the country level. The UNCT aims to make individual agencies collaborate to ensure tangible results aligned with the development agenda of the respective governments. Humanitarian Coordinator (HC) can be appointed in a country facing an emergency situation in scale or complexity. Although the functions of HC and RC are separate, these two positions are often integrated in one person—the RC/HC. The functions of HC usually phase out once the emergency situation ends. HC establishes and leads the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT), a strategic and operational decision-making and oversight forum. HCT is composed of representatives from the UN, international NGOs, and the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement.

The cluster approach was included as part of the 2005 Humanitarian Reform Agenda (see Figure 3). These agenda aim to enhance predictability, accountability, and partnership, including the cluster approach. A cluster refers to groups of humanitarian organizations, both UN and non-UN, collaborating on main sectors of humanitarian action. The main goal of this cluster approach is to strengthen system-wide preparedness, enhance technical capacity to respond, and provide leadership and accountability in the system. IASC designate Global Cluster Leads in sectors of humanitarian activity. Global Cluster Leads are responsible for coordination among cluster partners and preparedness within the cluster. The Global Cluster Leads provide the following kinds of support:

technical capacity;

trained experts to lead cluster coordination at the field level;

increased stockpiles;

technical tools, including information management tool;

common methods and formats for needs assessments, monitoring, and benchmarking; and

best practices and lessons from field tests.

The cluster approach also establishes a structure and process that facilitate partnerships with host governments, local authorities, and local civil society.

Figure 3. Humanitarian coordination structures and the cluster approach.

Humanitarian Crises and the UN’s Peacekeeping Operations

Extending the scope, the United Nations’ peacekeeping operations are understood as part of humanitarian crisis management. This section introduces the comprehensive nature of humanitarian crises associated with the UN system by incorporating peacekeeping and peacebuilding aspects. The UN Security Council and General Assembly mandated the deployment of peacekeeping and special political missions in the field as response to or in prevention of an armed conflict or war.

The Security Council in the UN system takes actions when the peace is threatened. The main functions of the Security Council are maintaining international peace and security in accordance with the principles and purposes of the United Nations. The UN Security Council investigates disputes and situations that lead to international friction and determine the existence of a threat to peace. The Security Council collaborates with regional and subregional organizations in maintaining international peace and security.

When a threat to peace is brought to its attention, the Security Council sets forth principles for the agreements by affiliated parties, undertakes investigation, dispatches a mission, appoints special envoys, and requests the Secretary-General to make efforts for a peaceful settlement of the dispute. When a dispute leads to hostilities, the Council may consider enforcing measures such as economic sanctions, arms embargoes, financial penalties, severance of diplomatic relations, blockade, or even collective military action.

UN Security Council Resolutions address the following issues or incidences: refugee crisis including Syria (Resolution 2254 [2015]), cross-border trafficking (Resolution 2195 [2014]), sexual violence in conflict (Resolution 2106 [2013]), response to terrorist attacks (Resolution 2309 [2016]), response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa (Resolution 1308 [2000]), response to the Ebola outbreak in Africa (Resolution 2177 [2014]), and impact of armed conflict on children (Resolution 2143 [2014]).

The Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) is at the center of the efforts for peacemaking and preventive diplomacy within the UN support structure. DPPA supports envoys of the Secretary-General deployed with tasks of peace talk or crisis diplomacy. DPPA also oversees field-based political missions of the UN in order to help resolve conflicts in specified nations and regions.5

Department of Peace Operations (DPO) runs 12 peacekeeping operations.6 UN peacekeeping operations are managed with the political and executive directions by the DPO. DPO maintains contact with the Security Council and channels with parties related to the conflict in the Security Council mandates implementation. Guidance and support on military, police, mine action, and other relevant issues to UN political and peacebuilding missions are also provided by DPO. DPO integrates civilian peacekeepers’ actions to address mandates by the UN Security Council and General Assembly with the intervention of troops and police from around the world.

