The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.

Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)

In 1992, following the UN General Assembly’s request to the Secretary-General for a body to coordinate the different UN agencies carrying out humanitarian assistance in emergency situations, the UN Department for Humanitarian Affairs (DHA) was established, directly under the Secretary-General. In 1998, it was streamlined and renamed the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).


OCHA’s mandate is still based on General Assembly Resolution 46/182 (14 April 1992), which established DHA. Its mandate is to “mobilize and coordinate the collective efforts of the international community, in particular those of the UN system” in responding to “complex humanitarian emergencies” (political crises or conflicts), natural disasters, or technological disasters (e.g., nuclear disasters). It also focuses on policy development for all humanitarian issues, including examining any existing gaps in the protection and assistance mandates of the agencies.

The operational activities that DHA used to carry out, however, were redistributed to other UN bodies or specialized agencies.

OCHA’s mandate rests on the fact that the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and national unity of States must be respected, in conformity with the UN Charter. In this context, humanitarian assistance can only be provided with the consent of the State concerned. In principle and in practice, this means that the assistance should actually be provided on the basis of a formal request by the affected country.

OCHA has three main responsibilities:

  • helping the Secretary-General of the United Nations ensure that humanitarian questions are addressed, especially those that are not part of the specific mandates of UN bodies, such as assistance and protection of internally displaced persons;
  • advocacy of humanitarian issues with political organs, in particular the UN Security Council; and
  • coordination of the humanitarian response by ensuring that the appropriate response mechanisms are established on the ground.

OCHA is also responsible for:

  • monitoring and early warning of crises with humanitarian implications;
  • advocacy of humanitarian and human rights principles, in collaboration with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR);
  • centralizing information updates and analyses, through the Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN), and an Internet website (http:// );
  • ensuring contingency planning and needs assessment, through operational agencies’ field missions;
  • issuing consolidated funding appeals;
  • facilitating the access of operational organizations to the places where assistance is needed;
  • managing the Central Emergency Revolving Funds, which allows for the immediate response to an emergency;
  • ensuring the transition from emergency assistance to rehabilitation assistance by strengthening capacity for postconflict peace building with the UN Department of Political Affairs.


Unlike the UN specialized agencies, OCHA is not autonomous; it is part of the United Nations Secretariat in New York. It is headed by the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator (Stephon O’Brien since June 2015), who is also the Emergency Relief Coordinator (ERC) for the United Nations as a whole. The Under-Secretary-General is based in New York. OCHA also has headquarters in Geneva and high-level regional offices around the world. OCHA has a presence in thirty countries.

OCHA is funded mainly through voluntary contributions from Member States, which cover 94 percent of the OCHA global budget, while the remaining funding needs are met from the regular budget. The European Commission is also a major donor. As of 2013, there are 1,900 people working for OCHA in New York, in Geneva, and in the field, with a total program budget of $270.5 million.

In January 2002, an Internal Displacement Unit was created within OCHA. In July 2004 it became the inter-agency Internal Displacement Division (IDD). It consists of a dozen international staff on secondment from the UN. It is directed by Dennis McNamara. The Division is housed within OCHA in Geneva and also has a delegation in New York. It does not directly run field operations. The mandate of the Division is to rally United Nations agencies’ in order to efficiently provide assistance and protection to displaced people. It relies on a network of resident coordinators and field-based United Nations coordinators for humanitarian issues, and IDD works in close cooperation with the United Nations representative for displaced people.

In 2007, the Displacement and Protection Support Section (DPSS) was established to build on the success of the former inter-agency Internal Displacement Division. Working with field offices and country teams, as well as with the Global Protection, Camp Coordination, and Camp Management and Early Recovery Clusters (ERC), there are three key priorities for DPSS in 2009. The first is to support the implementation of the ERC’s mandate to monitor and strengthen the inter-agency response to internal displacement. The second is to support the implementation of OCHA’s policy instruction on protection at international and field levels and to strengthen OCHA’s capacity to incorporate protection into core functions. The third priority is to augment and maintain inter-agency capacity to respond to protection crises, particularly situations of internal displacement through the Protection Standby Capacity Project (ProCap) initiative.


  • The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) is a permanent coordination forum; it meets on a weekly basis and may have emergency sessions where needed. Its members are the heads of the Under-Secretary-General/Emergency Relief Coordinator; UN operational agencies involved in humanitarian relief (UNDP, UNICEF, UNHCR, WFP, FAO, and WHO); the representative of the Secretary-General on internally displaced persons; the High Commissioner for Human Rights; and the World Bank. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), as well as several NGO coalitions take part in meetings of the Committee.
  • To coordinate the humanitarian response in a given country, OCHA works closely with the relevant UN Resident Coordinator (often the UNDP Resident Representative) appointed to coordinate the other UN agencies on the ground, and the UN coordinators for humanitarian issues.
  • A Disaster Response System is operational twenty-four hours a day in Geneva, and it may benefit from personnel from other UN agencies or bodies, as well from military and civil defense personnel from various countries.
  • The UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination Team, initially developed for natural disasters, is increasingly used for emergencies regarded as complex. This team consists of specially trained national emergency management experts.
  • There is a warehouse of relief items in Brindisi, Italy.
  • Other standby arrangements exist for the mobilization of support networks—for instance, in transport, telecommunications, and other infrastructure.
  • The Consolidated Inter-Agency Appeals Process (CAP) sets clear goals to establish priorities for humanitarian organizations in given countries. Although most appeals are launched on an annual basis, OCHA also makes “flash” appeals for specific emergencies.
  • The Central Emergency Revolving Funds is a mechanism of direct financing, which allows for rapid response, financed by voluntary State contributions and then reimbursed with the CAP.

Relationship with NGOs

The ICRC and IFRC participate fully in the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC). Other NGOs may be invited to participate on an ad hoc basis, depending on the nature of the relief operation. Several NGO coalitions, including Interaction and the International Council for Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), are permanent IASC members.

OCHA also needs the collaboration of NGOs in assessing needs and in supplying information on available stocks of humanitarian materials.

Food and Agriculture OrganizationReliefRed Cross and the Red CrescentUNICEFUnited Nations Development ProgramUnited Nations High Commissioner for Human RightsUnited Nations High Commissioner for RefugeesWorld Food ProgramWorld Health Organization

Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)

United Nations

New York, NY 10017 USA

Tel.: (1) 212 963-1234

Fax: (1) 212 963-1312

Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Geneva

Palais des Nations

CH 1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

Tel.: (41) 22 917 12 34

Fax: (41) 22 917 00 23



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Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)

Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)

Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)

Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)

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