DPPA includes Security Council Affairs Division, Electoral Assistance Division, Policy and Mediation Division, Division for Palestinian Rights, Decolonization Unit, and Peacebuilding Support Office. Within Peacebuilding Support Office, the following branches are included: Peacebuilding Commission Branch, Financing for Peacebuilding Branch, and Peacebuilding Strategy and Partnership Branch. DPO includes Department of State Integrated Operation Team, Integrated Assessment and Planning Unit, Gender Unit, Office of Military Affairs, Office of Rule of Law and Security Institutions, Policy, Evaluations, and Training Division, and Office of Peacekeeping Strategic Partnerships. DPPA and DPO share regional offices such as the Offices of Assistant Secretary-General for (a) Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific; (b) Africa; and (c) Europe, Central Asia, and the Americas (See Figure 4 for the organizational structure and relationship).

Figure 4. Departments of political and peacebuilding affairs and peace operations.

The United Nations’ Subsidiary Bodies in Humanitarian Crisis Management

UN subsidiary bodies and specialized agencies are responsible for addressing crises related to their specialized areas or subpopulation groups.7 The IASC members are at the center of humanitarian crisis management. The heads or their designated representatives of the UN operational agencies assume the roles as part of the IASC. Main agencies are the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), United Nations World Food Program (WFP), Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-HABITAT), and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). In accordance with the UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182, standing invitees include International Organization for Migration (IOM), International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC), the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of IDPs, and the World Bank. Additional invitees on a permanent basis include the NGO consortia ICVA, InterAction, and the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR).

International Organization for Migration (IOM)

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) focuses on growing operational challenges of migration management and upholding the human dignity and well-being of migrants. IOM aims to provide solutions to migration problems and humanitarian assistance to migrants in need (e.g., refugees or displaced persons). Main activities of IOM include nonemergency situation duties, promotion of international migration law, policy debate and guidance, protection of migrants’ rights, migration health, and the gender dimension of migration.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) protects refugees. Refugees refers to people who left their homes due to violence, conflicts, and persecution. UNHCR provides shelter, food, water, medical care, and other life-saving assistance to refugees. UNHCR sends relief supplies and deploys its trained staff as a response to emergency needs.

UNHCR’s another focused area is to empower refugees from a long-term livelihood and capability perspective. UNHCR’s objective is to improve access to learning for young refugees with support for teacher training and fund for education supplies. It also facilitates distance-learning programs for refugees.

UNHCR also supports marginalized women (e.g., unaccompanied women, single mothers, victims of gender violence, and pregnant, disabled, or older women) for their empowerment by providing them equal access to humanitarian assistance, and training them with new skills. UNHCR also provides special programs intended to increase young women’s enrollment in secondary education and building their leadership, life, and vocational skills.

United Nations Development Program (UNDP)

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP)’s Emergency Response Division operates with the task of humanitarian crisis management. UNDP utilizes its extensive country office network, including offices in all crisis countries, for UN-led crisis prevention and recovery activities. Partnerships with agencies and actors in and outside the UN system help UNPA carry out these tasks. These agencies and actors include the Department for Political Affairs, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and Bretton Woods institutions (UNDP, 2002).

UNDP’s projects focus on strengthening resilience after conflicts and disasters. UNDP’s projects tend to have long-term development objectives, such as helping countries prevent armed conflicts, alleviating risks and effects of disasters from natural hazards, and rebuilding the community. UNDP, in partnership with agencies in the network, copes with the underlying causes of violence, strengthens governance and the rule of law, assists livelihoods, and helps infrastructure rebuilding after disasters. The Thematic Trust Fund for Crisis Prevention and Recovery is run by UNDP with aims to effectively and timely respond to crisis prevention and recovery needs.

United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP)

UNEP prepares for and responds to emergency as part of its main tasks. UNEP addresses environmental causes and consequences of natural hazards and environmental emergencies. One of the main goals is to reduce the impacts of environmental emergencies on vulnerable communities. UNEP’s prevention work focuses on reducing ecosystem degradation and utilizing ecosystem services for risk and vulnerability reduction.

UNEP covers both natural and technological hazards, as well as environmental emergencies. UNEP’s ecosystem-based adaptation (EBA) is one of the key elements of UNEP’s emergency response measures. EBA measures aim to reduce vulnerability and enhance ecological and social resilience against climate change risks. UNEP made sustainable building guidelines. By these guidelines, UNEP implements the Sustainable Buildings and Climate Initiative. UNEP’s Disaster Risk Reduction tasks consist of early warning, risk and vulnerability assessments, disaster preparedness and contingency planning for environmental emergencies, disaster prevention, sustainable recovery, and adaptation to climate change-related risks.

The Joint UNEP/OCHA Environment Unit (JEU) is an example that shows UNEP’s partnership with other UN offices and agencies. Through international efforts coordination and emergency response partners mobilization, JEU copes with environmental impacts of disasters and accidents. More than 15 different networks and partnerships are mobilized, in addition to regional organizations and member states. This partnership encompasses varied sectors and groups including the private sector, industry groups, and academic/research institutions. The JEU contributes to enhancing the preparedness of communities, disaster responders, governments, and industries against the potential risks and impacts of environmental emergencies.

World Health Organization (WHO)

WHO assists member states with their emergency responses associated with public health issues. WHO is the Health Cluster Lead Agency in the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC). A Global Emergency Management Team (GEMT) was created by WHO to provide overall strategy and management guidance for WHO`s emergency response tasks. This team developed the Emergency Response Framework (ERF) and WHO’s roles and tasks in emergency responses are clarified in this framework.

Main duties of WHO related to emergency response are (a) to develop an evidence-based health sector response strategy, plan, and appeal; (b) to ensure adapted disease surveillance, early warning, and response systems; (c) to provide up-to-date information on the health situation and health sector performance; (d) to promote and monitor the application of standards and best practices; and (e) to provide relevant technical expertise to affected Member States and all relevant stakeholders.

United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF)

UNICEF assumes the responsibility of humanitarian and developmental assistance for children and mothers in developing countries. UNICEF was originally established as the main agency providing humanitarian assistance for children living in war-affected countries after World War II.

UNICEF’s humanitarian actions range from immediate relief responses to save lives, to coping measures for underlying causes of vulnerability to disasters, fragility, and conflict. Both from short-term emergency response and long-term remedy to address their underlying causes, UNICEF addresses multiple tasks including health, nutrition, hygiene, child protection, and education.

UNICEF’s emergency response focal point is the Office of Emergency Programs (EMOPS). EMOPS takes care of humanitarian assistance and policies. It also coordinates with external humanitarian partners both within and outside the UN system. Externally, it carries out interagency early warning and preparedness activities. Internally, it develops UNICEF’s own warning system, preparedness tools, and preparedness plans at country, regional, and headquarters.

UN Food and Agricultural Organization (UN FAO)

The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) addresses reducing people’s vulnerability to hazards by incorporating risk assessment, risk reduction, emergency response, and rehabilitation. FAO contributes to enhancing recovery and rehabilitation function with an emphasis on the resilience of livelihoods. FAO aims to facilitate transition from relief to development as a long-term goal.

FAO combines emergency response and post-disaster recovery strategies. This integrated approach is the key element in the FAO’s Regional Framework for Disaster Risk Management (DRM). The Regional DRM Framework was intended to reduce the impacts of hazards and enhance community resilience, by establishing food security and developing sustainable food and agriculture systems. The Regional DRM Program consists of FAO’s internal and external stakeholders/partners such as NGOs, UN agencies, research institutes, and ministries.

The World Food Program (WFP)

WFP’s Early Warning Systems are known for their comprehensiveness. These systems collect and analyze data on natural and human-caused hazards. WFP’s scientific partners conduct a Rapid Impact Analysis when disaster occurs. Satellite imageries and computerized modeling are used to demonstrate the situation on the ground and to predict change. In order to create a multilayered picture of the disaster situation, WFP’s mapping specialists add information.

The process of emergency responses are as follows. First, emergency assessment teams measure the demand for food assistance and make a delivery plan. Second, an emergency operation (EMOP) is created with a plan of action and a budget. Third, WFP launches an appeal to the international community for funds and food aid. Fourth, WFP’s logistics team transports food to emergency area and to the needy by partnering with governments and nongovernmental organizations.

United Nations and Its Partners in Crisis Response Practice

This section provides a set of vignettes characterizing the United Nations and its partners’ crisis relief and response operations during different crisis types in diverse geographical locations around the world. Crises in different geographical locations require different sets of multilateral responses given different contextual conditions, such as previous experience with disasters, cognition, culture, infrastructure, geology, and size and scope of crises (Shin et al., 2018; Yeo et al., 2018). Besides, emerging needs are different across crisis types. Hence, requiring different multilateral actors in response practice.

To capture both differences and similarities of multilateral organizations’ responses across varying types of disasters, a major natural disaster and a public health crisis were chosen for the vignettes. The first vignette features multilateral humanitarian responses to major natural disasters, the 2010 Haiti Earthquake. The following vignette highlights those during unprecedented global health crises, the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Based on publicly available information from websites and published reports and articles, each vignette provides brief background information of the countries and crisis, then illustrates how the United Nations and its partners respond to each crisis.

2010 Haiti Earthquake


Haiti is one of the least developed countries in the world ranking 170/187 countries in the 2020 Human Development Index (United Nations Development Program [UNDP], 2020). The Haiti government has been named as one of the most corrupted of all countries in the world (Kirsch et al., 2012). There has been continuing political and civil violence on the island (Kirsch et al., 2012). Financial, management, and leadership infrastructure has been lacking and basic resources, such as safe water and adequate sanitation, are limited severely (Bellerive, 2010). About 80% of the population living below the poverty line and the nation suffered from food insecurity (Bellerive, 2010; Rencoret et al., 2010). Given the weak government and fragile society, the country already relied heavily on foreign aid, especially by the United Nations even before the 2010 earthquake (Kirsch et al., 2012).

Disaster Information

An earthquake struck Haiti at 16:53 local time on January 12, 2010. It was recorded as the most devastating and costly natural disaster ever occurred in the country in many aspects. It was a mega-earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 Mw that occurred about 10 kilometers below the surface and accompanied multiple strong aftershocks. In addition, the epicenter is approximately 25 kilometers west of the nation’s capital, Port-au-Prince, the most densely populated area of the country. At the time of the earthquake, about 85% of the urban population was living in slum areas where no building code was enforced. About three million people were affected by the disaster, including over 250,000 deaths, 300,000 injuries, and more than 5 million homeless displaced internally (Haver, 2011; Kirsch et al., 2012). Major government buildings were destroyed and a third of civil servants were died from the earthquake, making the weak government even less capable of the response (Kirsch et al., 2012). The total damage was estimated about 8 billion US dollars (Cavallo et al., 2010).

Multilateral Response: Participants and Key Functions

Preceding to the disaster, many UN branches were operating in Haiti for multiple other missions.8 Therefore, as soon as the disaster occurred in the country, the UN Secretary-General appointed a UN Special Envoy for Haiti and initiated the direct relief operations on the ground with its humanitarian bodies such as World Food Program and the UN Children’s Fund. Instantly, the UN Central Emergency Relief Fund released 10 million funds to support field operations in the island, and the UN started operating airplane to shuttle staffs from the UN as well as other humanitarian agencies between the US and the country. Additionally, UN-business partnership gateway, a joint effort over 20 UN agencies, provided a single-entry point to allow the private sector to offer its resources and capacities to the victims.

While the UN has been leading the disaster operations, at first, the UN headquarter and the staff in Haiti were severely damaged by the earthquake. In addition, unexpected and unprecedented issues and problems emerged continuously due to the lacking infrastructure of the country. Therefore, response and recovery operations were managed immensely through coordination and collective action with many other international, faith-based, and regional based nonprofit/nongovernmental organizations, bi/multilateral donors, and individual volunteers.9 However, Table 1 presents key response activities of major UN agencies and its several bi/multilateral agencies per the objectives of this article.

Table 1. UN and Its Multilateral Partners, and Their Key Response Activities during the 2010 Haiti Earthquake


Key Response Activities


Identified vulnerable groups of population and relevant agenda; delivered emergency reproductive health kits; provided life-saving services to pregnant women; provided hygiene supplies to women and girls.


Supported children’s schooling and nutrition; provided shelters and protection for children; providing basic and hygiene supplies and temporary housing materials for affected civilians.

UN International Telecommunication Union

Deployed portable satellite uplinks and a base station to reestablish basic communication links; and dispatched experts with broadband facility.

UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti

Led humanitarian UN humanitarian response to the earthquake and deployed troops for search-and-rescue of civilians and UN staff members from debris.


Led the health response to the earthquake, including search and rescue as well as treating people with major injuries and trauma; provided clean water and sanitation to prevent other infectious diseases; helped to collect data on the health impacts of the earthquake; and deployed staff for casualty management, coordinated emergency health response, and management of dead bodies.


Deployed disaster assessment and coordination team to organize humanitarian assistance; co-led response operation with MINUSTAH; managed participating humanitarian agencies and military responses including food and medical help and search-and-rescue teams; and implemented UN humanitarian cluster system for disaster coordination.


Provided and distributed emergency food supplies for civilians and the humanitarian workers; mobilizing resources for long-term emergency operation; and coordinated recovery efforts.

Oxfam International

Raised emergency assist relief fund; provided rehabilitation efforts; and provided emergency supply kits to civilians and aid workers.

International Council of Voluntary Agencies

Established principles of coordination for NGOs and humanitarian agencies on the ground; set up NGO coordination support office.

US Agency for International Development

Worked with the local US embassy and operated within the UN response systems to assist Haitian government; coordinating assessment, technical support with US disaster assistance response team and US military; and deliver relief supplies; and funded/distributed temporary/emergency shelter materials (tents and tarps).

United States Military

Deployed 22,000 troops to assist overall response; oversaw coordination between Haitian government, UN, and all other military forces from 26 countries; and coordinated response operations between military forces and the humanitarian community.

World Bank

Issued emergency grants to support recovery and reconstruction.

World Vision International

Mobilized and distributed various relief to affected locals; coordinated relief; and arranged an aircraft to transport people and cargo.

2013–2016 Ebola Epidemic in West Africa


Among 16 countries in West Africa, Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia suffered the most from the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) epidemic during 2013–2016. The three countries remain among the world poorest countries, ranking 175th,178th, and 182nd of 187 countries respectively in the 2020 human development index (UNDP, 2020). The three countries have been through decades of economic downturns, largely affected by constant political instability, armed conflict, and religious contentions, which leads to chronic poverty and malnutrition of the people. Social infrastructure, including the healthcare system, was either nonexistent or malfunctioning. Just like Haiti, given the fragile government and social systems with problems prevailing, these countries already relied heavily on foreign aid and assistant by multi/bilateral donors, especially by the United Nations even before the epidemic outbreak.

Crisis Information

EVD is a rare but highly contagious, acute, and serious illness, often deadly (with 50% of average fatality rate) in both humans and nonhuman primates (World Health Organization [WHO], 2021). EVD can spread to people through direct contact with their body fluids or tissues of infected animals or people, or objects contaminated by the infected bodily fluids (US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 2021). Then, the virus gets into a person’s system through broken skin or any mucous membranes. The virus persists in certain immune-privileged sites in people, and hence can also be spread by the people who are recovered from the illness and have no observable symptoms. Given the characteristics, the most effective disease control strategy has been quarantine and shelter-in-place to avoid the infected.

Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) Outbreak in West Africa

The EVD epidemic in West African countries became the most complex and largest EVD outbreak in the history in terms of deaths and cases. The index case was reported in Guinea in December 2013. Due to the country’s weak surveillance systems and poor public health infrastructure and management, the disease could not be contained the within the country. Shortly after, in 2014, the EVD quickly spread to the other two neighboring countries, Sierra Leone and Liberia. The fast-spreading disease was interacting with crowded urban settings, mobilization around borders, and conflict between standard disease control protocol and cultural and traditional practices in the countries (Shin et al., 2018). On August 2014, WHO declared Public Health Emergency of International Concern status on West Africa given the potential risk of international spread of the disease. It took nearly 30 months for the continent to declare EVD-free, resulting in 11,308 death and 28,610 confirmed cases as well as socioeconomic disruptions in the three countries as of June 2016 (WHO, 2021).

Multilateral Response: Participants and Key Response Activities

The entire UN system and its partners have been committed to EVD response operations in the countries and made continuous efforts to achieve zero cases and for long term recovery (Shucksmith-Wesley, 2020).10 The response and the current disease-free status evidenced the immense value of international collective action across multiple organizations.

The international coordination was initiated by the UN Secretary-General’s appointment of a Special Envoy, whose main role was to provide strategic and policy direction for the international response to EVD, as well as an establishment of Global Ebola Response Coalition that included representative of the most affected countries, group of bilateral and multilateral donors, NGOs, and UN Agencies and Foundations, working collectively to provide strategic coordination for EVD response. The major roles of the Global Ebola Response Coalition included establishing agreements on the strategic priorities of the response; ensuring operational consistency based on standard protocols and against the strategy and principles; sharing the understanding of the priority needs in the EVD response; mobilizing and tracking the resources, surveillance, and reporting; and supporting communication between any stakeholders and the locals. Yet the membership and participation were voluntary without formal membership or due. Still, thousands of bi/multilateral organizations joined the coalition and worked collectively to stop the disease in these countries. Furthermore, the UN established its first-ever health mission with oversight of WHO and other international organizations, the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response, for scaling up the response on the ground in the affected region.

Despite thousands of organizations and donors11 who contributed to response on the ground, the Table 2 presents major UN organizations and their major bi/multilateral partners that are the focus of this article.

Table 2. UN and Its Multilateral Partners, and Their Key Response Activities during 2013-2016 Ebola Outbreak in Liberia


Key Response Activities


Facilitated hazards payments for some EVD response and routine healthcare workers; and provided monthly Ebola risk allowances to response workers.


Partnered with UNMEER to support contact tracing; developed mobile phone–based data collection applications; contributed to social mobilization; and continued non-EVD healthcare services for responders and citizens.


Supported local government efforts to standardize school-based water, sanitation, and hygiene infrastructure; provided water, sanitation, and hygiene kits to people; facilitated social mobilization; monitored safety protocol implementation in schools; disseminated Ebola messages; and supported vaccine trials and immunization programs.

UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response

Led overall logistics, staffing, and training; deployed financial resources; supported information dissemination, case management, case finding, laboratory testing, safe and dignified burials, community engagement, and social mobilization; and provided nutrition support, sanitation and condolence kits to people, and cash incentives for Ebola response workers.


Monitored humanitarian needs; provided operational and technical support to deployed organizations; facilitated the roll-out of the health logistics, water, food, sanitation and hygiene for protection and early recovery; and supported the resident coordinators’ fundraising, coordination, information management, and advocacy efforts.


Supervised UN systems’ EVD response; maintained surveillance for EVD; disseminated guidance for control and prevention; and supported community engagement, disease detection, contract tracing, vaccination, case management, laboratory services, infection control, logistics, training, assisting safe, and dignified burial practices.


Provided food supplies/rations to quarantined people in the affected region; assisted construction of treatment center; consolidated logistics and storage facilities; established base camp and telecommunication centers for humanitarian workers; and provided internet services to humanitarian facilities, and vehicles to Ebola response centers.


Supported emergency operations; provided healthcare to civilians; led safe and dignified burials in affected communities; managed volunteers; assisted local organizations responses; and supported WHO and MSF’s field operations including social mobilization, surveillance, and contact tracing, psychosocial support, dead body management, coordination, and case management.


Supported prefecture emergency operations centers; rehabilitated buildings for Ebola operation centers; led humanitarian health management around border area; provided technical assistance for community surveillance; and trained health care professionals and frontline responders.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)

Set up EVD management center to support local governments, community outreach, social mobilization, and medical treatment; and conducted disease investigation.

World Bank

Distributed sanitation and hygiene kits to affected communities; provided agricultural implements; and established human–wildlife ecosystem interface to mitigate the risk of exposure to the virus through wildlife

Challenges and Ways to Move Forward

Focusing on describing the UN and its partners in humanitarian crisis management, the authors described the details of UN crisis management systems and its major international partners in the first four sections. Then, the last section presented major multilateral crisis responses in which the UN played leadership roles. The UN’s dedication and commitment to crisis management were featured through the collective and intense involvement of its multiple agencies, as well as its continuing support for collaboration and coordination with other multilateral organizations in crisis response practice.

The UN and its partners have contributed immensely and extensively to risk reduction and protecting millions of lives in many at-risk countries around the world. However, the UN and its partners still have several challenges to overcome to become more effective in complex crisis management around the world (Jeong & Yeo, 2018; Kirsch et al., 2012). First, studies point out further coordination issues among agencies within the UN system, such as establishing a clear line of leadership among agencies and systems for monitoring and evaluation; securing internal funds designated to crisis management preceding to disasters; discouraging competitions among agencies based on institutional survival (Jeong & Yeo, 2018; Kapucu & Özerdem, 2011). Such issues may not only result in inefficiency within the UN system but also confuse the affected communities. Second, the UN system needs to improve coordination with its partner organizations (Kirsch et al., 2012). At any scale and level, coordination, in general, is easier said than done (Yeo & Comfort, 2017). Limited resources and capacities are often wasted due to duplication and redundancies that have not been communicated and identified (Kirsch et al., 2012). In addition, there have been constant conflicts among different missions, perspectives, and goals due to a lack of flexible and scalable management of response coordination across different organizations (Krisch et al., 2012).

Last, the multilateral response system could become more culturally and ethnically sensitive to the countries that they are serving. Shin et al. (2018) and Yeo et al. (2018) emphasize the importance of spontaneous and continuous adaptation of crisis response approaches and operations with respect to the contextual conditions and traditions. Implementing standard protocols is a must to reduce damages and protect lives in the face of crisis. Yet standardized methods to implement such protocols in different countries often lead to unnecessary conflicts between the UN agencies and the locals or cause an adverse effect in crisis management practice (Shin et al., 2018). If remaining unaddressed, all these challenges may lead to delays in crisis responses and recoveries, even resulting in failures in overall relief operations in practice (Jeong & Yeo, 2018).

With respect to such challenges, the UN and its partners may make additional efforts for achieving another level of excellence in international crisis management practice. Such efforts may include improving information and opening transparent communication channels within the UN system and across partner organizations; identifying common goals and sharing objectives to eliminate potential redundancies and waste of resources and capacities across all multilateral responders; and emphasizing cultural awareness and sensitivity across crisis operations in practice.


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  • 1. United Nations, “History of the UN,”

  • 2. Humanitarian Coalition, “What Is a Humanitarian Crisis?

  • 3. While the main focus is on the UN and its agencies, we also briefly introduce their partner agencies in humanitarian crisis management.

  • 4. United Nations, “History of the UN.”

  • 5. The Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs.

  • 6. As of March 31, 2021, the Department of Peace Operations has 12 peacekeeping operations running.

  • 7. This section of the description of UN subsidiary bodies was re-used from the following encyclopedia article by the same authors; Jeong and Yeo (2018). United Nations and crisis management. Global Encyclopedia of Public Administration, Public Policy, and Governance. Cham: Springer International Publishing AG, 6041–6048.

  • 8. Sources: UN news | Global perspective Human stories , United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti.

  • 9. Other responders are, but not limited to, UN Central Emergency Relief Fund (CERF), Food for the Poor, Merch and Sharing, Telecoms sans Frontieres, SOS children, HSBC, Humanity First, Gift of the Givers, Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, UK Disasters Emergency Committee, Action Against Hunger, Adventist Development and Relief Agency, Adventist Health International, Aid for Haiti, American Humane Association, American Jewish World Service, Americares, CARE USA, Catholic Relief Services, Compassion International, Ford Foundation, Habitat for Humanity, International Federation of the Recross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), International Rescue Committee, Islamic Relief, Lutheran world relief, Mercy Corps, Salvation Army, YMCA, and many more.

  • 10. Sources: Global Ebola Response, 2014-2016 Ebola Outbreak in West Africa, Ebola virus disease, and Kirsch et al. (2012)

  • 11. Other coalition members include as follows: African Development Bank Groups, African Union, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Food and Agriculture Organization, Ebola Geonode, European Union, InterAction, Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Special Envoy, Mo Ibrahim Foundation, Multi-Partner Trust Fund, Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Save the Children, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), United Nations Radio.